I love the paintings of Enrico Donati like I love a night in May.
Born in 1909 in Milan, Italy, Enrico Donati studied economics before turning his attention to avant-garde music and ultimately to painting, studying in Paris in the early 1930's at the Ecole de la rue de Berri. There he discovered the Surrealists and came in contact with the sacred artifacts of the Native Americans at the Musee de l’Homme. Determined to learn more about them and their ways, he traveled to the American Southwest and Canadian Northwest, living and trading with the people and learning their myths, before returning to Paris. He moved his young family to New York in 1939 to escape the growing threat of war. Donati held his first exhibition at the New School of Social Research, where André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement, saw the work and immediately embraced it. Recognized as a new voice for Surrealism, the young artist found himself welcomed into the mélange of expatriate and American artists at the center of the New York art scene.
Donati exhibited at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in 1947 at the Galerie Maeght in Paris and collaborated with his friend Marcel Duchamp on the catalogue for the exhibition, painting 99 foam breasts which were attached to the catalogue with the statement “Please touch” emblazoned on the back cover. Due to an accident in his studio involving a vacuum cleaner exploding, Donati began experimenting with fiber and created a series of paintings called the “Moonscapes,” as named by Duchamp. These works evolved into the "Fossil" series. Both of these series were shown at the famous Betty Parsons Gallery throughout the 1950s and 1960s to critical acclaim at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
As an artist, I was involved with the aesthetic values of alchemy and magic, and in their influence on the creative imagination of man.
Some artists have the good fortune to appear at exactly the right time and place. One thinks of Jackson Pollock hitting his stride at precisely the moment his revolutionary approach to painting was most likely to be taken seriously by the American art community. And of Andy Warhol bursting upon the scene with his iconoclastic Pop Art images just as large numbers of art critics and curators were becoming bored with the high-minded seriousness of Abstract Expressionism.
Another mid-century beneficiary of this fortuitous conjunction of talent and timing was a young and exceptionally gifted Italian artist who had moved from Paris to New York in 1940. Thoroughly trained in traditional painting methods and fully aware of the latest developments in avant-garde European art, Enrico Donati, nevertheless, was completely unknown to the art world at large.
That would soon change, however. Recognition of his abilities by the renowned art historian Lionello Venturi led to a meeting with André Breton in 1942. Impressed by Donati’s paintings, Surrealism’s founder and pontifical grand master pronounced him a Surrealist on the spot and mustered him, as a younger peer, into the august company of such luminaries as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy.
Breton’s final stamp of approval came in 1944 when he wrote an enthusiastic preface for the catalogue accompanying Donati’s third New York exhibition. After reporting glowingly on the young painter’s creative vision, Breton proclaimed, “I love the paintings of Enrico Donati as I love a night in May.”1
With these words and his continued personal and “official” support, Breton helped launch Donati’s long and successful career—a career that not only survived Surrealism’s unfortunate demise a few years later but that also has continued on unabated and in increasingly significant and fascinating ways right down to the present.
Few artists living today, in fact, have had as long and distinguished a career. It already has spanned more than six decades, produced a considerable number of works of genuine art-historical importance, and enriched numerous museum, corporate, and private collections with paintings of outstanding character and quality.
Donati’s hard work, coupled with his rare talent and fertile imagination, have played a much greater role in his success than timing—crucial as the latter may have been in the initial stage of his career. His Surrealist period, after all, lasted barely eight years. After that, he was on his own. And yet his career has never faltered, never surrendered to fashion or sensationalism, and never dwindled into mere commercialism.
Throughout, Donati has remained uncompromisingly independent. Even as a Surrealist he was his own man. Breton proclaimed him a member of the group after recognizing him as a kindred spirit, not because Donati had asked to join. And once he was a member, he followed his own path—even to the extent of deviating dramatically at times from what was expected of a Surrealist.
This spirit of independence was not so much an act of defiance as a natural extension of his personality. Even as a young boy, he recalls, he felt free to express himself as he wished as long as he respected his family’s values and position. He recalls his childhood as a “happy and carefree” one and his parents, Federico and Janna Donati, with affection.2 His birth, in 1909 in Milan, Italy, completed the family circle. There were no other children, a fact to which he attaches no special significance so far as his evolution as an artist is concerned. What he does remember as important was the regard in which his father was held in Milan as a distinguished scholar, and that his mother had a modest talent for copying Old Master paintings. Occasionally, he adds, visitors to their home were fooled by the accuracy of what she produced.
As for young Enrico himself, while he drew a little and says he was “quite good” at it, his main interest as a boy was in playing the piano and in composing music. Music, in fact, continued to hold a much greater fascination for him than the visual arts, even after he had become a young adult. Family considerations, however, prevented him from pursuing it as a career—at least until after he had acquired a respectable academic degree. And so, with typical Donati practicality, he enrolled at the University of Pavia in 1928 and left there the following year with a doctorate in what today would be called sociology.
Free now to do as he pleased, Donati turned his attention once again to his first love. He signed up for a course in musical composition at the Milan Conservatory, completed it without difficulty, and decided that the time had come to begin his career as a serious composer.
Since he believed Paris was the only place for an aspiring musician, the early 1930s found him hard at work in a ninth-floor walk-up studio in Montmartre writing avant-garde music. Much as he tried, however, success would not come his way. It was not that what he wrote lacked quality, he insists, only that it failed to impress the right people.
Even when he was at his busiest composing, he still found time for his other interests. He painted a little, drew whenever he could, and, when he was not otherwise engaged, visited the galleries and museums of Paris. It was at the former that he first saw the work of the Surrealists whose ranks he would join a few years later. (He was not able, however, to meet any of them in person.) And it was at the latter that he studied the great art of the past and present.
One museum held a special fascination for him. The Musee de l’Homme on the Place du Trocadero exhibited a rich assortment of anthropological odds and ends, including a number of Native American artifacts. These struck such a profoundly sympathetic chord in Donati that he decided to travel to the American Southwest in order to become more familiar with the culture that had produced them.
He left Paris in 1934 with Claire Javal, whom he had just married, and with the intention of returning with as many Native American artifacts as he could obtain. Since his plan was to barter rather than to buy, he took with him a selection of items he felt were particularly suitable for trading with native craftsmen. These included Venetian beads, feathers from European pheasants (he had noticed that the European bird’s feathers differed significantly from those of its American cousin), and Swiss army knives, especially those with the largest number of features.
His strategy worked remarkably well with the Apache, Hopi, and Zuni whom he visited for roughly three months on their reservations, as well as with the Eskimos in Canada’s Hudson Bay region. Their method of bartering surprised him, however. They were friendly enough but not inclined to talk. Items for trade were left out overnight, and in the morning something special would be found in their place.
Donati returned to New York after a few weeks in Canada with a sizable collection of unusual objects, many of which still grace the walls of his large Central Park South studio. There, kachina dolls and Eskimo masks compete for attention with works from other “primitive” societies, several of Donati’s startling Surrealist sculptures, and a constantly changing selection of the artist’s older and more recent paintings. Seeing them together in this fashion, one senses the subtle interconnections that exist among these works, “primitive” and “modern” alike, and begins to suspect that the objects Donati collected long ago in the United States and Canada challenged his imagination to the point where he was led to seek out and to express similar but hitherto unsuspected dimensions of creativity within himself.
This should not be viewed as evidence that Donati was directly influenced by these artifacts, however. One looks in vain for the thematic and stylistic parallels that exist, for instance, between some of Picasso’s and Matisse’s images and African art. In addition, Donati’s use of color is much too personal, even idiosyncratic, to have been derived from outside sources. And yet, one cannot help noticing a pronounced similarity of spirit and intent. It makes itself felt in many ways and at every stage of his career: in the provocative, primal imagery of his Surrealist days, in the color-drenched, enigmatic icons of his middle period, and in the magical, richly patterned pictorial riddles of his later years. To all of these works certain words—magical, enigmatic, primal, and provocative—invariably apply, words that can be applied with equal justification to much of what is best and most significant in Native American art.
Back in New York after his Canadian trip, however, Donati was less concerned about the future course of his art than about returning to Paris to pick up a few possessions for a more extended stay in America. “I met the Indians,” he says by way of explaining his decision to return, “and now I wanted to meet the people of New York.”
For the following two years in Manhattan, Donati was involved in a variety of activities, most of which concerned art in one way or another. Having given up his dream of a musical career, he now turned his attention to how he could best utilize his talent for drawing. He tried his hand at commercial and fine-art printing and mastered the various engraving processes, but he ultimately found the field unrewarding. Other attempts at channeling his skills led to similar disappointments, and so, in 1936, he and his wife decided to return to Europe.
Back in Paris, Donati finally committed himself wholeheartedly to painting. He enrolled at the “very academic” École de la rue de Berri, not because he expected to like it there but because he wanted a solid professional background upon which to build his future career as a painter. He was right on both counts. His years at the school were not happy ones, yet he acquired as thorough a technical background as anyone could wish.
When war broke out in September 1939, plans once again had to be changed. The United States seemed the safest place for a young family of four—daughters Marina and Sylviane had been born in 1936 and 1938, respectively—and so the Donatis packed their belongings and headed for New York, this time for good.
Donati was glad to be back in the city that was fast becoming the temporary home for many of Europe’s finest and most advanced painters and sculptors—all of whom had fled their respective countries because of Hitler. The presence in New York of Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Jacques Lipchitz, Piet Mondrian, and Yves Tanguy—to name only a few—transformed it almost overnight from a provincial art city into one of the most cosmopolitan art centers of the Western world.
The presence of these artists also affected the work of their American counterparts. Not immediately, perhaps, nor to any significant extent so far as most members of the art community were concerned. (American art, after all, would remain militantly conservative for several more years.) But certainly in the long run, and most specifically in the case of a few forward-looking individuals who had learned the lessons of European modernism—often directly from these masters—and would soon come to prominence as the original members of the influential New York School.
Donati felt both at home and stimulated in this environment, especially when he realized that several of the Surrealists whose work he had admired in Paris were also living in the city. The presence of Breton, Ernst, and Tanguy was of special significance to him at this time since his own work was becoming increasingly interior and subjective.
This new direction in his work was partly the result of his decision to devote himself exclusively to painting, but mostly it was the outcome of his recent intensive probings into the mysteries of the creative act. He was particularly fascinated by the cyclical process of regeneration, by the passage from life, through death, into life again that occurs regularly in nature but also in art and myth. The relationship between myth and nature had always intrigued him, and in that context, he remembered something that had struck him forcibly when he had first come upon it. He recalled learning, while still in Europe and long before he had considered himself a painter, about the mythological mandragora root—or mandrake root, as it is more commonly known—and its alleged supernatural powers. Part of its original fascination for him derived from the fact that an actual poisonous plant of the nightshade family had achieved mythological status. But its greatest attraction at this later date, and the reason it was relevant to his investigations into the phenomenon of creativity, lay in its extraordinary regenerative and transformative capabilities.
In mythology, the mandrake plant, which was said to take root under the gallows and to be nurtured by the executed criminal’s sperm, grew in the image of the man who gave it life. Upon maturity, it had the ability to bestow passion, fecundity, and riches on those who treated it respectfully. If pulled from the earth, however, it screamed and those within earshot went mad.
All this fitted in beautifully with Donati’s exploration at the time of the mysteries and mechanics of life, death, and the creative process—as well as his search for an effective personal imagery for his art. In the mandrake root he struck pay dirt. As a metaphor for his thoughts and intentions as an artist it was both appropriately precise and probing and sufficiently ambiguous and loaded with metaphysical implications to induce the viewer of his paintings to respond in exactly the intrigued but mildly perplexed manner Donati desired. In this he was already proving himself closely aligned with the Surrealists, for they also were more concerned with the primal, deeply interior, and apparently irrational dimensions of the human psyche—and with alerting viewers to their existence—than they were with the depiction of surface reality, regardless of how engaging it might be.
While mankind, in general, preferred not to confront these areas or pretended they did not exist, Donati perceived them as significant wellsprings of creativity. At the same time, he understood that if what he was to produce from these sources was to be art and not merely another form of science-fiction illustration, it would have to derive from them honestly and with full regard for the difficult and often disturbing questions they raised.
Thus the mythologically charged mandrake root, with its multiple associations with death, procreation, rebirth, and metamorphosis, and its capacity to assume a variety of colorful and exotic forms, became the metaphor around which Donati invented, as he put it, “a mandragora world of my own.”
That world would not come fully into its own for just under two more years. Donati needed time to transform impulse and idea into imagery and to bring his working methods into sharper focus. But when, in 1942, everything he hoped for did fall into place, it triggered a series of events that dramatically altered the course of his life.
The process of transformation began with Donati’s friendship with Camilo Egas, an Ecuadoran Surrealist, who was co-director of the gallery at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research. Egas liked his Italian friend’s latest paintings and exhibited them in his gallery. The art historian Lionello Venturi saw the show, liked it immensely, and gave Donati his card as an introduction to André Breton. Donati remembers it this way: “I was just a kid, … but Breton accepted me into the Surrealist movement. Suddenly I was surrounded by giants—Max Ernst, Tanguy, all of the big guys. Matta and I were the youngest of this group of the most impossible characters. But we got along very well. From then on I started having shows.”3
Donati’s induction into the movement had social as well as artistic ramifications. “We were together every day. We had lunch at Larré, a restaurant on West Fifty-sixth Street across from the two rooms where Breton lived. It was an open table for all of us to come and go. Tanguy came down from Woodbury, Seligmann came down. Sandy Calder, Max Ernst … Our table was right at the window.”4
Donati must have surprised his colleagues with the passion and authority of his vision. No matter how complex, even convoluted, his early Surrealist compositions may appear, careful examination will reveal a singleness of purpose behind that complexity that pushes unremittingly for particular pictorial objectives while also taking full advantage of any accidental painterly effects that occur along the way.
Few painters of his generation had as direct a line into their subconscious as Donati—or as uncanny an ability to make the nature and substance of that communication known to others. There can be little doubt, when confronted by such a painting as Minotaure, 1945 that, in it, Donati produced remarkably authentic and only slightly edited accounts of what he had sensed and “seen” at his deepest, most intuitive level.
Now while such subjective imagery may have been disturbing to some, it was received with enthusiasm by others. Breton, as already noted, proclaimed to the world that he loved Donati’s paintings as he loved a night in May. The French critic and writer Maurice Nadeau, after declaring rather colorfully that he saw the art of Donati as “an airy and insolent flower rising from amidst the sunken ribs of a skeleton crumbling in the dust,” went on to claim that “Donati’s painting … shuns all mannerisms, whether of abstraction, figuration or even of Surrealism. He restores to the last its primal vigor which was perpetual conquest and liberation and to its revolution he adds a spiral unwinding to the infinite.”5 And the American art critic Nicolas Calas wrote simply, “Donati’s paintings are love songs.”6
The ambiguity and often unconscious multiplicity of meaning that characterized Donati’s work during this period are especially apparent in his more compact but equally “mandragoric” L’oiseau-eponge, 1946 and in Émotion con moto, 1944. While the artist’s thematic intentions in these paintings may not be clear, the mood and emotional response he wanted to induce are unmistakable.
Painting pictures that provoked such ambivalent and subjective reactions was one thing. Finding appropriate titles for them was quite another, especially since so many of Donati’s images sprang directly, and in some cases almost full-blown, from his subconscious. Fortunately, Breton relieved him of this duty by volunteering for the task. He began in 1942, and continued until well into the 1950s, to come up with a series of provocative and often outrageous titles in French that added a great deal to the aura of mystery and enchantment that surrounded Donati’s work.
According to the writer Alan Jones, “(E)ach of these titles can be said to qualify as the shortest (and uncollected) Surrealist poems by André Breton. Like a cadavre exquis, this interaction between painter and poet embodies all of the Surrealist spirit of spontaneous combustion of the psyche occurring in the highly charged electrical field between multiple creative forces.”7
This spirit of cooperation took other forms as well. In 1945 Duchamp and Donati collaborated on the installation of a window display at Brentano’s New York bookstore for the second edition of Breton’s book Le Surréalisme et la peinture, which included a chapter dedicated to Donati’s paintings. Donati’s major contribution consisted of a startling half-feet/half-shoes sculpture entitled Shoes, which was based on the Magritte painting that graced the book’s cover. Even more disturbing—at least to the bookstore’s owner—was a headless female manikin reading a book. Outraged, Mr. Brentano demanded the entire display be removed. Delighted by the trouble they had caused, Duchamp and Donati immediately transferred the display to the Gotham Book Mart.
A much more significant event was the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, which Donati helped Duchamp organize in 1947 at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. This would prove to be Surrealism’s last big public event before it entered the history books. And while most of those who participated in it probably did not know how close the movement was to extinction, they never the less did all they could to make it a memorable occasion. Among Donati’s contributions to the exposition were Carnaval de Venise, 1946, one of the most spectacular of his Mandragora canvases, and three pieces of sculpture, Fist, 1946, Evil Eye, 1947, and Pour un autel, 1947. Of these, Fist, with its two fishy glass eyes protruding from the center of a clenched fist, struck the most provocative note. It was Evil Eye, however, which occupied a special place in the exposition’s Salle des Superstitions, a room designed by Frederick Kiesler and filled with strange and exotic objects selected by Duchamp, Donati, Ernst, Matta, Miro, and Tanguy.
Donati was involved in other projects with Duchamp in 1947. The two collaborated on the cover of the catalogue accompanying the Paris exhibition Le Surréalisme en 1947, each copy of which included a glued-on foam-rubber breast. And shortly thereafter, Donati worked with this mentor on the Nude Descending the Staircase sequence in Hans Richter’s film, Dreams That Money Can Buy.
On the creative front, however, things were not quite so productive. World War II was over, many of Donati’s Surrealist friends had returned to Europe, and Surrealism itself was dying. Furthermore, he had begun to have misgivings about his own work. He felt that his paintings had become too romantic, too pleasing in color, even a bit too sentimental, and that it was time to discipline himself, to impose certain restrictions on how and what he painted.
But while he realized the need to break away from a creative mode that was threatening to engulf him, and to experiment with other methods and approaches, he found such a move easier to contemplate than to put into effect. For one thing, there was the matter of his reputation. Would he still be held in such high regard by those he admired most? Or would they and the art world turn their backs on him if what he painted failed to meet their expectations?
It was a difficult decision but one he could not avoid making. What he could avoid, however, was public awareness of what he was attempting. And so, from 1947 to 1949 Donati withdrew within himself to experiment.
The imagery and style of the works from 1947 and 1948 that Donati began showing to his friends when he resurfaced in 1949 were dramatically different from anything he had produced before. The appearance of his art changed. Amorphous, organic forms became crystalline and aggressively geometric. Objects, which previously had floated or swum randomly within dense, vaguely defined space, were now crisply delineated and precisely located against backgrounds of evenly applied flat paint. And the provocatively blended colors for which he had become so well known were now carefully isolated and compartmentalized within clusters of circles, triangles, and squares.
In fact, none of these new works—there would be some thirty-five in all—would be seen at the time by anyone except a few close friends (Breton, Calas, Duchamp, and Matta), and none would be exhibited until 1987 when the Zabriskie Gallery in New York assembled twelve of them for a show.
Startlingly different as his new paintings may have appeared, it was not until late 1947 and early 1948 that the truly significant changes he had envisioned actually occurred. Until then, much of what differentiated the new from the old was technical. Adoremus, Adorentimus, and Tout mais pas la Méduse, both from 1947, while obviously unlike what Donati had painted previously, still retained several basic characteristics of the Mandragora canvases. They were improvised and haphazardly organized, depended on automatism for some of their more spectacular effects, and included forms as blatantly biomorphic as any he had painted in previous years. But most significant of all, their newfound geometric underpinnings, although as hard edged as any that would come later, served little, if any, solid structural purpose.
Technically, of course, the changes were obvious. But that was primarily a matter of substitution, of the replacement of organic forms with geometric ones, and the transformation of smudges and blobs of paint into straight lines and colored circles or squares. The technical devices undoubtedly were different, but the creative impulse that produced them was still largely the same.
Yet while these later geometric canvases may have been compositionally clearer and structurally more sophisticated than what had preceded them, their specific meanings remained as elusive as ever. The art historian Martica Sawin hits the nail on the head: “Perspectives shift and cancel one another; transparent planes turn inexplicably opaque; tantalizing illusions of objectness are swiftly nullified. Fragments of pattern and optical illusion alternately open or close off the suggestion of spatial depth; exquisite little details of color draw the eye like jewels. There is much that is suggestive and provocative, but the paintings remain singularly unyielding to the seeker of rational explanation.”8
Donati himself is not very helpful in this matter, except to insist that interpretations of Surrealist paintings can never be exact; that such works are, by nature, enigmatic and often almost as much a mystery to the artist who painted them as to those who view them.
Taking that into account, it might be advisable, especially in the light of the range and richness of Donati’s production and the fact that the vast majority of his paintings deal with the hidden, the magical, and the inexplicable, to take him at his word and not insist on too rational an explanation. Certainly, any attempt to probe for the deeper meanings of such complex work as Tower of the Alchemist: Partie de l’ultrason, 1947, will only result in frustration. And should one look to the titles for help, it should be kept in mind that it was Breton who gave so many of Donati’s paintings their titles—and then only after they had been completed.
On the other hand, Tower of the Alchemist: Creation of the Sun, 1947, and Chambre à pression osmotique, 1948, point to something too easily overlooked: the extent to which a lively interest in formal invention for its own sake may have been a significant factor in the creation of many, if not all, of these 1947 and 1948 works. It seems entirely reasonable, at least to this writer, to assume that the painter who took such obvious delight in fashioning a biomorphic universe populated by vaguely Bosch-like objects and creatures in Trouble-fête, would, only a few short years later, take equal pleasure in inventing a fanciful mechanical world filled with a vast assortment of oddly intersecting and overlapping geometric forms and planes. How else can one make sense out of Tower of the Alchemist: Creation of the Sun if not by perceiving it, at least partially, as the result of a young and highly imaginative artist’s stretching his inventive and organizational abilities to the limit?
Shortly after completing these pictures, Donati, exhausted and “fed up” after his extended period with geometric imagery, decided once again to reverse himself and to go off in another, this time more impulsive, direction. By the beginning of 1949 he was well on his way, with a number of gestural paintings that utilized a freely invented calligraphic approach. These Lettres, as this series would be known, were executed by means of free-flowing melted tar that hardened to the consistency of enamel. The resulting works ranged from simple “drips” and “hurlings” of paint on canvas—several actually resembled boldly handwritten letters—to complex images incorporating a variety of calligraphic and automatist techniques.
Concurrently, he was examining other ways to employ the element of chance in his work. Various approaches were investigated, but none appealed to him so much as the one he devised to fashion a number of unusually spontaneous paintings. The method was simplicity itself. Paint was diluted with turpentine and allowed to flow freely on the surface of unpainted canvas. While it was still in motion, Donati manipulated the canvas, thereby inducing the thinned-down paint to move more or less as he wished. Upon that surface, then, he introduced any gestural devices he deemed appropriate.
While the technique that produced these works may have been far from new—several members of the then just-emerging New York School had already experimented successfully with it—Donati added something that gave this manner of working a uniquely personal touch: a Surrealist’s predilection for the macabre and mysterious coupled with a draftsman’s ability to use line for maximum effect.
The results were startling, especially when Donati brought all elements of this approach—including the spatial—into play. For instance, Self Born, 1949, while taking full advantage of the “drip, blob, and spatter” method used by Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, among others, went one dramatic step further by employing these devices not against the kind of flat, implied space that existed in Pollock’s and Motherwell’s canvases but within the infinite, clearly defined atmospheric space also found in the works of such Surrealists as Dali and Tanguy.
Even when these dribblings and hurlings of paint sit three-dimensionally atop the picture plane, and there is little, if any, depthward spatial movement, the effect is still identifiably Surrealist. No member of the New York School, certainly not Pollock or Motherwell, would have produced an Abstract Expressionist painting in which gestural devices functioned more as loosely related surface objects than as tightly interlocking compositional components. And yet that is precisely the role these devices played—and to very good effect—in several of Donati’s canvases of this period.
Still, effective as that method was, Donati soon felt the need to explore other possibilities as well. To a certain extent, this was due to professional concerns. With most of his Surrealist friends back in Europe and the movement itself all but dead, Donati found himself in a somewhat difficult position. His reputation as one of Surrealism’s younger stars, and the fact that he was still seen by some as a wartime expatriate, threatened to isolate him from his more ambitious contemporaries at a time when American painting was starting to flex its muscles and to assume a leadership role in world art.
He need not have worried, for it was at this time that he stumbled across a novel approach to painting that not only satisfied his creative objectives but also helped revitalize his reputation.
He began exploring this approach in 1950 when he discovered that dirt removed from vacuum cleaners and combined with pigment and glue before being applied in thick layers to canvas produced opaque wooly surfaces ideal for the dense blacks, luminous greys, and occasional whites he was now using almost exclusively in his paintings. Donati was pleased with the results, especially when he realized that these dark, slightly ominous works consisting entirely of a few bulky, richly textured, semigeometric forms suggested nothing so much as vast dream landscapes or, more specifically, barren lunar surfaces.
In a purely formal sense, these Moonscapes, as Marcel Duchamp named the new series when several of the works were first shown in the early 1950s, shared some of the vision and more than a few of the characteristics of work produced during this period by a number of America’s finest avant-garde painters. (Mark Rothko, in particular, springs to mind, as do Franz Kline and Ad Reinhardt.) Donati, however, had acquired this vision and had developed these characteristics for his art independently, without any concession to the vision or art of others.
And so, quietly and on his own terms, Donati entered the mainstream of American art. One of his first acts was to join the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, then undoubtedly one of the best places in the world for a member of the avant-garde to show his work. There he exhibited alongside such gallery regulars as Pollock, Rothko, Barnett Newman, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Theodoros Stamos, all founding members and leading lights of the New York School. Obviously, his timing was once again superb. With hardly any greater effort than it had taken a few years earlier to become a Surrealist star, he now found himself accepted into equally exalted company by individuals whose critical opinions were respected throughout the international art community.
Even so, when his Moonscapes were first exhibited at the Parsons gallery, they took many by surprise. The viewing public and art professionals alike were not prepared for such roughly textured, pitch-black, grey-and-white abstractions, especially ones that resonated with vaguely ominous otherworldly qualities. The museum curator and writer Peter Selz remembers that Donati’s Moonscapes “suggested arid lava fields” as well as “the faces of old, battered walls.”9 And the present writer will never forget his own disbelief that anyone could have achieved such totally opaque, startlingly wooly blacks, or could have played them so effectively against the dark grey forms adjacent to them.
An excellent introduction to the Moonscape series is 4 Greys and Black. Painted in 1953 and very small—it is roughly one foot square—it demonstrates Donati’s newfound technique at its most basic and unsophisticated. That same year’s Composition in Grey with Dot, is much larger and more fully developed compositionally. Rough-edged, semigeometric forms and striations combine with a narrow range of heavily encrusted surfaces to create the rugged, austere effect that led Duchamp to name the series as he did. Both paintings, furthermore, are devoid of color and succeed or fail entirely on the interrelationships of their textures and tones.
That would soon change. Color, as anyone familiar with Donati’s art could have predicted, reasserted itself. Not dramatically at first—indeed, the earliest indication of its return occurred in the mid-1950s with the introduction of subdued earth colors to several of the Moonscape paintings—but inexorably and with the certainty that it never again would be absent from his palette.
By 1957 these changes were sufficiently realized for Donati to begin exhibiting some of the results. Searching around for a title for his new series, he settled on Sargon, after Sargon II (reigned 722–705 B.C.), the Assyrian warrior king who had massive bas-reliefs commemorating his triumphs carved into the mountains of the Tigris valley. Two exceptional examples are 2 Apsaras, 1957, and Sargon Series Lasirab, 1958–59.
Of all Donati’s paintings, past or present, those of the Sargon series are the least immediately identifiable as his. Not only are they more purely—even exclusively—painterly in their approach than is typical of Donati, but they are also devoid of anything that could be described as even vaguely Surrealist in attitude or sensibility.
The vast majority of the Sargon paintings that Donati exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1957, 1959, and 1960 are remarkable, and all give clear evidence of Donati’s excellence as a painter. It was at this point in his career that he finally took advantage of an event that had occurred a decade earlier to redefine what was important to him as an artist and to set his work on the course from which it would never again significantly deviate.
In 1949 on a beach at Dover, Donati picked up a small smooth stone that caused an “odd vibration” to pass through him. His suspicion that it contained a fossil was verified by Tanguy, who also showed him how to open it without doing any damage. Donati resisted doing so, however, because he feared that what he found inside would too closely resemble what he recently had been painting out of his unconscious. Nevertheless, he kept the stone until, in 1960, following Tanguy’s advice, he tapped its edges and opened it.
The fossil he discovered within the stone did indeed strongly resemble some of his personal imagery. Not surprisingly, this was an unsettling but oddly exhilarating experience.
Donati immediately set about trying to discover not only the reason for the similarity between the fossil’s form and the images he had created but also the significance of that similarity. Although the fossil and all it implied had long fascinated him, he had never before fully realized its effect on his creative imagination. “Once again,” he states, “I was in touch with the cycle of creation, destruction, and rebirth.” Holding the halves of the stone in his hands, he understood finally the depth of the fossil’s hold on him, and that it “had always been my true myth and metaphor, my guide from the very beginning of my career.”
Impelled to put his thoughts into more concrete form, he wrote: “There is a Latin word ‘incubus’ which I roughly describe in terms of a hammer which keeps tapping at your head … You become aware of the knock but not of its significance. In order to find the source you must connect and relate various clues and fleeting insights. My incubus developed from a fossil … The fossil has an incredibly animated inside form … and carries the whole cycle of creation within it. Nature has destroyed the life it once was and has reincarnated it in a new life that will have perpetual existence … To me, the fossil contains within itself all the mystery, power and indestructibility of life.”10
As such, the paintings succeeded beautifully. Within a year, the monumental complexities of the Sargon series had been replaced by simple, rigidly frontal compositions of, at most, two or three richly colored, sand-textured geometric forms of vaguely geological or archaeological origin. Some of these forms were plain, others were incised with what appeared to be ancient, partially eroded inscriptions, and others revealed what might be fossil fragments.
With these simple, blatantly physical, and provocatively iconic images of mysterious and indeterminate ancestry, Donati finally and fully came into his own. Changes in his art would occur in future years, but they would be more in the nature of variations on a theme than of significant shifts in direction.
Glimpses of partially exposed fossils and fragments of age-old, undecipherable commemorative tablets came to dominate his art. But that was not enough. In order to make his canvases both as compelling and moving as possible, he also introduced a personalized touch of painterly magic.
In this he was only being true to his Surrealist roots. Ernst, Duchamp, Tanguy, Dali, and the other members of the movement were also painterly magicians, past masters at seducing the eye and inflaming the imagination for carefully calculated results. Each had his special talent—Ernst for paradox, Duchamp for diversionary tactics, Tanguy for spatial illusion, and Dali for Old Master techniques—and all used them as effectively as any magician wielded his magic wand.
Donati’s forte was the utilization of color and texture for maximum pleasurable effect. In this he was without peer among the Surrealists and almost, one must add, among his contemporaries in general.
Since the Fossil series, which occupied him for the greater part of the 1960s, owed so much of its success to its remarkable fusion of color and texture, a discussion of Donati’s technical processes at that time might be in order. No reproduction, no matter how superb, can adequately convey the richly tactile nature of these paintings. And small wonder, considering how much material went into their production. To begin with, generous portions of ground quartz were mixed with paint and medium. This mixture was then molded and troweled onto the canvas until it was up to an inch thick. While the mixture was drying, the surface was incised, gouged, or pitted to suit Donati’s purposes. At times this mixture was so heavily applied that the results resembled bas-reliefs or mounds of calcified rock more than paintings. At other times, thick paint and thin washes were juxtaposed to create more purely painterly effects.
And should there be any doubt, color—rich, pure, and vibrant—also played a highly significant role in these paintings’ pleasurable impact. One need only glance at The Superstone, 1962, and Royal Banyon, 1963, for proof. In both, color and texture combined to fashion a wonderfully tantalizing, seamless whole so physically real and coloristically alive that one is tempted to reach out to touch it.
With the Fossil series, then, Donati entered the most integrated and long-lasting phase of his career. Nothing he had produced before had so successfully fused what he wanted to say with the best and most effective way to say it. And nothing had been both so simple in form and so open-ended in its range of possibilities.
Not only was Donati’s art moving ahead briskly, but his personal life was taking a new turn as well. He remarried in 1965, and a few years later his wife, Del, gave birth to their only daughter, Alyssa. On the professional front, things also could not have been better. In addition to his regular one-man shows at the Staempfli Gallery, he had exhibitions during the 1960s in Brussels, Munich, Detroit, Cambridge, and Washington, D.C. And just as important, major museums and private collectors decided with increasing frequency during this period that they had to own at least one of his paintings. In between, he served as a visiting lecturer at Yale University; as a member of that school’s Council for Arts and Architecture; and as a juror for the Fulbright Scholarship Program.
Nothing, however, could keep him from painting, and he did so as conscientiously and fruitfully as ever. The end of the 1960s and most of the 1970s saw a succession of intriguing variations on his primary theme, including a number of paintings that dramatized rock forms in subtly Surrealistic ways. And then these, in turn, led to another group of canvases that had a significant impact on what he would produce in the 1980s.
The paintings of the Coptic Wall series are among the most austere and difficult of his creations. At first glance they seem simple enough: Two broad, irregularly shaped bands of rough-textured stone or plaster surfaces are separated, in most cases vertically, by a much narrower band of what appears to be sky. But one cannot be certain. Is it really sky? In most instances it is, as seen in Coptic Wall XXI, 1980. Nothing else could be so atmospherically blue. But in others of the series the identity of this feature is less clear. In Coptic Wall Red Ice, 1987, for example, the narrow band is blue and orange. These differences can be reconciled if one understands that the series is primarily about sections of massive adjacent forms interacting subtly with one another. But no matter what form these bands take, it is important to remember that the paintings themselves are sectional close-ups of large masonry surfaces. In this light, Donati’s next creative move becomes more readily comprehensible.
What has always fascinated Donati and lain at the center of his art is the inexplicable nature of life. As such, he sees more truth in wonder than in certainty, in a questioning attitude than in dogma, and, most particularly, in an art that provokes and confounds than in one that details and defines.
No greater proof of this attitude can be found than in the canvases he produced from 1983 onward. In image after image, mystery and enchantment increasingly take center stage.
One of his favorite technical devices, and one that did much to create the impression of great age that characterized so much of his work during the 1980s, is a deceptively simple one. Different colors are layered over partly or completely hardened mounds of ground quartz that have been mixed with pigment and medium. Then, when the paint has dried, selected portions of the surface are carefully scraped away to reveal glimpses of the colors underneath.
The resulting effect, combined with surface scratching and pitting, a few ancient, indecipherable inscriptions, and possibly a hint of a fossil or two, creates an extraordinary impression—especially when Donati also gives his love of color free rein. For once, the addition of a new element to his work did not also indicate movement in a different direction. Henceforth, from roughly 1991 on, the changes that occurred would lead first to a gradual enlivening of his art and then to an updating of images from earlier periods.
That is hardly surprising, considering what was going on in his mind at the time. Already, in his 1991 Anybody Can Figure It … one senses a pronounced restlessness in the way he tackled its explosive imagery. And that impression is further strengthened by his 1992 Lava à Pompei, a highly suggestive, quasi-Surrealist work with violent undertones that could represent (as the title hints), long-submerged creative forces about to erupt.
Be that as it may, it is clear that the early 1990s found Donati looking back with greater frequency to what he had painted in previous years. However, it was not to his Surrealist days that his mind returned most often at first but to those immediately following them that produced the large, purely geometric canvases he originally had shown only to close friends and that had not been exhibited until 1987.
The recent Geometric paintings reflect a more relaxed and pleasantly idiosyncratic point of view, one that feels free to dip into the past for whatever might serve its current needs but that also would not hesitate to turn whatever it found upside down if it served its purposes to do so. Thus, precisely defined geometric shapes that had achieved weighty, monumental importance in the 1940s became lighthearted, occasionally even delightfully frisky components of freely improvised compositions in the 1990s. And other aspects of Donati’s earlier work, most particularly his use of transparent color and the results of lessons learned from Cubism, are translated into his recent idiom as well. But then, as he insists, “I wanted to combine the past and the present, and to use the best of both.”
Throughout his career, it has been merely a matter of time before the need to attempt even better and more effective forms of painterly magic has reasserted itself. That was true at the height of his Surrealist period when he realized the necessity for greater technical discipline and control in his work, and it has been the case at every other critical point along the way. And whenever that need manifested itself, he invariably pulled up stakes and moved on. Not to have done so would have been inconceivable to an artist of his drive and imagination.
That imagination has served him well. It led him from the primal, darkly provocative Surrealist images of his early days to the witty and colorful icono-clastic paintings of the 1990s. And it did so by inducing him to concentrate his major efforts on producing works characterized by ever greater degrees of paradox and enchantment.
Translating these two attributes into art has always been his primary creative concern. Other artists have committed themselves to various aesthetic agendas, or have dedicated their art to social or spiritual ideals. But not Donati. For him, art has always been more a matter of paradox and enigma than of programs, dogmas, or beliefs. As a result, his paintings do not so much satisfy and explain as they stimulate and provoke.
But then, Donati’s creative roots go deep into Surrealist soil. As he often says, “Once a Surrealist, always a Surrealist.” André Breton was particularly impressed by the density and ambiguity of Donati’s imagery, and by its wide range of possible meanings. The young artist’s ability to provoke the viewer’s imagination in several directions at once fascinated the elder Surrealist, and from all indications it was a crucial factor in Donati’s acceptance into the movement.
But whatever its source, Donati’s art is a rare and valuable creation whose various manifestations have enriched American art. From its Surrealist days to the present it has followed its own path, garnering honors along the way, but most important, providing meaningful aesthetic experiences for large numbers of artloving individuals.
One must, in other words, seek that significance through whatever means are most truly at one’s disposal. For Donati, of course, that would be through paint, color, shapes, textures, and lines—and through whatever imagery promises to yield the most clues and fleeting insights.
Weinstein Gallery extends its appreciation to Mr. Wolff for use of his scholarship.
André Breton, Preface, Paintings by Enrico Donati, exh. cat. (New York: Passedoit Gallery, 1944), unpaginated.
All remarks by the artist not otherwise attributed are from conversations with the author.
Donati as quoted by Alan Jones, “Interview with Donati,” Arts 65, no. 8 (April 1991): 17.
Maurice Nadeau in Donati, exh. cat. (New York: Durand-Ruel Galleries, 1949), 39, 54-55.
Nicolas Calas in ibid., 38.
Jones, “Interview,” 18.
Martica Sawin, “Spiritual and Electric Surrealism: The Art of Enrico Donati,” Arts 61, no. 8 (May 1987): 28.
Peter Selz, Enrico Donati (Paris: Editions Georges Fall, 1965), 18.
Enrico Donati, unpublished manuscript in possession of the artist, unpaginated.
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