"I love the paintings of Enrico Donati as I love a night in May" -- Andr Breton, 1944 (A. Breton, quoted by T. F. Wolff, Enrico Donati: Surrealism and Beyond, New York, 1996, p. 12).
Enrico Donati is one of the few artists to have bridged two of the twentieth century's most influential art movements; Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Throughout the course of his long career, Donati's enigmatic and colorful forms have embraced the rapid pace of change that coursed through veins of artists in America; from the subconscious outpourings of Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy to the dramatic gestural brushstrokes of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Yet Donati has never been a mere follower, instead developing his own unique language of abstraction that explores ideas about what it meant to be an artistic in an age of rapid change.
Born in Italy in 1909, Donati's early interest was in music but it was during a stay in Paris that he began to explore his interest in the visual arts and started a journey that would lead him to America and join the pantheon of some of the biggest names in twentieth century art history. In 1942 he was introduced to Andr Breton, the father of the Surrealist movement, who immediately recognized his talent and invited him to the join the group of exiled Europeans who had gathered in New York to escape the ravages of World War Two. Donati was the youngest of the group, but his ability was recognized nonetheless, with Breton declaring in 1944 "I love the paintings of Enrico Donati as I love a night in May" (A. Breton, quoted by T. F. Wolff, Enrico Donati: Surrealism and Beyond, New York, 1996, p. 12). Marcel Duchamp even dubbed him the wunderkind of the group. Donati reveled in the opportunity to develop as an artist in such distinguished company. "I was just a kid," he said, "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 charactersIt was a beautiful time. Our futures seemed bright. We worked hard, but we also had fun. And they were all such great guys" (E. Donati, quoted by T. F. Wolff, ibid, pp.19-20). Yet despite being part of such an established group, Donati remained resolutely independent and as the surrealist movement began to relinquish its dominance, he began to develop a body of work that expressed the very different concerns of a new generation of artists.
By the mid 1940s, Donati's work had shifted gears, away from the mysterious incarnations of the subconscious to a more insightful investigation into the formal qualities of the medium in which he was now working. Embracing the geometric lexicon of modernism, these new simplified bold planes of color were an exciting evolutionary step in his development as an artist, as art historian Martica Swain proclaimed, "Perspectives shift and cancel one another; transparent planes turn inexplicably opaque; tantalizing illusions of objectness are swiftly nullified. Fragments of pattern and optical illusion alternatively 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" (T. F. Wolff, ibid p. 54).
By the 1950s Donati was a member of the stable of artists that Betty Parson's had assembled at her eponymous New York gallery. Donati responded to being in such illustrious company by producing two important series of works; Lettres, in which he would explore the element of chance in his work by diluting paint with turpentine and allowing it to flow freely across the surface of the canvas while turning the canvas to manipulate the flow of paint--an interesting advance on the 'drip, blob & spatter' method employed by Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell at the moment (Wolff, p. 61). In his Moonscapes series, Donati began to add texture to his work by mixing his pigments with dust he collected from a vacuum cleaner to produce dark, enigmatic canvases whose surfaces were rich with luscious texture.
By the 1980s these dark and mysterious surfaces had morphed into a series of more colorful works such as the Lune Rouge, 1996 and Ville Sourmarine, 1992. In these Donati incorporated areas of crushed brilliant white quartz on which he portrays passages of brighter and richer color, varied in texture but deeper in emotion. As Theodore Wolff, critic and Donati biographer points out of these late works, "One looks in vain for the deeply interior, provocative, even fanciful touches that normally indicate the presence of Donati's hand in a painting's execution. What ones finds instead is a brilliant demonstration of painterly prowess, a highly professional performance that does credit to his talent and skills but reveals little of what is most unique and valuable in Donati's art-his ability to create images resonating with intimations that some of life's most deeply hidden secrets and most tantalizing mysteries are accessible through art" (Wolff, p. 81)