Donati: the Surrealist years. Enigmatic and complex art of the late 1940s on display

EARLY works by distinguished older painters are often especially intriguing. Not only do they present us with the first tentative hints of what will become these artists' mature style, they also may reveal levels of technical brilliance not evident in their later, less showy productions. Of particular interest is the youthful work of creative figures who played significant roles in major but long-dead modernist movements, and who then went on to very different things. The early Surrealist paintings of De Chirico, for instance, or the early Fauve and Cubist studies of Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. Or, closer to our own day, the Social Realist and then Abstract Expressionist canvases of Philip Guston.

The work of few living artists, however, has undergone as dramatic a change as that of Enrico Donati. Championed in the late 1930s and 1940s by Andr'e Breton, Surrealism's principal founder and theoretician, and declared by him to be one of that movement's true hopes for the future, Donati gradually moved on to a more purely abstract mode of expression, once Surrealism went into decline.

By the mid-1950s, scarcely a trace of his prior Surrealist commitments remained, and today, of course, he is widely known for his colorful and richly textured abstractions.

All the more reason, therefore, to be grateful to the Zabriskie Gallery here for mounting an exhibition of several prime examples of his enigmatic and complex art of the late 1940s.

The years 1947 and 1948, in particular, were good ones for Donati, for they spawned a number of his most successful canvases. These not only reveal a surprising flair for geometric order and precise, exquisitely delineated detail, they also indicate how thoroughly grounded in Surrealist theory and imagery he was at the time. He was so profoundly involved in them, in fact, and so capable of translating them into his own private mythology, that anyone unaware of these paintings' existence, and familiar only with his recent work, would be inclined to deny that they were done by the same artist.

It's a small exhibition - 12 paintings and six sculptures - but it's choice and it's important. It not only gives well-deserved recognition to an aspect of Donati's career that has recently been somewhat overlooked, it also serves as a timely reminder of how seminal a force Surrealism remained for American art during and immediately after World War II. Everyone was fascinated, if not influenced, by it, and its impact extended even to film and commercial art.

For Donati, however, it was the center of his universe. As an officially accredited Surrealist, he was included in the movement's exhibitions and publications and received the kind of attention any other young man could only envy. He exhibited in the best galleries, befriended several of the older, world-famous Surrealists, and was favorably written about by such art-world luminaries as Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Nicolas Calas, and Clement Greenberg.

It was toward the end of this period that Donati produced the works included in this exhibition. Already behind him were the more wildly imaginative and provocative biomorphic images that had originally qualified him for inclusion in Surrealism's select ranks, as well as several of the startling sculptures for which he is still best known in certain circles. One cannot help but suspect that he sensed that Surrealism's demise was just around the corner. With one or two exceptions, they seem more like brilliant summations - like detailed and affectionate recapitulations of a major movement's thematic and formal assets - than passionate expressions of a new or still viable idea.

Even Donati's technique in these pictures - precise, sometimes mechanically rendered with ruler, pen and ink, and tinted as often as freely painted - supports this impression. Extraordinary, even brilliant, as some of these paintings may be, there still is an air of subtle melancholy about them, as though they represent one of the final moments of a once powerful and influential creative impulse that had seen its day.

At the Zabriskie Gallery, 724 Fifth Ave., through February.

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