Two Views Of a Life Lived for Art

A conversation with critic Theodore Wolff and Surrealist painter Enrico Donati

Theodore F. Wolf, an award-winning art critic for The Christian Science Monitor from 1977 to 1990, knows whereof he speaks. An artist himself, Mr. Wolff can be found either in New York's Central Park painting and drawing or in his study writing books on other artists. His most recent book, 'Enrico Donati: Surrealism and Beyond,' was just published by Hudson Hills Press (168 pp., $50).

Recently, Monitor contributor Carol Strickland interviewed Wolff and Italian-born Enrico Donati. Mr. Donati, now in his eighth decade, was a member of the New York Surrealist movement of the 1940s, when leading artists like Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and their theorist, the writer Andre Breton, transformed the landscape of American art. In 1942, Mr. Breton hailed Donati as a Wunderkind, announcing: 'I love the paintings of Enrico Donati as I love a night in May.' In his book, Wolff traces the evolution of 55 years of Donati's art.

Donati's work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and others. Ms. Strickland spoke with Wolff and Donati in Donati's sun-filled studio overlooking Central Park.

Some excerpts:

How did this book come about?

Wolff: I had known Enrico for 17 or 18 years, and a year and a half ago, I thought the time had come for this book. I had watched him evolve at a very fast and steady pace over that period. In fact, if I didn't get over to his studio for two or three months, he had moved so fast, I was surprised when I saw the work.

Donati: Is that good or bad?

Wolff: That's good. It means you're still youthful in your attitude. You're dynamic.

Donati: I agree. [He notes, however, that his recent work recalls his painting style of 1947.] It's not bad to go back to yourself.

Wolff: You didn't just go back to repeat what you had done. It's as if your history were a Sears Roebuck catalog, and you took a little of this and a little of that in order to shape a completely new series of paintings. Right now you're consolidating. In six months, I'll walk into the studio and there'll be something totally new.

What pushes you to veer in a new direction in your work?

Donati: There's a certain moment you get saturated with what you've been doing and want to do something else. If I start to be in a rut, the only way to get through it is to go back to the drawing pad. Something will come out again.

Wolff: I have been struck repeatedly with how important [Donati's] early drawings are, not only for his initial work done in 1942 and 1943, but for subsequent work. They're like the seeds for everything else. The two drawings in the book are among his finest works of art. They're small pen drawings, completely spontaneous and unplanned. They rank among the finest Surrealist works anyone has produced. Drawing is such an immediate thing. He was able to get right down to the nitty-gritty of what he wanted to say.

Mr. Wolff writes that the common thread in your work is mystery, paradox, and ambiguity. Do you agree?

Donati: Duchamp used to say to me, "One makes a painting, and who finishes it is the collector or the viewer." They see things you have never expected. It becomes something else.

Wolff: The work itself has to have a certain ambiguity so the meaning is left open. The kind of art that has a specific message is basically illustrational. It's like receiving a letter. Once you read the message, there's no point in keeping the letter. A painting is like a letter so complex and rich, it doesn't have any specific meaning. It has universal implications. With Donati's work, there's an undercurrent of things not yet revealed, so you want to go back to it. It has an enchantment and renews itself.

If you're drawing from your subconscious, how do you communicate such a private meaning to the viewer?

Donati: You don't think, "I'm going to try to get that dream of last night on canvas." It either comes out or it doesn't.

Wolff: For Modernists of Enrico's generation, art is simple, direct communication. It takes courage to express yourself. The younger generation of post-modernist artists prefers to remain detached so they can't be accused of being corny or melodramatic. The younger generation is nervous about exposing themselves, which is one thing Enrico was never afraid of. But at the same time, he managed to hide himself, so he remains an enigma.

Donati: Two ideas explain a lot in Surrealist painting: "automatic" and "succession of thought." You do it automatically, and, having done one thing, you get into another thing. You build something completely different.

Can you describe the heyday of Surrealism in the United States when artists like Masson, Matta, Ernst, and Duchamp were all here?

Donati: It was a very close group, the most supportive group I've ever met. They were friends, they were nice guys.

Wolff: There were a number of different art worlds coexisting at that time. The Surrealists were considered the elite. Americans felt some resentment of the Europeans, as if they'd been invaded. The Americans had been sweating blood for 25 years, and they were only marginally successful. Along comes this young kid Enrico Donati, who overnight was sainted by Andr Breton as an official Surrealist.

Donati: There was some resentment. Then they all wanted to be Surrealists.

Wolff: A very significant point about Donati's career is that so often painters, who move quickly into a particular school and become successful, die when that movement dies. That happened to other Surrealists, but it did not happen to Enrico. He has reinvented himself four or five times, which is very unusual. He knew when it was time to discipline himself, to shift focus. The same thing could have happened to him when Abstract Expressionism fizzled out. He was never derivative, but he was sensitive to what was in the air. He produced work that was of the moment, but he was completely himself.

Among the giants of Surrealism you've known, did one stand out ?

Donati: A genius for me was Marcel Duchamp. To shock the bourgeoisie, that's what we tried to do.

Do you have a favorite period among the different styles in your art?

Donati: No. As soon as you fall in love with a certain type of painting, you'd better give it up and do something else, or you get stuck.

Are you still a Surrealist?

Donati: I would say so. Particularly in the new paintings, it's coming back like crazy.

Wolff: But your intellect is controlling it a little more. And the attitude is different. The early work was serious. It's more lighthearted now.

Do you feel you're an American or a European artist?

Donati: I've lived here more, from 1934 to 36 and after 1940, I've been here ever since.

Wolff: For all his success, Enrico might have been even more successful in this country if his work had a more anxiety-ridden note to it. His post-Surrealist work of the late 1970s and '80s is quite hedonistic. The paintings are so pleasurable and beautiful. Our puritan society suspects art that is fun. Playful European artists like Paul Klee and Joan Mir have a very dark side. Enrico's work, for all its darkness, is very life-affirming and joyous. He talks about his Surrealist days as fun, which is so central to his art. It's really about enjoyment, about life that should be savored. It has a Mediterranean quality of sun and passion. Americans are a little leery of that. We feel art has to be painful.

Donati: My Italian side is colors. [He points to a recent canvas full of vibrant hues.] For a guy who was 87 when he painted that, I don't think it's too bad. My last show was like that. Very joyful, very happy-go-lucky.

Wolff: That's Mr. Donati. His attitude has always been, "Let's not talk about the dark things. Let's be positive." He believes in life.

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