At Weinstein Gallery, Rediscovering Enrico Donati, Forgotten Innovator of the 20th Century

Don’t worry if the name Enrico Donati doesn’t ring any bells. Despite being close friends with some of the most important artists of his time, Donati (1909–2008) remains relatively unacknowledged by major museums. In San Francisco, a new show at Weinstein Gallery offers work from his diverse portfolio, revealing an artist who found himself at the center of the 20th century’s major artistic movements.

No single label captures Donati’s practice. In the 1940s, he was a bona fide surrealist who won the approval of Andre Breton and collaborated with Marcel Duchamp. While artists often remain faithful to a certain style once it garners acclaim, Donati was a master of reinvention. In the 1950s, he turned away from surrealist figuration and began experimenting with rough textures, earthy palettes, and abstract compositions—a style that aligned with his contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionists.

Even within periods or movements, Donati would experiment with a range of artistic strategies. Some of his surrealist works, like Conversion (1946), are full of dark, droopy shapes, forming nightmarish clumps of quasi-organic material. Such figures stand in stark contrast to works like Tower of the Alchemist: Creation of the Sun (1947), whose bright colors and clean lines bring a dab of cubism to the imaginative subject. Particularly eerie are Donati’s sculptural assemblages, such as Evil Eye (1946), a piece that stares back to unsettling effect.

Though dramatically different from his surrealist works, Donati’s paintings from the 1950s and early ’60s similarly used paint to explore his interest in universal experiences and origins—the “prima materia,” or “first matter,” of the show’s title. These works find Donati embracing the expressive potential of paint. There is a more somber atmosphere to this work, with Donati sticking to a palette of browns, blacks, and deep reds that seem to evoke a troubled subconscious. In works like Moonscape (1951) and Black to Black (1954), Donati had an uncanny ability to build up a painting’s surface into rich, layered textures that look like muddy swaths of ground rather than paint.

Clearly, whether he was hobnobbing with surrealists or exploring the possibilities of abstraction, Donati was remarkably comfortable at the forefront of his century’s artistic trends.


—A. Wagner


Enrico Donati: Prima Materia” is on view at Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, Feb. 20–Apr. 9, 2016.

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