New York

Porfirio DiDonna

112 Greene Street

Porfirio DiDonna died in 1986 at the age of 44. He began his career in the ’60s, when the major issues were the fabrication of a literal surface, the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, and conflicting notions regarding objecthood, iconicity, and spirituality, and proceeded to develop his approach to painting during the heyday of Minimalism and the reign of formalist dogma. The exhibition consisted of work from the first and last periods of his career: moderate-size oil paintings done in the mid ’60s, while he was a graduate student in fine arts at Pratt Institute, New York, and large-scale vertical oil paintings done in 1984 and ’85. By juxtaposing works from these two periods, Nina Nielsen and John Baker of the Nielsen Gallery, Boston, under whose auspices this show was organized, imply that DiDonna never jettisoned his earliest concerns regarding painting (both act and object) and its relationship to prayer and spiritual presence. His goal was to establish a dialectical process that would mirror his internal dialogue, and thus enable him to express his spiritual yearnings in his art while using his art to examine and reexamine his desire to make his faith manifest. Both in his concerns and in his pictorial conclusions, DiDonna, who was younger than both Brice Marden and Agnes Martin, explored a fertile territory that bordered on theirs.

In his early work, the artist grappled with such subjects as the Crucifixion, the Madonna and Child, and the Last Supper. Their modest scale, moody color, and shifting approach to the issues of surface/spatiality and abstraction/representation were due in part to DiDonna’s investigation of early Sienese painting from a Modernist vantage point. It is clear that, from the very start, he was trying to find a way to connect his love for Italian Renaissance art to his upbringing as a devout Catholic, via the spirituality of early Modernist abstract art.

When DiDonna began working in an abstract mode in the late ’60s, he did so in order to clarify his primary concern, which was the structuring of color and light, opticality and physicality. Rather than emptying content out of his work, as did many abstract artists of his generation, DiDonna tried to find ways to encode a formal language with spiritual significance. From then until a brain tumor halted his activities as a painter in the fall of 1985, he went from an allover compositional approach, to an iconic one, to (in his final works) variations on a figural hourglasslike shape. Contiguous with this development was his deepening understanding of the properties of color and light, as well as his growing mastery of glazes and an increasingly sensual yet always restrained application of paint.

Toward the end of his life, DiDonna conceived of the canvas as simultaneously a surface and a window. His layered, glazed surfaces ranged from thin washes to brushy splotches, while the rich, warm, often quavering color both modulated and shifted. In an untitled painting from 1985, DiDonna used the elongated “hourglass” shape as his central motif, surrounding it with echoing curvilinear bands in a vertically oriented, symmetrical composition, which he then subtly undermined through his idiosyncratic use of color. He painted these in layers, beginning with thin washes and then adding color bit by bit and occasionally scraping it back down. Transparencies, heavily brushed streams of color, patches of paint, and glazes all interact here to achieve a wavering, light-filled presence. DiDonna was one of the few artists I have ever met who found a way to stay innocent enough to believe that painting was an engagement with spiritual desires and who conducted his life in accordance with his yearnings.

John Yau