Seeds from DiDonnaby Darragh McNicholas
Porfirio DiDonna: Paintings from the 1970s
ELIZABETH HARRIS GALLERY | MAY 14 – JULY 31, 2015
With the advantage of being mounted, the 6-foot-tall Untitled (pdn63) (1976) dwarfs me. It’s a dark and unyielding expanse of blue-green, with thousands of miniscule dots horizontally positioned along an invisible grid, each dot the amber color of a sun setting behind viscous pollution. I stand for a minute in alienated silence before I have any verbal thoughts at all about the work. The scale speaks of grandiosity, the form of objectivity and restraint. Then I notice some of the more subtle dynamics at play: the rows of horizontal dots are alternately bright and muted; the dark background undulates between two barely different shades; and thin, horizontal strips of acrylic are raised above the rest, creating a tactile surface. What first appeared arrestingly flat suddenly swells with energy and depth. The dots, however meticulous, quiver with an inescapable human imprint of imperfection, evidence of the painstaking labor devoted to the work.
These observations are, I suspect, beside the point. DiDonna’s works of the ’70s—characterized by grids, lines, methodical dots, and contrapuntal colors—might suggest anatomical logic, but they’re not frogs awaiting dissection. I’m tempted to call their formalism a disguise. They don’t aspire to Clement Greenberg’s ideal of using the “characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.” Instead, DiDonna’s works translate a tradition of religious painting into a more contemporary aesthetic.
The dozen crypto-religious works in the show seem at home at Elizabeth Harris which, like other Chelsea galleries, evokes the precious aura of a church using the sparse, utilitarian styling of a medical clinic. Each work, mounted on flat-white walls, somehow inspires the same meditative attention, the same essence, as reliquaries in the niched walls of a cathedral.
John Yau, in his catalogue essay for the show, asserts that DiDonna’s genius is his ability to render the “deeply private religious act into an abstract painting that can be appreciated at a secular level.” “Untitled (pdn242)” (1970 – 71) is, at that secular level, “a skewed grid made of two sets of diagonally-oriented [white] dots starting from the top edge and moving in from the two side edges.” At the same time, it’s a “beaded veil,” a gossamer curtain, barely obscuring some grand mystery beyond. At 8 feet, the celestial blue work studded with thousands of white stars is an experience.
A decade before DiDonna made these abstract pieces, teachers at Pratt persuaded him to abandon what they saw as anachronistic Christian symbology in his early work consisting of crucifixes and scenes from the life of Christ. His capable biographer, John Baker, laments that these vivid and impressionistic religious paintings were “easily the boldest work” he did at the Institute, but cedes that the advice was nevertheless pivotal, prompting DiDonna to experiment with still life and eventually with the abstraction that would dominate his work through his studies at Columbia and for the rest of his career. DiDonna continued to think of his work in religious terms. “He never stopped being a religious painter,” writes Yau, “who believed in mystery, rather than dogma.”
At the same time that his work became more mysterious and abstract, DiDonna wrote in his notebooks that his explorations had to be “non-arbitrary.” His faithfulness to rules, grids, and order was as deep as his faith in redemption. “I must work within strict limits,” he wrote. In those same notebooks he also scrawled letters to himself that were so absolute, so startlingly devoid of irony, that they are embarrassing to read, like “I don’t believe in defeat,” and, “With God all things are possible.” Seeming to pick up on his own limits, he closed his notebook for good. “I must start to paint. Too much writing and thinking will get me nowhere.”
In 1960, Greenberg wrote that religion and art suffered similar crises in the wake of the Enlightenment after “having been denied […] all tasks they could take seriously.” They were like two levelled forests, obliged to reseed on the narrowest of plots. But art’s plot, unlike religion’s, was uniquely fertile. Art could thrive on the types of experiences it enabled which were “valuable in [their] own right.” At the risk of belaboring the metaphor, DiDonna’s work signals a cross pollination: a hybrid religious weed growing in Greenberg’s walled garden.
When Yau says that the work can be appreciated “on a secular level,” I am not sure he’s saying that we should appreciate it as a purely formal exploration. After all, he doesn’t when he compares the luminous dots to “rosary beads,” and the act of painting them to a steady devotional ritual. Rather, the remarkable thing about DiDonna’s work is that it reveals how much of our encounter with art already takes place outside formal Greenbergian boundaries.
It is flinchingly difficult to read DiDonna’s diary entries that claim that “all things are possible” because verbal convictions enforce a kind of philosophical fidelity. When listening to music or looking at art, however, it’s easier to be promiscuous: to become a transient Platonist, a Buddhist, a Christian, or a mystic. When I encounter a painting by Fra Angelico, or a mass by Bach, I don’t engage on purely secular grounds despite my firm secular convictions. I don’t scoff every time I hear some godly harmony that’s buttressed by a metaphysical framework that I don’t share. This property of art—that it allows people to elide their own belief—is tacitly, though perhaps unconsciously, recognized in the gallery’s anatomy, which attempts to display works as essential, pure.
Porfirio DiDonna’s dots, then, are non-arbitrary assertions that hang, suspended between the artist’s convictions and the viewer’s experience—weightless seeds that float from one garden to another.