Prima Materia

Shotgun Review

Prima Materia

By Shotgun Reviews March 13, 2016

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Garrett Caples reviews Prima Materia at Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco.


To celebrate a recent monograph written by Dawn Ades, the Weinstein Gallery has mounted an ambitious show—in terms of both its size and its number of significant works—of Italian-born, New York-based abstract painter Erico Donati. Although Donati died in 2008 at age 99, Prima Materia is no retrospective since it’s confined to 1940–1965. But these are his most significant years, and Prima Materia does tell a story, one less involved with the alchemical interests the show’s title suggests, or the ethnographic influences implied by the accompanying selection of objects (Hopi kachina dolls, Yup’ik masks), and more concerning the effect on an established practitioner of the turn from abstract Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism in postwar American art.

The ’40s work is palpably surrealist; the background atmosphere of Anometer (1948) is analogous to the work of Roberto Matta, say, while Caracalla (1946) shares the biomorphic forms of Joan Miró. Yet Donati has already struck out on his own path through his extraordinary use of color. In Surrealism and Painting, André Breton refers not to Donati’s color but rather his “light,” which conveys the impression left by the deep electric blues permeating canvases like Composition (1945).1 Several paintings—notably Emotion con Moto (1943)—employ a rainbow of colors, though a dominant blue or black preserves them from outright gaudiness. Apart from color, the most striking aspect of Donati’s earliest manner is the variety of textures present within a single work. The deep electric-blue background of Composition, for example, is so thick it looks lacquered, yet the rainbow-colored mass in the foreground is so lightly painted you can see flecks of raw canvas, as though the figure were hollowed out of the ground rather than imposed on top of it.

Enrico Donati. Aleppo Walls, 1960; mixed media on canvas; 60 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Estate of Enrico Donati and the Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: Nicholas Pishvanov.

Yet Donati immediately rebels against this manner with a late ’40s geometric series. With their bright colors and suggestions of motion, these works evoke Futurist rather than Cubist abstraction, yet even this fails to portend Donati’s singular volte-face in the ’50s. Inspired by a vacuum-cleaner bag exploding in his studio,2 Donati’s later paintings are densely textured, three-dimensional, with clumps of dust, sand, even coffee grounds glued on and painted into the canvas, evocative of dirt and stone. The geometric impulse remains in the paintings' looser, more organic-looking forms, but the most dramatic change is the near-absence of color under the dour influence of Abstract Expressionism. Fluorescence has given way to earth tones. Only Aleppo Walls (1960) suggests his earlier work with a single streak of fiery orange, as though a crack in the earth were revealing the magma below, and points to his future attempts to reconcile his youthful color sense with the harsher Expressionist ambiance.


Garrett Caples is the author of a book of essays, Retrievals (Wave, 2014), and his third poetry collection, Power Ballads, will appear from Wave Books in September 2016. He recently co-edited Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems by Frank Lima (City Lights, 2016).

Prima Materia is on view at Weinstein Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through April 9, 2016.


  1. André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, trans. Simon Watson-Taylor (Icon Editions, 1972), 198.
  2. Dawn Ades, Enrico Donati (Skira Rizzoli, 2015), 42-43.

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