Of Heartbreaking Gravity
The exhibition of abstract drawings by Porfirio DiDonna (1942-1986), organized for the Wooster Arts Space by the critic Karen Wilkin, is among the most heartbreaking I’ve seen. I recommend it, though the work may be too specialized to appeal to a general audience. DiDonna has been described as a “painter’s painter,” a label that’s likely to pique the interest of fellow painters while, at the same time, setting up a roadblock for those who aren’t directly involved with the medium. Certainly, DiDonna’s drive is unmistakable: Each mark, whether it be the grainy trail left by a stick of charcoal or a gritty wash of thinned paint, is imbued with gravity and purpose. Even when barely glancing the paper, his touch radiates seriousness and consideration, a deep curiosity. What may leave the viewer nonplused, however, is the severity of DiDonna’s vocabulary of form.
There’s not much to it: He employed just two or three shapes-which bring to mind vessels, columns or waves. Each drawing focuses on one of these shapes, which is plunked down in the center of a sheet of paper. DiDonna’s early sketches exhibit a fascination with the systematic and the architectural, with simplicity, stability and order-the influence of Minimalism is clear. They also reveal, particularly with the sensual use of materials, DiDonna’s frustration with Minimalism’s oppressive certitude. If anything, the drawings are evidence of one artist’s attempt to escape precedent by foisting pictorial malleability upon inflexible and unaccommodating armatures. DiDonna wasn’t able to see this romantic, perhaps foolhardy, venture to fruition-he died at the age of 44. That’s one reason the show is heartbreaking; the other is the earnestness of DiDonna’s struggle, which is palpable. Created during the last years of his life, the drawings suggest that he was just beginning to realize his powers. They also suggest that the art of the 1980’s was less specious than we think.
Porfirio DiDonna: Works on Paper is at the Wooster Art Space, 147 Wooster Street, until April 10.
Say It With Wood
In my review of Challenging Tradition: Women of the Academy , an exhibition seen last fall at the National Academy of Design, I wrote that its curator was “out of her gourd” for including a print as the sole example of art by Helen Frankenthaler. Surely Ms. Frankenthaler, whose reputation rests on her intuitive sense for the expressive possibilities of paint, would be better served by an expansive, color-saturated canvas? After seeing Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts , an exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, I am now ready to concede that the academy’s curator might have had a point. O.K., she did have a point: Ms. Frankenthaler is a superb printmaker. Her woodcuts are astonishing. They capture her improvisatory, painterly élan-no mean feat, given the secondhand nature of the medium. You have to wonder: Whatever made Ms. Frankenthaler take up woodcut in the first place? The gouging and cutting of wood hardly seems the natural activity for a sensibility renowned for its fluidity, transparency and lyricism.
Yet natural it is, so much so that one begins to wonder if Ms. Frankenthaler has been overrated as a painter. Each time we come across an actual painted surface at Salander-O’Reilly (the exhibition includes pictures that were made as studies for the prints), a wave of disappointment washes over us: Do we need to be reminded that Ms. Frankenthaler has become content to reiterate a signature style? The woodcuts redeem familiarity and routine through novelty (how do you translate something as ephemeral as a stain of acrylic paint through a carved piece of wood?), and emphasize the artist’s debt to Chinese and Japanese art. It turns out that Ms. Frankenthaler has been a landscape painter all along-the prints embody geography, weather, light and mood (which, at times, is atypically harsh). Give credit to the skilled carvers and printmakers who lit a fire under Ms. Frankenthaler’s aesthetic. But most of the credit is due to the artist for giving the woodcuts all that she’s got.
Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts is at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, until April 3.
In the aptly titled canvas Grandview (2003), also on view at Salander-O’Reilly, the painter Tom Goldenberg pays homage to the rolling hills of Dutchess County, doing so through color (a beneficent yellow suffuses the canvas) and, in particular, composition. He transforms the three-part structure of landscape painting-foreground, middle ground, background-by multiplying it by three, so the eye takes a full nine steps before it reaches the bucolic clouds drifting over the horizon. Even with the sky, things are complicated: The clouds press forward, collapsing distance by propelling it toward the surface of the canvas. In fact, each section of the picture has its idiosyncrasies: Mr. Goldenberg’s deceptively straightforward depiction of farmland is, in reality, a fairly intricate-not to say abstract -orchestration of space, rhythm and incident. He does something similar to the hills of Italy in Monte Argentario (2003), though not as persuasively. Perhaps a familiarity with upstate New York allows Mr. Goldenberg a greater sense of pictorial license. Then again, Dutchess County can’t claim indigenous cactus, the subject behind the exhibition’s most inspired passage of painting.
Tom Goldenberg: Recent Paintings is at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries until April 3.