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Monday, September 23, 2013

Porfirio DiDonna: "A Painters Journey" at the Danforth Museum

I wish I could remember his name. He was a talented student at AIB. The last I heard from him he was in Brooklyn making his way as an artist. Since I never had meaningful conversations with other faculty, he became my sounding board for discussions on the contemporary scene. He was at the stage in his life, where he wasn’t worried about finding his academic niche so that art was an open book. For the faculty it was a closed book. They had solidified their styles and now wanted to solidify their academic status. Teaching was pure theatre for them, holding forth in crits and making sure discussions didn’t venture too far from the script.

I recall at one point this student and I became intrigued by the work of Jake Berthot. He showed regularly at Nielsen and had a certain presence in the art magazines. Students who moved on to graduate school often had him as a visiting artist. His work was painterly and slightly mystical in its mood. Unlike much contemporary art it had an affect that was appealing to me. It didn’t have a conceptual issue to belabor. At the time, probably the early Nineties, he was painting colorful lozenge shapes floating in a darker ground. The edges were not sharp and the centrally placed lozenges looming out of the dark ground created a sense of the painting being a search and discovery.

One Winter the student learned of a major show of  Berthot's work at Dartmouth. We decided to make the trek up there to get a good sense once and for all what he was about. I can’t remember much about our reactions to the painting in  the show except that after viewing it we went to a local tavern, the sort you find on Ivy league campuses that have a pedigree to them, downstairs and dark with lots of wood paneling, names of former students carved in the tables and a good selection of draft beer. It was warm and cozy, a respite from the cold winter air. Enjoying a good draft beer, I found myself humming spontaneously: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”. Was it the mood of the Tavern? Or was this the sum total of the mood of Berthot's paintings? Did they radiate an atmosphere that didn’t go much beyond a popular ballad?

Low-grade spirituality. Reminded me of what I wrote about another Nielsen artist, a protégé of John Walker, who now shows at Alpha. Her expressionist paintings of beaches at slack tide conveyed  the low-tide languor we experience when we visit beaches off season. If Berthot makes me hum “The Christmas Song” then her work got me humming  “Ebb Tide”. I called her Johnny Walker Lite.

Last night I went to a member’s opening at the Danforth Museum of another Nielsen artist,  Porfirio DiDonna, which purports to revive interest in an artist, whom they presume should have more recogniton than he is currently accorded.  He died in his mid- forties in 1986. Before his death he was able to develop a distinct style that also embodies the sort of yearning that I observed in Berthot’s work. According to the literature accompanying the show, he was a devout Catholic on a path to inner spiritual truth. His early work is put together out of minute dots that follow grids and are reminiscent of Agnes Martin. Each mark could be seen as the gesture of a believer denoting each Hail Mary with a flick of the rosary beads. There is a sense of marking time. The body of work that is ostensibly the most Catholic is put together with patterns and bands of warm colors that resemble at times chalices, or at other times elaborate priestly garb.  The marks that add up to these images/symbols remain independent as gestures of color on their own. Often they are S shapes, where the S gives a kind of thrust or purpose to the lines, a dance or flickering of the candle flame if you will. It is as though he deconstructed the images of the church in the way Hartley deconstructed the images from the life of his German soldier lover to create a pattern of love and relationship. In fact, from a grammatical point of view, DiDonna’s work seems deeply informed by Hartley. It is more gestural and the parts have an inner thrust to them that is reminiscent of deKooning or Pollock but in the end, if Agnes Martin

informs his early work, Hartley is all over the last work.

It is unfortunate that we will never know where DiDonna would have gone with his quest to know something beyond his physical self. Unfortunate, as well, in that the  gestalt of his last works seems earnest, yet, a lot like Berthot’s, rests on the level of inchoate emotions. There is too much feeling and not enough knowing. Or maybe ”not knowing”. I think that if there is a God his transcendence is so far beyond our physical reality or any cognitive act that we can perform, that if we were to get close to it, it would char our souls to a crisp. Spiritual guides often warn adepts of pursuing a search for God, as it is fraught with danger and numerous cul de sacs.

This show captures a creative climax, where everything holds together.There is the  spiritual glow conveyed by the  colors and his  gestures do take Hartley to a different linguistic space. But as a friend and artist said after reading Baker’s exegesis on DiDonna and recalling his work:

“About the shape of knowing:  I never understand why mysticism always takes the shape of monotonous centrality, soft edges, elegant curves, glowing light and color etc. etc. I like to think I'm reaching toward a kind of mysticism but through urgency, agitation, and explosiveness with an underlay of stillness.  It’s more how I sense the universe to be.”

Solid work, thoughtfully wrought, full of sincerity but I think in the end it leaves this viewer unconvinced of its greatness.  Maybe this was the first basic level to be uncovered in his spiritual journey.Greatness lay ahead of him, possibly.

Review of a recent show of his work at Elizabeth Harris.


  1. Martin
    Thoughtful and authentic response to the work. I find DiDonna's work endlessly satisfying as he works with line color and form...a centrality yes but also a constant ability to just alter or leave completeness undone in a way that moves me both as a painter and as someone looking for such places.

  2. Craig,
    Thank you for responding.I tried to see his painting as a work in progress that indeed pulled together to create an impressive body of work just before he died.If in fact he was on a spiritual quest then we have been denied what would have been further stages of insight and enlightenment.Reminds me of the premature death of Thomas Merton just as he was about to achieve a synthesis of Christianity and Buddhism.

  3. Here I want to praise passion for serious painting, so unknowable, yet summoned via Martin Mugar’s latest blog on the painting of a departed soul, named DiDonna. I was moved by Mugar’s own passion and want only to say that such cries of the heart need to be recognized as they occur, spontaneously, out of nowhere, out of simple love of what painting can inspire. We all try to say something we love, fear, and confront, but often we are muted. Why? Why, why, why? Let us not shut our mouths when we care so deeply for what a painting can say. God bless this holy blog, so uncommon in today’s writing about art. Chris Busa, www,

  4. I think that my less than charitable comments about Berthot would have been modified if I had recalled what I had said about Dickinson on Berkshire Fine Arts.He is really in the line of 19th c transcendentalist painters and should be seen as such.

  5. nice to stumble across the kind words of Chris Busa.He added to all the good things that Provincetown gave me from showing at the Rising Tide to the article Chris encouraged Rosanna Warren to write on my work in Provincetown arts and sadly the obit for Truro resident Addison Parks that in a way ended any connection with that wonderful town.