"They've taken 15 years off my life!" said painter Enrico Donati, 70, who remained good-humored, if baffled, at what had happened to his traveling retrospective which opened last Thursday at the Phillips Collection. His surrealistic works -- 15 years' worth -- were missing.
Donati, looking trim and chic in brown herringbone, had just arrived from his Central Park South studio in New York to celebrate the opening at the Phillips and another at the Osuna Gallery, 2121 P St. NW, where his newest paintings are on view.
Since he is best known as one of the refugee surrealists who worked in New York during World War II -- along with Max Ernst, Dali, Tanguy, Duchamp, Matta and others -- it may also baffle viewers that no paintings from this period are on view.
"We've never been much interested in surrealism here," explained a Phillips curator, sotto voce.
So the Milan-born, Paris-bred artist, a New Yorker since the late '30s, settled back to talk about his life and art without the help of the landmark paintings and 20 sculptures which remained unpacked in the Phillips basement.
"But you can say I am a surrealist -- which I was officially from 1941 until the movement ended with the death of founder Andre Breton in the '50s," said Donati. "Breton came to see my show at the New School for Social Research and declared, "You are one of us!" So he made me a member of the group. Of course, I was much younger and less serious. The others were giants."
Donati joined the daily luncheon group of painters at Larre's French restaurant on West 56th St. "It was our meeting place, and every day a table was set for us.
"So I began to show with Max Ernst, Tanguy, Dali and De Chirico -- every one an individualist who created a world of his own," Donati said, recalling with a chuckle that Dali was a member of the movement until Breton threw him out: "He had gotten into making money," Donati said. "He also threw out De Chirico when he became involved with Mussolini."
Donati became a close friend of Marcel Duchamp, and collaborated with him on many projects, best known among them being the cover for the famous "Surrealism in 1947" catalogue. "Marcel came to me with a plaster of a bosom, which he wanted attached to the cover, so I made an edition of 999 skin-colored foam-rubber bosoms. To give them the final touch, Marcel and I, together, hand-painted the 999 nipples. On the back cover it said "Prier de Toucher" -- Please Touch."
"After the movement ended, my images moved away from fluid, biomorphic shapes, and I want geometrical. There are none of those here either," he noted with growing dismay. "Then I got into textures, and that is where this show really begins.
"I just stumbled into vacuum-cleaner dirt by accident in 1945," said the urbane former lecturer at Yale, who does not look as if he has spent much time near dirt or vacuum cleaners. (Nor does his much younger blond wife.) "I found a way to make a paste of the stuff, applied it to canvas, and it became hard as a rock. Everyone went crazy. When I showed these works at Stable Gallery, Life sent a photographer."
Donati began working those dark surfaces, sometimes by scratching abstract hieroglyphics into them, later by adding color, often with an iridescent effect. Duchamp called them "Moonscapes." It is a mode in which Donati has continued to work until now, though he currently uses ground quartz instead of vacuum cleaner dust to get his stony, sandy surfaces.
Despite the surrealist mythology that surrounds his work, Donati makes strong, highly-textured, often very handsome, sometimes highly expressive abstract paintings.
The works from recent series called "Coptic Walls" and "Luxor" at Osuna are as good as any that he has done.
The show continues through Jan. 6.