This is such a simple story in so many ways, and the drawings and paintings tell it so well. Porfirio DiDonna lived and died. He had parents who brought him up close, and he stayed close. He drew and painted. He said what he had to say with marks and shades and colors, and he put it down with touch and with something more than confidence. Something more like pre-knowledge, if it exists. Something like faith. And he was awake to it all. Love, light, god, joy, darkness, evil, pain, the physical, the musical, the mystical, dreams, smells, the building, the garden, the road, the home. The paintings tell his story, and how could it be any other way. If you find these paintings, they will find you.
First of all, the seventies were Porfirio DiDonna's complete decade, the fulcrum at the middle of his life's work. In the late sixties he studied at Pratt, and then Columbia. In the eighties he achieved his mature style, but died in August of '86. In the seventies he experienced a complete decade of style, and explored it from one end to the other. This was the period of his dot paintings. It is a body of work that holds together like a train of box cars.
It was all there in the Seventies in the drawings. All of the shapes and the marks. They were the language of signs which would later shape his expression; hammer, lift, and illuminate. And what appeared as openness in dot paintings, and was born in the drawings, slowly became realized in the new work. Something also new in the work was a sense of struggle, something which was natural in his student work, but sublimated by the formula of the dot paintings.
Porfirio DiDonna was born in Brooklyn in 1942, and grew up there, living at home with his parents until he was thirty-five. That is unusual in this country. He had brothers and sisters, and in an apparently quiet and uncompetitive way, he was something of the chosen one. He had a very close and loving relationship with his mother which seemingly nurtured him completely. At thirty-five he moved to Manhattan, but stayed close to home. At the age of thirty-eight, in 1981, he made a trip to Italy. His mother gave him foundation, support, and religion. Italy gave him space, color, and light. When you look at his drawings you can see that this was not a person searching for connection, reacting in confusion, striving to prove something. This was a person fulfilling a vision with the rapid fire of dominoes falling. The hunger for marks evident in the drawings tells you he was on to the next drawing while the last one was still faint from the fury of fusion. He had roots like the rock to give him the kind of freedom to serve his vision. Freedom we pick up on and appreciate so much in the drawings.
There is something familiar about this work. The generosity and openness is a big part of that; it also creates a dialogue which talks and listens. We can do the same. These final works extend a hand so gently that we can hardly refuse it. It is so firm and steady that we take it.
The final works exploded onto paper and canvas in 1985, just before something exploded in his brain. They possess that intensity of almost unbearable proportion. The less gentle ones have colors and edges which can cut us open and burn into us. There are images of love, and then ones of almost possessed vision, pressing evangelical action. The chalice and the sword. Which is it? Are we the guest or the meal?
Certain paintings are clearly the chalice. They bear us love. One is the red and green radiant vitality of the garden. The centered shape becomes the tree of life. A trunk we can put our arms around. It is also the male shape, and equally the female shape, but then, which is it really? Another becomes more the fresco. Shadows washed with light. A cup on an altar. A roman freeze. Blood and redemption. Hope and the light green sea.
Other images, however, are the sword; sometimes feverishly so. All cut out. The hard edges of stained glass or patchwork cloth. They cut. Take this sword. More blood than wine. Male. Vertical. Swift justice. Fiery vision. Glory. Irrational image in a rational suit. The next is more benign. The sword divides the canvas. Fire on the left. Green earth on the right. Three pink windows perforate the sword. It is the sword put to rest. These last paintings are all roughly life size and vertical. Doorways. Their brush marks have spring in them, carrying lightness and darkness, color and feeling. They dabble, and dapple; shimmer and sparkle; march and marry. They swim in the canals created by DiDonna's curving lines, steering left and right, and sometimes flooding the painting. When they join together and offer the chalice, we cannot refuse them; the sword, and we tend to shy away.
One of his very last paintings says it best. It is a lightish brown vertical vessel with those sweet fast curving lines containing each side. Around it are thumb-sized flecks of blues and browns and ochres clustering and dispersing, space and light. The form is suspended in the center, hovering closer to the top, as though levitating. It is looking at us. It is him. It is her. Christ and earth mother. Buddha and angel. Self and selflessness. It is tree, fish, bird. All things. It is us. There are those who believe Porfirio DiDonna said what he had to say before he died. If it is possible, I would have to agree. Porfirio DiDonna had arrived.