Italian born Enrico Donati, one of the last great American Surrealist painters, had a long fascination with surface and texture that included mixing his paint with sand, dust, coffee grounds and, at times, the contents of his vacuum cleaner, which he mixed with pigment and glue and slathered on his canvas. Bearing strong similarities in stylistic preferences to the work of Bernard Dubuffet, Donati was an integral part of the mélange of expatriate and American artists at the center of the post war New York art scene, having been introduced by the writer and "Father of Surrealism" André Breton to the likes of Ashile Gorky, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger and the American sculptor Alexander Calder. Duchamp became a particular friend of Donati. They collaborated on various projects, including the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme at the Maeght Gallery in Paris in 1947. They devised the exposition's program, decorating the cover of each copy with a foam rubber breast. Donati continued to transform his work throughout the course of his six decades long career. Donati would go on to embrace the Abstract Expressionist movement and exhibited with such major figures of the New York School as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.
Fossil Series 3001 BC is a strikingly successful composition from the series considered to be the pinnacle of Donati's mature style and career at large. The piece highlights Donati's exemplary ability to fuse color and texture: a stone-like organic mass surrounded by vivid fields of red and burnt orange dominates the canvas, their treatment imbuing the work with a sensibility both ancient and enigmatic. Mesmerized by a smooth round stone he found on a Dover Beach in 1949-later to be determined a fossil by Yves Tanguy-Donati was inwardly led to begin a number of works referred to as his Fossil Series. It was not until eleven years later, in 1960, that Donati finally tapped at the edges of the stone and opened it to reveal a fossil whose mysterious, archaic form bore an uncanny resemblance to the Surrealist imagery the artist had been envisioning in his mind's eye. As such, he developed a marked tendency toward simple, rigidly frontal compositions featuring two or three richly colored, sand-textured geometric forms of vaguely geological or archaeological origin. Some of these forms were plain, others were incised with what appeared to be ancient, partially eroded inscriptions, and others revealed what might be fossil fragments. With these simple, blatantly physical, and provocatively iconic images of mysterious and indeterminate ancestry, Donati finally and fully came into his own. The Fossil Series occupied Donati for the greater part of the 1960s, and he exhibited these works to critical acclaim at the Staempfli Gallery, from whence our example originates. Historian Theodore F. Wolff has documented Donati's theoretical statements on what would become his seminal body of work:
"Once again, I was in touch with the cycle of creation, destruction, and rebirth." Holding the halves of the stone in his hands, he understood finally the depth of the fossil's hold on him, and that it "had always been my true myth and metaphor, my guide from the very beginning of my career." Impelled to put his thoughts into more concrete form, he wrote: "There is a Latin word 'incubus' which I roughly describe in terms of a hammer which keeps tapping at your head… You become aware of the knock but not of its significance. In order to find the source you must connect and relate various clues and fleeting insights. My incubus developed from a fossil… The fossil has an incredibly animated inside form… and carries the whole cycle of creation within it. Nature has destroyed the life it once was and has reincarnated it in a new life that will have perpetual existence … To me, the fossil contains within itself all the mystery, power and indestructibility of life."
—Theodore F. Wolff
Staempfli Gallery, New York, NY (label verso)
Private Collection of Donald Weitzman, Sutton Place, New York, NY