Friday, September 20, 2013


"...John Baker follows Porfirio DiDonna step for step, mark for mark, taking us on a journey of form and meaning like nothing we've ever experienced."

John Baker at the DiDonna retrospective at the Danforth Museum, 2013

When John Baker talks about art he gets a light in his eyes; when he talks about the art of Porfirio DiDonna that light gets brighter. In THE SHAPE OF KNOWING, his triumphant new book about Porfirio DiDonna, the effect of his quietly considered articulation is positively holographic. To commemorate this achievement Katherine French and the Danforth Museum are generously putting on a DiDonna retrospective, PORFIRIO DIDONNA: A PAINTER'S JOURNEY(September 8th to November 3rd). The book and the exhibition are an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary artist. The real truth, however, is significantly greater.

Porfirio DiDonna: A Painter's Journey at the Danforth Museum

You could say that what Porfirio DiDonna means to John Baker is everything, that Porfirio DiDonna's touch and wisdom and love and presence and spirit are inextricably intertwined with every aspect of John Baker's life. DiDonna was not just a  dear friend and artist whose work Baker handled as a gallery director and dealer. John Baker's journey as an art lover first set sail in the glow of DiDonna's work on a visit to the OK Harris Gallery back in 1978, igniting a passion that on top of that soon inspired him to sit down and write about the work. Baker cut his teeth as an art writer on Porfirio DiDonna's work. It is by no means a stretch to say that DiDonna made a writer of John Baker, made him the great writer he is: from reviews in ARTS Magazine, to catalog essays as director of the Nielsen Gallery, to the 10 year climb that became The Shape of Knowing. 

John Baker and Nina Nielsen

For over 30 years John Baker and his wife, Nina Nielsen, have championed DiDonna's work together as Boston art dealers. You could say his work brought them together. You could even say that it has kept them together. The depth of their affection for DiDonna has only deepened their affection for each other. It is palpable. It has been their shared passion. Their shared mission. Their glue. On so many levels. 

John Baker and Nina Nielsen

Porfirio DiDonna was a profoundly spiritual and religious artist. There is no question that his faith has helped them shape their own faith. His vision to become their vision. His unshakable belief to become a belief that they could not shake.

Untitled (For My Mother, 1984) and Buttress(1982), 

Porfirio DiDonna: A Painter's Journey; The Danforth Museum

Since DiDonna passed away in 1986, Baker and Nielsen have devoted themselves to bringing DiDonna's gift to the world. Throughout it all they have consistently delivered the most powerful art experience in New England from their gallery on Newbury Street in Boston, showing the work of legendary artists like Jackson Pollock, Marsden Hartley, Joan Snyder, John Walker, Milton Resnick, Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen, Gregory Gillespie, Jake Berthot, Bill Jensen, Katherine Porter, Gregory Amenoff and so on. The list goes on. And at the center of it all all along has been Porfirio DiDonna, and The Shape of Knowing is the culmination of that dream. And this Danforth retrospective is a wonderful companion to that dream. Together they bring Porfirio DiDonna's vision and their own one step closer. John Baker and Nina Nielsen will tell you that this is still just the beginning. They want the world to know what it is missing. They want the world to know the Porfirio DiDonna they know to be one of the great artists of the 20th Century. They have bet their careers on it. They have bet their lives on it.

Porfirio DiDonna: A Painter's Journey; The Danforth Museum

Porfirio DiDonna: A Painter's Journey; The Danforth Museum

Of course the Danforth can only map out comparatively modestly what the book accomplishes in great detail and on a grand scale. But the results are surprising and fortune smiles on us in this show. Upon entering the museum we are wowed with a suite of the late paintings, large ones, that sweep across the space and capture our attention in a dizzying display of what can only be described as painterly pyrotechnics. Boom boom boom boom boom! On the panorama of the expansive curving back wall of the central gallery each painting like dominoes plays out the explosive climax of Porfirio DiDonna's vision for life and art and the divine. It redefines awesome. It is at once the stained glass of Notre Dame, the mosaics of Hagia Sophia, the Parthenon, the flags of the Palio di Siena, all in powerful, radiant, lucid, magnetic, rapid fire oil paint. Call them part vessel, part icon, part doorway to another world.

Porfirio DiDonna; 1985

Porfirio DiDonna; 1985

Porfirio DiDonna; 1985

Porfirio DiDonna; Naples (1985)

If The Shape of Knowing is a journey guided by the sure hand of John Baker, then so is this exhibition. Pay attention. Every view tells a story, and there are lots of them. Each body of work, each phase, each transition, unfolds once we recover from the initial tsunami that is the last works. 

Porfirio DiDonna; 1971

Porfirio DiDonna; 1971

Porfirio DiDonna; 1975; 

There are of course the early dot paintings, which were what first caught Baker's eye so long ago. These mysterious works dazzle as they draw us into a contemplative trance of math and music and the cosmos. They literally seem to add up, promising secrets that will unlock the universe. 

Porfirio DiDonna; 1984

Porfirio DiDonna; 1985

There are also what he called "the roads," beautiful vertical arabesques that at once free and delineate space.These works evoke the garden, the country, the nurturing embrace of nature.

Porfirio DiDonna: Works on paper at the Danforth

The outer gallery to the left and right acts as a passageway through the natural history of Porfirio DiDonna. It is a timeline of works on paper. If the central gallery is the Grand Canyon, majestic paintings viewed from a distance, this is the butterfly exhibit where the viewer gets up close, a peek inside the mind of the artist. Sketches and drawings and watercolors form an art gumshoe's paradise, providing endless hours and avenues of clues to the genius and vision of this artist.

Porfirio DiDonna: A Painter's Journey; The Danforth Museum

Thanks to John Baker and Nina Nielsen so many of us in the Boston area over the years have had the pleasure of witnessing the beautiful  and uplifting work of Porfirio DiDonna. Thanks to them we have been on this journey too. Thanks to them we have shared one of the great and wonderful art world romances.

Porfirio DiDonna; 1982

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, 2013

F Meyer photo of DiDonna c. 1981

Danforth Museum at:
Nielsen Gallery at:
Pressed Wafer; Publisher of The Shape of Knowing :
Porfirio DiDonna: Into the Garden; Cover article ARTS Magazine 1989:

Saturday, September 07, 2013


What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nina NielsenNIGER (2013); 20 x 16 inches; oil and sand on canvas

Nina Nielsen has sand. She takes it from her summers on Nantucket and puts it in her paintings. It grounds her. It grounds her work.

Nina Nielsen;VOLGA (2012-2013); 24 x 18 inches; oil and sand on canvas

Since July 29th the Gleason Library in Carlisle, Massachusetts has been happily hanging an exhibit of Nina Nielsen's canvasses within the library space. The Gleason doesn't have a dedicated gallery space, instead hanging pieces throughout the various exhibition opportunities that the library affords.  It is better this way, creating an integrated experience. Sometimes the paintings come out and greet the visitor in an open  and surround viewing space, other times they hold a post, and still other times they surprise us among the stacks. Uncanny how these paintings do the impossible in this space; they bring the magic and mystery and spirit of their personal vision to bear. Amazing! They actually tune in to and fine tune the Gleason. They have that kind of strength of aura; they inhabit the library! 

Nina Nielsen; SHROUD (2012-2013); 24 x 20 inches; oil and sand on canvas

The paintings individually are in full possession of themselves. They stand on their own two feet, with a heartbeat and a soul and a brain waving at us! They have that sense of themselves; that command of their own ship, their own destiny; their own sphere of influence. Each one different, each one a surprise. These are modestly sized canvasses, rarely bigger than a bread box, with what appears to be no more than a few colors, but they surprise with a great deal of color and they play remarkably large, larger than life. 

Nina Nielsen; COUPLER (2010-2013); 24x18inches; oil and sand on canvas

These paintings make a lot of noise too, a lot of sound, a lot of music! You can hear the wind blow or the night howl. One just makes a clicking sound. Another rustles in the breeze. One makes the sound of morning sun. They have that kind of texture; that kind of center.

Nina Nielsen; SANCTUM (2011-2012); 20x16inches; oil and sand on canvas

For more than four decades, from the 1960s to the 2000s,  Nina Nielsen's gallery on Newbury Street in Boston was the warmest, most intense, most powerful and inspirational art experience north of Manhattan. It was nothing short of a beacon, hands down the one art oasis for anyone who loved painting. The artists' works she showed were the company she kept. Her gallery was their home and the rest of us fortunate enough to cross that threshold considered it a home away from home. 

Nina Nielsen; VEIL (2010-2012); 30x24inches; oil and sand on canvas

It is almost impossible to not feel the presence of these other artists in Nina Nielsen's paintings. They pull up a chair, sprawl out on a sofa, poke around in the refrigerator, or just pace the room. There's Porfirio DiDonna of course, John Walker, Joan Snyder, Bill Jensen, Jake Berthot, and Sam Messer, just to name a few. Messer is noisy, Walker fatherly, Jensen grounded, Snyder steely, Berthot attentive, and DiDonna soulful. Interestingly enough the artist with whom she shares the truest kindred spirit is Forrest Bess.The sound aspect is only the first clue. He is her real soulmate! Her artist/spirit/friend/companion/guide. Like Bess, Nielsen shares that knowledge that painting is so much more than a picture, that it can do anything, even heal!

Nina NielsenTEMPLAR (2011-2013); 24x18 inches; oil and sand on canvas

Suffice it to say that there is an "of"ness and "is"ness thing going on in all of painting all of the time. It is a very fine line. Painters tend to lean one way or the other. Nothing wrong with that. Nielsen and Bess share the same ground, or same sand(Bess lived in a converted boat on the Gulf of Mexico), of "is." Being there. A painting that "is" something more than "of" something. And just what the "is" is, is what it is all about. And what that is, is what inhabits the space.  Penetrates the space. The space in the library, the space in the paintings. 

That these paintings tend toward abstraction isn't always relevant. Paradoxically her paintings have that light out of darkness experience because what we get is something that makes an appearance for the painting, something we have never seen before and will never see again, like that exotic flower in the jungle that only blooms every one thousand years when the planets are just so. Yes, they are still about something too. But don't try to put a finger on it. Be happy for its presence. Be happy for the moment.

Nina Nielsen; BRANCH (2010); 24 x 18; oil and sand on canvas

This is the paradox again. The artist works so hard to capture that thing that can't be captured, for themselves, for us. Nina Nielsen freezes that moment,  stills something as elusive or impossible as a unicorn for us to marvel at, to see, to know, to be with. To believe in.

For this reason the paintings are not compositions per se. They don't need to be. They are not about composition in the conventional sense. There is no time for that. There is only time for something else. Something much more important.  It is more about placement and energy, not dynamic form as much as dynamic spirit. And even though they are centered they are not quite centered. Maybe about tension or maybe just lucky to get these inspirations, these muses, in the frame at all. Everything moves. We will never be here again.

Nina NielsenCALIPH (2011-2012); 28x22inches; oil and sand on canvas

If there is one message to be had, it is that life is for the living. Places to go, places to be, places to be still.

The texture is part of the magic of these paintings. The sand in the paint acts as a frame to keep the it of the painting in place. Each grain of sand acts as a place holder of sorts. A nod to the accident and the random and the chaos, maybe, or maybe to some larger order. It is a loose net to keep the "it" still for a split second, long enough to allow that moment to, in effect, last forever.  There is no getting around what sand does and doesn't bring to the table. Sand is a ground, but a ground that shifts and blows in the wind. From Tibet to the Navajo Nation. And it evokes time. Pyramids were built on the sand and swallowed by it.

As a result what we have are figure/grounds. Almost portraits. More Frans Hals than Rembrandt as they are the moment and not the held pose.  Although who knows, maybe they are. Maybe muses pose like unicorns for Nielsen in her garden. Maybe epiphanies like butterflies only take breaks to stretch their wings. 

Nina NielsenTANG (2011-2013); 24 x 18 inches; oil and sand on canvas

A painting like "Tang" falls to one side. It is curious indeed. It seems as curious about us as we are about it.  A sphere like a moon rises or peers from behind a shape like a rock or an island on a ground like a sea of iridescent yellow green on black. Like so many of these paintings, it looks back at us. Curiouser and curiouser. Nielsen's curiosity becomes contagious. The lengths that her curiosity takes her to are our gain.  We are honored by them. Of course such is the nature of art,  just as we are honored by nature, by love, and by life. We just have to never forget it, and these paintings are something of a stark reminder.

Yes, these paintings can sometimes be stark. Like that spit of land out in the ocean where their sand hails from. Yankee. Tough, resolute, self-reliant.  Only just a little more Thoreau than Emerson. Private. Fiercely independent. Fierce in their solitude. But radiant. Gone their own way, and tenacious, even almost defiant, when they choose their ground.

Again the paradox. Not for quitters. Ephemeral and invisible and yet solid as a rock. These paintings are all of that. A metaphor for painting itself. Nothing if not conviction. Made of not much more than belief, and a belief that cannot just move mountains, but be mountains. Nina Nielsen is that mystic shaman. She makes transformative magic and powerful medicine  from a little pigment, binder, and sand. 

Nina NielsenJUTTA (2010); 24x20 inches; oil and sand on canvas

And way over on the other side a painting like "Jutta" has more literal and recognizable elements. A figure holds a red niche, or the other way around. The niche is architecture. It is also a sign. It houses the figure, frames the figure, protects the figure, isolates and insulates the figure, and gives it proportion and place. 

It is also the Greek letter Pi, the transcendental number, that never stands still. The image is strangely benign, but haunting, like so many of the paintings. Like some ancient culture staring back at us through time. Spirit guide. Life takes sand. Nina Nielsen's got it.

Nina NielsenCALEDONIA (2011-2013); 30x24 inches; oil and sand on canvas

Addison Parks
Spring Hill, September 2013

Nina Nielsen's show at the Gleason Library in Carlisle, Ma runs from July 29th thru October 25th; reception on Saturday September 14 at 1:00.