In graduate school, teachers told artist Gerald Donato, "If you could only paint like you can draw." It spurred the printmaker to teach himself to paint.
As a key member of the newly hired faculty for Richmond Professional Institute's transition to Virginia Commonwealth University, Donato spent 38 years teaching while always carving out time to paint.
"Donato: Fresh," the first retrospective exhibition since the artist's death in 2010, is curated by his longtime friend and art buddy, Paul Monroe, a retired physician and extensive art collector.
Donato's wife, artist Joan Gaustad, says her husband was inexhaustible when it came to looking at art.
"He always said you had to look at the bad as well as the good," she recalls his saying during their years living in a Bowery loft in New York, where Donato would paint all night, his only goal being to get to bed before the roosters in the nearby chicken hatchery began crowing.
After sleeping until midafternoon, they'd traipse around the newly emerging Soho gallery scene. "He never wanted to look at art with anyone but me until he met Paul," she adds.
Monroe's relationship with Donato encompassed traveling to museums, art fairs and New York accompanied by Gaustad, who says just listening to their interactions at yearly Armory shows was an education. Driven by a shared obsession for the bizarre and unexplainable, the trio sought out unexplored aspects of the art world.
In digging through Gaustad's basement to determine which pieces to include, Monroe was struck by the subtle but decided shift to abstraction in the artist's work as the '90s took hold. This transition is illuminated with one side of the gallery showing his work from the '80s and the adjacent gallery showing paintings spanning the '90s to the early part of the 21st century.
"The '90s work is much more difficult to get your head around," Monroe says. "The mystery of it makes you keep coming back. Now, 'Boy and Bird' — that's the one that really got me."
With doors subbing for canvas, Donato used acrylic and house paint — bought from the markdown bin at Lowe's — for the mostly black and white work. It shows a two-sided figure resembling the comic character Dagwood emerging like a Rorschach test image. The only other colors are orange, found in crescent-shaped cutouts revealing the door's interior, and a framelike square where the paint was scraped away to reveal the door's wood grain.
Excited about finishing the painting on the first day of a new year, Donato bounded upstairs to find his wife reading Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "Man-Moth," which she proceeded to describe to him in all its disorienting glory. She recalls him saying, "That's the painting I just did!" and to this day, she refers to it as Man-Moth rather than "Boy and Bird."
Gaustad often was Donato's subject, as in the case of "Girl in Water," a black-and-white gesso painted while on vacation in Avon, North Carolina. "Untitled (Paris)" is part of a monotype series done in their Parisian atelier while on vacation, while "After Tuscany" refers to time spent in Italy.
"Jerry was always making art," Gaustad recalls. "At our beach house in Hatteras, he used the bedroom as a spraying booth. When we lived in an old boxing arena in Brooklyn with lots of space to paint, we had our bed in a loft above so we could look down on what we were working on."
The show is especially meaningful to her because sales benefit the VCU School of the Arts Donato Prize in sculpture and painting, an endowment she's seeking to increase to assist passionate artists like her husband.
Monroe calls him a painter's painter who "painted to paint," making him a role model to students. "When people used to ask him why he painted certain things, he'd say it was because he wanted to see the things that moved him. He just wanted to rock his own world." S
"Donato: Fresh" runs through May 26 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., 355-6553.