Thinking afresh about his work, it more than stands the test of time. It is really wonderful for those who have not had the opportunity before to see some of the early works for the first time, alongside more recent work. In the States recently there was a museum show of his ‘disaster’ paintings organised by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which travelled to the Smithsonian in Washington among other destinations. Here in London we now have the chance to see one of his best ‘disaster’ paintings from the mid 1980s – Lines Down November 11, executed 1985. Presumably the subject was inspired by some natural disaster, perhaps the aftermath of one of many hurricanes that sweep through the East Coast of America. It does not really matter what incident inspired this work, however, as you immediately sense something bad has happened and you are immediately struck by the powerful diagonals of the composition (perhaps an echo of Franz Kline’s great black and white expressionist paintings) and the pitch-blackness of the industrial wreckage silhouetted against a pale acid yellow sky. Here is a painting with real ‘umph’.
It seems now that these disaster paintings from the ‘80s almost anticipate some of the awful things that have happened in the world we find ourselves living in today. As I write, the fire that engulfed Notre Dame has just been put out, bombs have destroyed churches in Columbo leaving charred wrecks, and gunfire has ruined lives in mosques in New Zealand. Without wishing to sound too portentous we seem to be living in an age of disasters – and the awful thing is that we have almost got used to it. It was as if the great wars, which brutalised lives in the past, have been replaced by disasters, natural and man-made. But the images which shock and horrify us today stay in the mind for a day to be replaced by something equally horrible tomorrow. Donald’s paintings, however, are there as a permanent record, a sort of modern momento mori for us to contemplate.
But it would be quite wrong to think of Donald as just a painter of disasters. He has far too vivid an imagination to be stuck with one subject. Away from the studio he strikes me as a bon viveur, even a flâneur, in the way Baudelaire admired the modern artists of his day. He enjoys a well-made handcrafted pair of shoes and a well-cooked entrecôte like the best of us. And this enjoyment of life, of talk, of hanging out with friends and shooting the breeze, is reflected also in his paintings of fruit and flowers, and I am glad to see that some of these are included in this exhibition. And this restless energy which I first noted in my essay of 1987, allied with a very strong work ethic, has allowed him to produce work in different mediums and different sizes over a long period but all realised with confidence, with discipline and an elegance which is hard to pin down but something like the elegance of a Japanese woodcut.
I hope this exhibition at Huxley-Parlour will kindle a new enthusiasm for Donald’s work. It has certainly rekindled mine. Ian Dunlop, April 2019