Joseph Raffael: Random Thoughts and Painting Diaries

The renowned artist shares random thoughts, journals, correspondence, conversation excerpts and some photos, which he submitted to the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City for the catalog to his solo exhibition, which will run there in November and December 2009. Read more about the exhibition in the artist biography at the end of this article.

From Journal 3, October 2006

Listening to Pergolesi’s “La primavera (Spring) – Le rimembranze del vecchio” (“The memories/remembrances of the old man”)



As a child, being alone was my favorite way of passing each day.
In those beginning years, speaking little if at all, wide-eyed and open-hearted, I began experiencing Life’s mysteries, documenting the powerful silence within, while each day, drawing and coloring.
Inner experiences enriching the inner self who would be doing my paintings’ navigation for me years later. As a child I was alone drawing. To this day, I continue to pass my days alone—painting.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I never feel alone while I am painting. What I am—is solitary.

 

At left: Joey Raffaele in Cutchogue, New York, 1942


Painting gives life in the visual world to what had never existed before; the invisible takes form as a painting.
Each brushstroke, each layer of color gives birth to never-seen-before realities as a result of this Creative Act.
For most artists, writers and composers, the routine of working in the studio each day is a necessity. How else could the work emerge?

 

 


In his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman discusses how the acorn already has the oak tree encompassed in it. I sensed in the seeds of my youth how important “place” would be in my own life. I appreciated my father’s and maternal grandfather’s symbolic input as a traveler’s in search of the realization of the self. They had left Sicily to go to Sydney, Australia, and then turned westward to go to New York. My mother’s father left Switzerland for New York.

 

They planted in me the notion that one must make a long, courageous journey to arrive at one’s fulfillment. I was born in Brooklyn, lived in Manhattan, then lived in Marin County, California, before I finally moved to a foreign country—France. Moving across the sea to find “a new life” played a very important, even crucial, part in my life. My father, and his father gave me that gift, as did my mother’s father. Actually, it was a treasure, offering me a certain courage to enter new unknown territories. It may sound odd, but I feel this way each time I begin a new painting. Each time I’m confronted by the new white space of a painting, I feel like an immigrant, a foreigner entering an unknown country where new life is possible.


A lifetime’s habituation needs to be renegotiated, redrawn, transformed. Is this why we’re given these Life challenges over and over So we can redraft the maps?
I need to let it go, and, as they say, ‘Let God!’ Let Life unroll its parchment before my eyes for me to see anew, and—as though for the first time—view a fuller plan.

 

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Last evening watched a NYT’s interview/video with John Updike made three months before he died last week at 77 yrs of age.
His honesty charmed me. His smile. His modesty. I want to share it with Lannis. How one can be at the end of the road, even with advanced cancer, and be so cheerful and happy. Now he’s gone.
I am touched and saddened by his leaving. Also inspired and encouraged by his being.


The ptg went well yesterday. The vase.
Will work some more on the vessel today, and then perhaps can get it up on the wall.
I’ll be able to see it more fully, see where it is, and Lann can see it tmrw.

 

Couple Hrs Later
Finished, for now the vase. Looking good.
Now, I see that there are areas not yet ptd, that need to be, on the upper left of the ptg..
Will work on them now.

Sun, in and out today; it keeps wanting to come through. I wish it well.


At Yale I also discovered Botticelli’s drawings for Dante.
Yale also was a solitary time for me. I included Dylan Thomas’s “A Solitary Mister” in my graduate thesis—a large handmade book of calligraphy and leaf collages.
I was one solitary, and lonely mister. It was essential for the composting which would nourish my later “art tree’s” blossoming.

 


Our Brooklyn neighborhood was basically very middle class. Men went off to work in the morning to return in the evening, only to begin the whole ritual over again in the morning. Our house was on a Flatbush Street lined with very tall old trees. Early Saturday mornings I practiced the reverie of creation by skating alone along the Brooklyn Streets looking up at these trees. In that action I feel I became one somehow with nature, lost in its swirl. On winter nights, from my bedroom window I would see the snow flakes falling in the light of the street lamp or watch the shadows of the leafless trees projected along the darkened wall of my room as they swayed and crackled. The young artist in me absorbed all this visual psychic information.

 


As I consider how childhood affects the artist, I realize that, in fact, it was after my mother’s death, 3 Nov 47, when I was a freshman in high school, that I entered into a kind of deep seclusion and interiority, and began consciously making, for the first time, “paintings” as such. The first painting was one I did in that month of November, a few weeks after my mother’s passing. It was a gouache of an autumn forest. I recall I did it on a Friday evening in my room, which earlier had been the room in which my mother died. So a kind of ritual took place, a ceremony of sorts, during that grief period in which I became sure that I was to live my life as an artist.

 


Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas, were two Americans who moved to France and stayed there for the rest of their lives.
When I was at Yale their life appealed to me. Later, after I had graduated, I wrote a letter to Alice B. Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. She kindly answered me sending a beautiful card with a picturesque map of France on it.

 

In the same period more or less, while I as a young-beginning-artist on my own in NY, I saw Sean O’Casey’s autobiographical play I Knock at the Door and Pictures in the Doorway. The Playbill said he lived in Torquay, England.
So I wrote him a long letter. His piece had spoken of his love for his mother. I wrote him telling him of my appreciation of his work and of his love for his mother. I also spoke of my mother, dead then for about 7 years.
He wrote me back a long kind letter speaking of my “mother and all people’s mothers.”

I learned then to always answer those who write to me whom I don’t know.


At sixteen it was Tchaikovsky’s 6th later to be replaced by Prokofiev’s 5th, when I was 17. Listening to those records borrowed from the Bklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza Branch, listening to them on rainy, wind-blowing-trees days, their branches’ shadows choreographing on my bedroom’s walls.
The music, its Russian gravitas, connecting me to an inner, power-filled solidity of joy and love. Music—a bridge, a transformer, a soul-mine for me.

 

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23 January 2009

Chose Prokofiev’s 5th to listen to this rainy late-afternoon. Once more. All these years.
It brings me to the deepest parts of my being.
This music comes from that creative place where all life issues from. It connects me to all art and all artists of all time.

Joan Sherman Scott, my girlfriend in high school, asked my poet chum Stanley Nelson,
who knew about classical music, what to buy for me for my birthday, and he suggested this piece.

So I’ve had this “food” feeding my spirit for almost 60 yrs. The connection of all things.
It’s extraordinary to realize that he had written it only a few yrs before Joan had given it to me.


20 January 2009

 

I’m having such a fine time ptg this new ptg (Inauguration).
The ptg itself is so messy and blotchy and also soooo beautiful that I am in awe.
I’ve been saying I want the ptg to pt itself. It knows so much more than me. Et voilà, it is and it does.
Things appear I could never have come up with.
You know how snow falls? It’s like that.
Zillions of unrepeatable fallings. It feels like that.
The ptg is not only unrepeatable, it pours itself forth as does a newborn, and I recognize & see that it has a BIG, unique life within it, and ahead of it, just like a baby does.

Couldn’t wish for ptgs other than these at this crucial point in my life.


 

Above: Joe Raffaele standing in front of Cooper Union, l954

As life is happening it might seem to be by chance, but in retrospect it’s clear it’s all had its purpose. For example–three “school” events which altered my life forever.

At 17, I took two all-day exams to see if I would be among the 90 students chosen to attend Cooper Union School of Art on scholarships that coming year.
During the first day I grew discouraged, and during a break I told my high school pal who was also taking the test that I was giving up and going home.
He urged me to stay. I did. Good thing because I passed the exam and I was accepted.

In my final year, there was a Dean of Students, Ray Dowden, who offered me a fellowship to a summer program at Yale-Norfolk Art School in the Connecticut countryside.

The painter Bernard Chaet was teaching at Yale-Norfolk that summer. He was also on the faculty of the Yale School of Fine Art in New Haven. Chaet got me a scholarship to Yale for that fall.


Above: Joe Raffaele painting at Yale Norfolk Summer Art School, 1954

Those three events—the kindness and encouragement of these three people changed the course of my life as an artist and as a person forever.


Tears have come four times for me in looking at paintings in a museum setting. Each time I was surprised.The first time in Florence standing in front of Giotto’s Crucifixion. Then, later in London seeing a Piero della Francesca Nativity.
The third time, also in London, seeing a Van Gogh Postman. The energy from the ptg palpably traveling towards my body and entering it.
The fourth time in Paris a couple yrs ago seeing the large Bonnard retrospective.
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Painting has been for me the way to explore the exalting and profound mystery of being alive & here on this earth.

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My mother was a farmer’s daughter from the tip of Long Island. As a family, we lived in Brooklyn. It was WW II and we had a victory garden and flowers in the backyard. The garden meant something very deep to my mother. I helped her with it. More than anything else my own experience of the plant nature realm was influenced and inspired by my mother & that garden amidst its plants and the cherry tree. I, now 6 decades later, paint cherry tree blossoms from Lannis and my garden here in France. The Brooklyn garden is where I first witnessed the patterns of seasons, the dormant times, the flourishing times.

I think nature’s alchemy really affected me from those beginning garden times. Alchemy and magic in the sense of the wonder of watching buds come out of the earth. They weren’t there yesterday, but here they are today. Seeing blossoms come alive is the same as watching a painting come forth out of the white space of a page or a canvas. The garden is another example of how one begins with nothing but seeds and the brown colored space of the earth, from which, little by little, the garden emerges.

Also another gift my parents gave me were our summers on Long Island Sound in Peconic, N.Y. The house a stone’s throw away from the beach, where I could at an early age watch all by myself the water and the sky’s reflections on the water’s surface. My water paintings grew out of those soul-strengthening moments.

Also the skies and water at Peconic Bay where my mother, sisters and I would go and watch the sunsets over the Bay. We would just sit on the beach around a fire or in the car at the beach front at twilight watching the darkening sky change from its pink, magentas and oranges to its final indigo. I think of that windshield as though it were a picture frame. We were, in fact, looking at nature’s moving pictures, or of a painting’s subject slowly, slowly moving.

Then, later in the dark, around the beach fire, we would watch the stars appearing one by one. The sky and water were our works of art, the setting, our museum. Along that water’s edge I would muse about the water, dreaming upon its surface.


I was just thinking the other day of the time when I had received the Fulbright to paint in Europe in Florence. It would be there I would be altered forever by the works of Giotto, Fra Angelico, & Cimabue.

 

I was traveling with my friend Peter Hujar, at that time a young unknown photographer. We traveled to London and began visiting the museums of London, Amsterdam & Paris. At all those museums I had purchased postcards of paintings of bouquets of flowers. I must have collected at least 60 or so. Then, finding a small house on a hillside over looking the Arno River with Florence’s Duomo Cathedral visible from the studio’s window, we began doing our art. The house had a garden. Peter planted zinnias. Later, I painted them in an abstracted manner in large oils, and also made a handmade book with calligraphy of Ernst Juenger’s “On The Marble Cliffs.” It was illustrated by watercolors inspired by these zinnias.

Below: Joe Raffaele in Florence on Bellosguardo in front of an oil painting, 1955-6

Been thinking of Bellosguardo with its view of Belvedere and also of the Duomo. Both names specifically about seeing and beauty.
The first means beautiful glance. The second means to see beautifully or to see beauty. I think I’m right about the definitions. They’re more or less correct. Someone, at some point along the way, wrote, “Raffael’s ptgs are for those who are not afraid of beauty.”

Those beauty definitions are both about what this life as an artist has been for me—describing beauty and painting beauty over the years as I withdrew over and over from the world, so I could do my paintings like a monk in his cell does his prayers and meditation.

There, at 3 via Bellosguardo, the beautiful cupola of the Duomo Cathedral could be seen from my studio window. That studio, a small room I ptd in was like a monk’s cell.
Seeing the Duomo and living in that almost timeless time in Florence nourished, inspired and filled out a spiritual, metaphysical view of life, which I had had from the beginning.

That time living in Firenze really etched the road map for my life. Even Lannis’s and my home/studio here in Antibes is small and modest like that villino was, with the difference being the large garden and the view of the sea relatively nearby.

In other words, It’s all been on purpose. Nothing gone to waste, no matter what it was or what it felt like.


Now, 5 decades later, I am living and working in a small house overlooking the Mediterranean, and for the past year or so I’ve been painting mostly bouquets, flowers collected from Lannis’s and my garden here in Antibes.
How Life is all of a piece. One Life. Many spiraling, unfolding chapters.

 

I am ptg these new enormous works of bouquets, these crescendos, my heart and my art have brought me to. A friend writes me about these new works: “With these most recent works, something has broken loose and open and free and glorious.”

I feel that too. Their incandescence is reassuring. Their inevitability, surprising. Everything I’ve been saying these past yrs about letting the invisible become visible and getting out of the way to let the ptg pt itself. It’s been happening over and over. On its own. I’m just a witness to it.
I know these are crowning &—in their way— concluding works.


10:30 AM-Sunday 22 February, 2009, my 76th.

 

Birds done, Dogs walked, Soup made.
Glen Gould Goldberg.
Lannis in Paris.
Made some photos of flowers—bouquet Guido gave me yesterday.
Guido, gardener and can-do-all, a young Italian about 30 who lives in Italy,
and comes up here to la Côte to work.
A week or so ago when René, the gardener, brought him by to introduce him, I found myself watching Guido, hearing him speak,
and was unexpectedly moved, so much so, I could have cried, and even perhaps did, but the tears remained inside.
It was like some ancestor of mine had been brought to me at this twilight time.
Il giovane spkg to il vecchio.
Shades of an Italian memory from those who came before JR responding from their cellular-inside-me-Greco-Sicilian chorus.

This early AM, when Lannis was preparing to leave for her trip,
out of the corner of my eye I saw the new ptg unrolled on the table,
I found myself taking refuge & repose in the reds of the roses’ petals.
It is there in the ptg I shall seek safe haven during these days of inner-world travel as I stay here in the studio.

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Last evening watched a NYT’s interview/video with John Updike who died last week at 77 yrs old. The interview had taken place 3 months earlier in October.
His honesty charmed me. I want to share it with Lannis. How one can be at the end of the road, even with advanced cancer, & be so cheerful and upbeat.
Now he’s gone.
I am touched and saddened by his leaving. He had always felt an outsider, as did Wallace Stegner. As have I.
It was that being on the outside of the circle where the strength has had the space to roam and develop.

The ptg went well yesterday. The vase.
Will work some more on the vessel today, and then perhaps can get it up on the wall.
I’ll be able to see it more fully, see where it is, and Lann can see it tmrw.


Couple Hrs Later
Finished, for now the vase. Looking good.
Now I see that there are areas not yet ptd, that need to be, on the upper left of the ptg.
Will work on them now.

 

Sun in and out today; it keeps wanting to come through. I wish it well.

The new painting is quite something.
Not a struggle exactly. It’s more like
a wild sweet horse is in the studio
in the form of a work-in-progress.
The horse wishes not to be “broken,”
I too want him to know that I also
want its nature to be retained.
It’s just that I’d like it to come into
the enclosure of the painting’s borders,
as it would into a large,
what is it called, for a horse—
not a pen, not a stall, but outside,
oh yes, a corral—
so it might leave its imprint, its smell, its breaths,
its glances, its droppings, its horse-ness,
its “we are all of a one-ness”—
and then when its image, its beingness
will have been realized for the world
to see in the form of a painting,
when the trans-migration has taken place,
then the horse can go back into its own life
and continue onward anew,
and the just-born painting will start its life also.

Are artists aesthetic botanists,
catching with their nets a never-before-seen species,
then studying it, notating its uniquenesses?
Do we record what of its identity we are able to recognize and describe,
and then when the process is complete, we release for viewing
the results in the form of a particular work of art?
Perhaps this activity is what Life has made possible
for the Artist in his or her life to live and to know from—


I realize now that this form of random jottings in the above for this catalogue piece is not dissimilar to the way I paint—all these disparate parts coming forward, going backwards, each appearing and surprising its surrounding partners, these myriad events appearing, just like in Life. And just like in Life always making a “whole.”

 

© Joseph Raffael 2009


Joseph Raffael launched his first exhibition in 1963 and has since exhibited often and widely. He’s been the recipient of many awards and prizes and was the subject of Reflections of Nature by Donald Kuspit and Amei Wallach (Abbeville Press, 1998). His work can be seen in many of the nation’s finest museums, as well as the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York (www.nancyhoffmangallery.com), where his solo exhibition will run in November and December of 2009. The exhibition will also visit the Arvada Art Center in Denver, Colorado; the Fort Collins Museum in Fort Collins, Colorado; and the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio. Visit www.josephraffael.com for more details and to see videos of the artist at work, plus a gallery of works in progress.

 

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