By MARK BLOCH, May 2020
The gifted and fascinating Brooklyn-based artist Rafael Leonardo Black (1949-2020) died on Friday, May 16, 2020, from complications of the Corona virus in the New-York Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. He was 71 years old and showed at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art.
“Ray departed from his body after a valiant fight that including being on a ventilator,” said Tej Hazarika, a close friend and advisor. “His heart failed. He had been in the hospital over a month for other problems but contracted Covid-19 once inside.”
Black was given his first one-person exhibition at age 64 in an exhibition called “Insider Art” at Francis M. Naumann’s 57th Street gallery in 2013, where visitors were offered a magnifying glass to examine the intricacy and complexity of his drawings. But Mr. Hazarika recalls, “Ray never used a magnifying glass to make his miniature drawings or paintings. He used lead pencils that he kept sharpened with an exacto knife.” Holland Cotter of The New York Times remembered that the work “stays in the mind long after you’ve left the gallery.” Then, in a follow-up article for the Times, Jim Dwyer visited Black’s small one-room apartment in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hills section and described him as “a hermit,” and “a monk,” where, “for more than three decades, Mr. Black, 64, has made a portal to the world in dense, miniature renderings of ancient myth and modern figures.”
“He was a soft spoken, gentle soul,” noted his dealer Francis Naumann, “not interested in fame or fortune, exceedingly rare traits for any artist these days.”
Indeed. Just three months ago I dedicated several paragraphs to the intelligent, enchanting Raphael Black in an article about Naumann’s final gallery show. Paraphrasing, I wrote, “Please indulge me while I talk about Rafael Leonardo Black’s work, a combination of dozens of tiny images, which is Mr. Black’s specialty. His small but remarkable drawing stacks up images of seemingly unrelated things. I counted 57 miniature figurative pencil drawings on gesso board revealed in succession as my eyes descended from the top down… Quite a Surrealistic work in its own right.”
That pretty much sums up what Rafael Leonardo Black produced but the loss of Mr. Black adds up to so much more than that. A second paragraph about the late artist’s work in Naumann’s last exhibition explained, “In order to learn more about his complicated image, I made a phone call to him one recent Sunday afternoon. I had one quick question to ask him about his complex work in pencil but he talked about it for 49 minutes, during which I made 7 pages of notes, scribbling as fast as I could, as he talked about the dozens of references in the small drawing .”
Then I added, “That was before I told him as politely as I could that I had to hang up due to a prior commitment. I would have liked to listen to him for another hour.” It is an absolutely true story and even more poignant now that he is gone, because unfortunately that was the last time I spoke to Raphael, who was known to friends as Ray.
Mr. Naumann observed in an interview that appeared in the catalog for his show, “I see a strong correlation between the way you write a poem and the way in which you create an image. In the poem you wrote for John Lennon, for example, there are snatches from the lyrics of John Lennon, interwoven with your own words. You seem to do the same thing when composing a picture… various artists… Juan Gris, Miró, whatever… all (are) used to tell another story, your story.”
Black was born on January 6, 1949, in Aruba, the small island colony in the Southern Caribbean that belongs to the Netherlands. He moved to the United States in 1966 at the age of 17, living with his older sister Linda Hodge, who was like a mother to him. He was a voracious reader and, besides English, read and spoke Dutch, French and Spanish. He first started drawing as a child, displaying an innate proficiency as a draftsman. He frequented all the major museums in New York as a youngster, “the Museum of Modern Art… the Frick, which blew my mind, the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim. I would go every Saturday morning… the Met.”
About his childhood Black explained to Mr. Naumann, “Every night when I came home from school I would finish my homework and then make a psychedelic poster. They’re all gone and lost now…. I’d make them up with bands I liked… with Alfred Roller lettering,” he said, referring to the Viennese Secession painter, graphic designer, and set designer. The influence was apparent in his work. It mingled with a wide range of psychedelic and high art sources.
“While still in high school, I was drawn to the scene in Greenwich Village. At one point, I came across Crawdaddy…a precursor to Rolling Stone. …I just went down one day and started hanging out. …they invited me to illustrate a review of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced.”
Black attended Columbia University, but dropped out in 1971, his senior year, immersed in the counterculture of the day. He was attracted to the rock‘n’roll scene, particularly Hendrix, whom he had seen perform at small clubs in Manhattan before he became famous in England. Black’s Crawdaddy designs in black and white, linear and precise, were a technique he carried to sixteen highly intricate drawings on panel that he would execute over the course of the next thirty years with imagery drawn from Symbolist and Surrealist sources, and posters and personalities from the 1960s and 70s. Black also fused a keen interest in ancient and modern mythology to trace African roots in the Americas and explore various aspects of African American culture in these works.
“I can’t really tell someone who looks at my pictures and who doesn’t want to know anything more about them that they can’t like them,” Black said. But his drawings are so intricate that the catalogue Naumann created for him contained annotated schematic diagrams to illuminate the sources and the connections between the many arcane but powerful elements in his work. Naumann explained, “Most outsider artists work completely independent of the Western European tradition of painting, but your work, by contrast, relies entirely upon it.” That is the concept that led to the title of Black’s only one man show, “Insider Art.”
Throughout his life, Black remained friends with two fellow students at Columbia. One, John Taylor gave the titles to his work. The other, Tej Hazarika, the publisher of Coolgrove Press, who served as his Black’s agent, called one color work, an oil painting called On the Case, “the precursor to all of the works that appeared in his ‘Insider Art’ show.”
Black explained, “Mumbo Jumbo is the title of a book written by Ishmael Reed that was published in 1971. He founded the East Village Other. He was a good friend of Charlie Parker, Larry Rivers, the downtown crowd. It’s about how jazz and the general African-American arts in the 1920s made inroads into breaking up that “atonic” way of looking at the world…where you can have only one opinion about anything…It could be described as a psychic history of the United States, written by a brilliant black man.
“It was also the time of Watergate. A young man, an African-American security guard, was the guy who discovered the break-in. So that was the idea behind On the Case, which shows Ishmael Reed next to Frank Wills, the man who discovered the Watergate break-in, both ‘Revelators,’ to use a term taken from the blues. Hence, the presence of the twins,” Black explained, referring to two saints, “Cosmas and Damian.” That was the way Raphael Leonardo Black spoke. He was very knowledgable about esoteric topics in many categories.
To ulimately convey what it was like to converse with Raphael Leonardo Black, I will relay this story about our tragically brief friendship. When I heard how enamored Ray was with the history of rock‘n’roll and psychedelia, I could not resist asking him in passing if he was familiar with one of my passions, the dada-influenced ‘60s band The Soft Machine and some other relatively obscure but directly-related musicians who collectively hailed from their environs of Canterbury Kent, England. Not only had Ray heard of them, his eyes grew distant but triumphant as he began to spew out many detailed factoids about their albums, songs, appearances and personnel, some of which I, a well-informed, self-professed scholar of the genre, did not know or had forgotten. He seemed to recall them at will as if he had this information ready at his disposal, stored away in his inner wunderkammer, a Rainman-like database of his favorite information and cabinet of curiosities. Then, as if that was not enough, he reached for his Insider Art catalogue and showed me the page with his tri-panelled work Homerica, about the events leading up to the Trojan War and Odysseus’ amazing journey back to his wife Penelope and their son Telemachus, all delineated in a particular collection of Rolling Stones songs and sprinkled with Marcel Duchamp and André Breton references. He then pointed matter-of-factly to the middle of the left third of the three part tale where I saw “The Soft Machine Turns On, by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (1967) for the Jazz-Rock Trio The Soft Machine, the girl in the poster taken from a design by Alphonse Mucha, in her Salammbô costume, (with) a Dickensian dreamer at her elbow.” I wasn't sure exactly what it meant but I was smart enough to know I was talking to someone very special—at least as interesting as any of my favorite ‘60s musical ensembles or colorful Modernist historical figures of choice. Rafael Leonardo Black was the real deal.
Black was predeceased by two older sisters, and is survived by Jean and Rose Murphy, his nephew and wife, both residents of Burlington, New Jersey. The catalog of his work was called “Rafael Leonardo Black: Insider Art,” published by Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, LLC. The show took place April 12 - May 24, 2013. Mr. Naumann who closed his gallery last month and Mr. Hazarika, of Coolgrove Press are handling any inquiries. “The world he drew and painted was an enchanted space not far from real life yet his work evoked a timeless zone full of ecstatic sound and vision,” Hazarika said. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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