“In this case, being beautiful is enough”
Joseph Raffael’s ravishing watercolors
Review by Kyle MacMillan
Denver Post Fine Arts Critic
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"Nature Never Left: Joseph Raffael's Watercolors"
Art New England, February-March 2006
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"The Transformation of Vision - The Mysterious Brilliance of Joseph Raffael"
NYArts Magazine - July 2002
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The New York Times,
May 10, 2002
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"A monograph worthy of it's subjects"
April 25, 2002
Grady Harp, California
(Amazon Top 500 Reviewer)
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"Joseph Raffael - Monumental Watercolors" - NYREVIEW.COM
The critical state of visual art
in New York - February 15, 2001
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JOSEPH RAFFAEL, Nancy Hoffman Gallery,
429 West Broadway (212) - 966-6676 (through May 29)

A Pre-Raphaelite for the 21st century, Mr. Raffael continues to produce gorgeous, technically ambitious, un- abashedly romantic watercolors. Painted in a mix of squiggly line and patches of jewel-like color, images of overgrown gardens or gold- fish in a shimmering pool have the incandes- cent luminosity of Tiffany stained glass win dows (Johnson)

Grady Harp, California (Amazon Top 500 Reviewer)

REFLECTIONS OF NATURE: Paintings of Joseph Raffael is one of the most elegant monographs on a practicing artist I have had the pleasure of reading. Yes, "reading" is an operative word here. Too often artist monographs are coffee table picture books, lush and lovely to look at, enlightening as to a chronologial path of achievement, and even historically relevant - solely on the basis of the images: the written essays are seldom read and if they are read, they are merely perused. Such is not the case with this warmly informative and evocative collection of the works of this fine realist painter. Authors Amei Wallach and Donald Kuspit write with courage about techniques (use of the photograph as the springboard, method of appropriation form the photo image to the paper or canvas, etc) that would frighten most of our painters today, so revealing of secrets and methods publically scorned as "copying" or NOT "representational". But the real coups in this valuable volume is having the artist talk us through not only his techniques, but is personal history and vulnerabilites. As for the paintings, there are splendid reproductions of those paintings we all know and love (koi, water, water lilies, flowers) but there are also many examples of Raffael's wildlife images, spiritual images, and those of his wife Lannis seeming to metamorphose out of her garden. This book is a fine standard for future art books that stirve to inform as well as document an artist's work. Even if you don't know Raffael's paintings, I would recommend your adding this volume ot your library - for you eye's AND your soul's sake. Outstanding!

The Transformation of Vision - The Mysterious Brilliance of Joseph Raffael
NYArts Magazine - July 2002

Mark Daniel Cohen

If visual art left us seeing as we see without it, there would be no need for art. If there were no altering influence to the artistic experience, if nothing came of our encounter but the information of the artists' reports, if art merely informed us rather than transformed us, then we would value nothing but the news we found, nothing other than the journalism and the opinions the works conveyed. We would lose the common sense of art's intrinsic importance, of art's special care for attention. When our eyes are not touched by the vision, our souls have not been reached, and when we find that art has left us seeing no differently, there has effectively been no art, for the artistic effect has been absent. As it has been absent too often and for too long. For decades, we have devoted ourselves to inventiveness and to an earnest and futile theorizing, and we have rendered a spectrum of new forms of art, new methods of expression that deposit nothing but journalism and opinion, nothing but the statement and the point of view. Something has been missing, and what we have missed is what we once and far better knew: the arsenal and battery of art's conjuring power, the alembic in which its potion is distilled : the spell of the enchantment, the palpable trance of a rigorous beauty. And as for what we knew once, in art as in all things, it is our doom that we forget. For the nature of the cast trance of beauty is not a knowledge we can simply know and thereby remember :Êit is a knowledge one must feel, it is a truth understood only in the encounter, only in the now. And so, it is as it should be : we need artists continually to tell us the nature of art. We may know the thing only when granted it by artists capable of dispensing the enchantment of beauty, capable of laying on the tangible trance, and there is no artist working today so capable as Joseph Raffael. The exhibition at Nancy Hoffman Gallery is a brilliant display of Raffael's art, and of Raffael's thorough knowledge and command of the essential reasons of art. The presentation of nine large-scale watercolors from last year and this is a breathtaking and sparkling outburst of the gentle and intimately exacting virtuosity that has characterized Raffael's work throughout a now long career and in a medium that he has made his own, that in today's art world bears the stamp of his name. The majority of the paintings render the artist's signature subject: scenes of nature in a soft repose : visions, more than images, of quiet water, ponds and lilies, flowers and trees.

Such scenes are familiar. Yet, in the artist's signature manner, the familiarity is nothing, for every scene has been transformed into something stunning, enthralling, nearly blinding in its intensity of sight. These paintings are geysers to the eye, blossoming lusters of flourishing hues, of dawning liquid intricacies in sheening chromatics, of incandescent glisterings. They glisten and vibrate, shimmer as if all the moments and touches of color were stars and as if stars were jewels, gemstones set in spectral radiance to rainbow the heavens, to pock it with incisions and stabs of the genius of pure tone : constellations of vividness brought to a focus so perfect, a sharpness of such precision, that the apparent distances nearly astral in their effect seem to fold down, to close in and approach, to encompass and you become the very glistening you see. With each passage of color, with each leaf and reflection of light and blade of grass and fern, the eye brightens at its touch. Distinctive to this exhibition is a new subject in Raffael's work. Last year, the artist began a series of paintings titled Scenes from a Life. They are images of his personal living and working environment that constitute, in the words of the press materials, a "current autobiography in paint." The four works from the series on display : Scenes from a Life: The Open Window, 2001, Scenes from a Life: Studio Wall, 2001, Scenes from a Life: Bookcase, 2001, and Scenes from a Life: The Doorway, 2001 : are all interior views, views of his studio, his house, his garden seen through a window, his wife, Lannis, stepping into their home. Appropriate to their subject, these works are painted in a manner different from Raffael's usual dazzling precision : they are looser in touch, quicker in movement, faster in spirit, as if life were caught in the midst of motion, a moment of happenstance in the center of a continuous action, nothing stabilized, nothing standing pat. Almost nothing, and not everything, for in all these works there are passages of Raffael nature, moments of flowers and growth spied through windows and doorways, encased in a mirror or mounted in a vase on a desk. And in those places, we see the typical and unearthly precision of the artist's hand, and the quality of a strange and mysterious arrest, of a seeming permanence under the shifting flow of nature. And in that strange arrest, that vision fixed in the almost blinding and stellar exactitude that is carried by everything from Raffael's hand, there is something else. There is a sense of a presence in the scenes, something within the utterly natural and yet fully unnatural precision of these visions, within them and yet standing behind them, something infusing them and revealed through them. There is an unerring sense of something revealed within, and through, the beauty. Something or someone is hidden there, secret in the midst of a precision of rendering so clear, one would think it could hide nothing. There is a spirit to these works, and in them, something of the spirit seems to enter the image, and seems to enter the viewer through the image, as if they showed you something they do not show. And Raffael knows it, for he has titled the painting that is the centerpiece of the exhibition: Spirit Entry, 2002. It is an extraordinary display of ability and vision, bristling with energy and the blatant and impossibly intricate facts of blossoms, and greenery, and tree bark, and water so active it seems to be built of billowing leaves. And something is enacted in the work, as if the natural world were a single entity rising up before us, its energy stable even as it moves. In the exacting execution of Spirit Entry, as with all of Raffael's works, there is a vibrancy, a quality of energy almost furious and yet quietly present. It is a vision mystics have known and of which they have told us : the vision seers have seen when objects begin to waver, and wave like ocean tops, and flow even as they stand. And within it, there is something unseen, something youthful and innocent, something T. S. Eliot wrote of in his last, mystical poem "The Four Quartets": "Sudden in a shaft of sunlight/Even while the dust moves/There rises the hidden laughter/Of children in the foliage." This sensing of the presence, this quality of otherness in the obvious, is what Robert Musil, the great twentieth-century German writer, called "taghelle Mystik," a mysticism as bright as daylight. It is what one sees in every work by Raffael : an illumination that is not an obsfucation, a realization fully known, fully aware, fully alert. Nothing is dreamy, and yet everything is as if from a dream. Here, we see the transport of precision, the sudden dizzying transition of exactitude, of a clarity impossibly clear. What Raffael delivers is an intensification of vision to the eye, and as the eye increases in power, all it gives increases: the delicacy of the vision intricates, the mood bathes, the peacefulness suffuses, and the incursion grows evident to our most secret senses, grows undeniable. This is the remittance of beauty, and the remittance of the paintings of Joseph Raffael: a recognition of what beauty retains and reveals, a recognition of what is right before our eyes and yet observed only by all our senses when captured in a trance by beauty set. It is a hard lesson and a strenuous observation, one we can almost bear. It is the lesson of vision transformed : of water in sunlight, of flowers, and leaves, and secret laughter heard but in the heart of silence. And it is the lesson that can be taught us only by the authentic artist.

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, The surface glittered out of heart of light, And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty. Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter. Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality.

T. S. Eliot, "Four Quartets"

Joseph Raffael - Monumental Watercolors - NYREVIEW.COM
The critical state of visual art in New York - February 15, 2001

A touch of the enthrall: a delicacy wafts upon and lists to its discretion, a spore that drifts the sea lanes of the air, a seed that waves the densities of brightness and the light: pollen of the sensitivities alighting on the pressure of the eye. A gentle sense that hovers in the world become a mind: a feather weight that lifts up the imponderable breathe. We see in it gentility of the impress. We see it in the beauty of the thing, of anything of beauty. A causal form of ponder: the wonder of the gossamer, the leavening of down, the patching of the wounding of the world, the bearing of the weight. It settles in the cytoblast: the nuclear regard that comes to bloom in the corolla, the flowering of lily floats, the spectral desiccation of the carpet of the leaves.

Wherein is the portfolio of beauty? What are its prerogatives, its actions, its dependencies and purposes? What power does it sway, what is its office? In what is its authority and range of its discretion? What does beauty do? The business of the beauty of the thing is not in settlement. We continue to grapple with the matter. Even after more than 30 years of experimentation in new media, forms and purposes for art, we have come to no agreements concerning beauty, not even as an obsolete issue. No development in art has laid aside the question of beauty's nature, the pertinence of its role, and it would seem that none is likely to. It is unlikely and it is improbable, not only for our lack of an agreement - the absence of our collusion on not only what beauty is and does, but also on what we see as beautiful. We cannot come to see the same, to find the same things beautiful. And more, we findourselves put back to the question by what we come upon from artists: continually they return to beauty, they constantly go back to the enthrallment, to the felicity of the eye.

So, what is it that remains? What is the essence of the drag of its enthrall, the pull on us that will not permit us to leave it behind? The discussionscontinue, and the prevailing thought is appropriate to our time - a moment of academic cultural analysis that takes everything we fashion, all our creations and devices, all our instrumentalities, as symbolic codes for maintaining and inculcating society's dominant systems of value. The most prevalent intellectual sense of beauty has it that beauty is a convention, and a recommendation. Beauty is socially defined and socially specified, a set of tacit agreements, an arbitrary body of formulas for visions and sounds, which causes our astonishment through inurement. We react as we do to beautiful objects and visions because we have been immersed in a culture like an agar, in an infection field of invisible judgments, and we have been trained throughout our lives through association with others who react the same way. In short, beauty is an accident, and a contagion. It is whatever our antecedents found it to be, and we have caught it from them. And beauty's purpose is propaganda. Beauty is now taken by many as the container for the message, the wrapper that enchants, the sheen so attractive that it carries the ideas to which it adheres past all critical judgment, convincing people of the ideology it conveys through its native power of mesmerization. Beauty has become the Trojan Horse, the deceiving harbinger of political persuasion, the bringer of war to the mind, the bringer of the war for the mind.

But artists such as Joseph Raffael, and few as much as Raffael, put us to it. Raffael returns us to the question of the nature of beauty by the most authentic and irresistible of pleasurable constraints: by the sheer potency, the overwhelming power, of the beauty in his works. Over the course of a career long enough to surprise those only now coming to Raffael's work - he had his first solo exhibition in 1958 - this stunning painter has taught his viewers what the capabilities of watercolor painting truly are. For Raffael is known best, among those lucky enough to know of him, for creating large, glistening, limpid and brilliant and intimately detailed landscapes and nature scenes - landscapes and nature in close up: fields of fallen leaves, lilies lying on the surfaces of ponds, flowing rivers, waterfalls, individual blooms, and birds on branches. They are masterful watercolor paintings, generally of a scale surprising for watercolor - frequently his paintings measure over 60 inches in a dimension - that handle and move the medium with the ambition and sweeping scope that would seem the exclusive property of oils and acrylics. Raffael treats watercolors as a medium for monumental painting, and for establishing monumental delicacies.

Morning At Kodai, 2000

The current exhibition at Nancy Hoffman of 13 paintings, all dating from last year and this, divides into two formulas of composition and aesthetic intent. Eight of the works are traditional Raffael nature scenes. Each is simply a ravishment, a vision of nature more than a nature scene, a consecration of nature to paint that bristles with colors in high value and vibrant glow, a visual report with full dedication to authenticity of the sheer astonishment felt in the face of the simple event of flowers, and birds, and still and flowing water. And these works, like every work I have seen from the hand of Raffael, when placed under the scrutiny of the probing eye reveal some of the tricks of his trade, the mechanisms of his style. Every work evinces and is executed in a severe depth of field: every last detail of every painting is in precise focus, nothing falls into the soft focus and hazy edging of distances. In fact, all the compositional and rendering formulas of perspective have been dispensed with, all but one. Some of the devices have even been reversed. In Morning At Kodai, 2000, the standard lighting has been inverted: the brightest point is not the nearest. Instead, the darkest part is the bottom of the painting, the portion of the scene closest to the viewer, and the illumination grows lighter as the scene slips back toward the middle distance.

Perspective is maintained - and there is strict perspective in everything I have seen Raffael create - by the method based in draftsmanship: by changes of scale. Similar objects grow smaller with a consistency that establishes the orthogonal, and indicates the position of the vanishing point. The lily pads in Morning At Kodai, the red blossoms in Along The Way, 2000, and the dead leaves throughout All The Different Ages, 2001 recede in size as your eye moves up the paintings, and demonstrate which way the recession falls. In Aposh, 2001, there is the slightest change in scale between the branch on which the bird sits and the branches that run on the upper right, a change so slight to be almost undistinguishable but enough to maintain the sense of foreground and background. In places, the shift in scale is so subtle as nearly to plunge the composition into chaos. In Tigre's Spring, 2000, you almost lose your sense of the cat buried in the stalled maelstrom of flowers and weeds - almost, but not quite. The scale change remains, and it accomplishes its work.

But every other rule of perspective is broken, and broken to a purpose. Everything else of the artist's work is precise and undeterred by the mitigating facts of vision. Everything rushes forward as if the point of focus, as if intimately close. To see a Raffael painting is to see too well, to see preternaturally well, to see impossibly well, and to see the impossible. These visions of nature are like melodies in which every note is heard and attended, in which nothing, not one moment, bleeds into the general sense of the melody, in which you know everything and, by the end, know it all at once. These visions are like moments in which the scales have been lifted from the eyes. These are visions of nature thoroughly natural, and thoroughly unnatural, fully realistic and fully unrealistic - fully both at the same time. It is this, this breaking of the codes for making perspective, more than anything else about Raffael's paintings - more than his glittering brightness of color or his choice of scene or intimacy of observation - that is the heart of his style and the reason it works as it does.

With this exhibition, Raffael has added a new element to his roster of effects. Five of the paintings include, in the heart of the composition, Tibetan tankas, or mandalas, often with elements of drawn from nature before them or around them, integrated with them to make the mandalas symbols, presumably, of what Raffael finds in his viewings of nature: something of the spirit, something of a religious import, and of a rapture. Though the tricks and the efficacious trickery of Raffael's manipulations of perspective are frequently lost in these works, they bear much of the same pleasure of viewing as his other works - for the sake of their vivid applications of color and the touch of the hand of this master. Even so, it is all a bit heavy-handed, a little obvious, at least for the sake of using mandalas in a culture that is foreign to them and that necessarily sees them as exotic, which is entirely different from the esoteric; in fact, it is the opposite. Mandalas come to us from the outside (exotic), not from the inside (esoteric). It is all a bit heavy and blatant, and nowhere so much as in the instance in which the mandala is occupied not by an image of nature but a symbol of art. In View, 2000, the core of the tanka is not a bird or a flower, but a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.

View, 2000

And the touch of the hand of the master here does not help. Raffael's touch has a certain wavering quality that attends to its precision, something entirely germane to the use of watercolors and, far more important, to the rendering of nature, for it carries the quality of the living shift, the movement of life that can be seen under close observation in everything that lives. Nothing alive stands perfectly still. That's how you know it's alive. But in the mandalas, that wavering touch seems unproductive, and inappropriate. There seems in them a geometry of the spiritual, and it requires an extreme precision of rendering. Others do this sort of thing better, and Raffael other things better still.

Even so, if there is an artist who makes the case for beauty, and an exhibition in New York at present that gives the demonstration of the case, it is this artist and this exhibition. Raffael's works are not prettified and not deliberately pleasant - not merely pleasant. The pleasure in viewing them is not a simple delectation of the felicity: visuals nicely put and lapped up by the acquisitive eye, enjoyment in the gaze that is nothing more than enjoyable. There is a sense of import to these works - viewing injects in its witness an intuition that something more is going on than just what is being seen. The pleasure of the paintings is almost diverting, almost a mask covering over the real nature of the view, almost a feint. We learn something of the deeper nature of these works, and something of the deeper nature of beauty, by asking why we find them beautiful. One can make a list of their attributes and at first this seems right. This roster seems a reason for their beauty, until one gives it some thought. Raffael's works are brilliantly colorful, exquisitely drawn, vigorous and fluid with detailed observation and extreme care of rendering. They seem to be at the height of their medium, each one a lesson in how to paint. Who has handled watercolors substantially better?

Each of these attributes would seem a matter for and explanation of the presence of beauty, until we think further. Why would they be? What is there in any of them that is inherently a reason for beauty? More to the point, we can all think of examples of artists who work with the opposite attributes and who produce works of beauty. There are artists who paint in dulled hues and create beauty, artists who apply vague and ill-defined draftsmanship and who accomplish it, and above all, artists who work without the observation from nature, who operate exclusively from the interior of the mind, and who manage beauty.

Wherein is beauty's portfolio? The very listing of the attributes of Raffael's style that would seem the itemization of the beauty in his work is no justification of their beauty. No listing of attributes, no itemization, could ever justify or explain the encountering of beauty. Every beautiful detail of any work of any art might have had a different effect, which renders our disagreements over what is beautiful completely moot. If we all agreed, it would explain nothing.

This is the anomaly in the thought, the moment it turns wrong. The logic does not reverse. Break down an instance of beauty to its parts, add the parts together again, and you do not return to beauty. Two divides into one and one, but add one and one and you do not get two. Something else is going on here.

But, as with all things, the anomaly is the revelation. When something refuses to make sense, that is the sense it makes. The failure of the itemization of beauty is the heart of the explanation. In fact, something else is going on here. The beauty many of us, if not all of us, would find in the works of Joseph Raffael is not in the vibrancy of the colors or the precision of observation or even the distinctive manipulation of the methods of perspective. These are all means to an end, but they are not components of that end. They are approaches to beauty, but not beautiful matters unto themselves. They could as well have led to something thoroughly hideous. But, from Raffael's hand, they don't, which tells us that beauty is something acquired, something achieved after reaching a threshold point in the development of means and style, something new that enters in for a reason beyond reasoning, and not just a summary conclusion of partial stylistic devices and effects. Beauty comes at a certain point and it comes as something new, something added on.

Which is to note that beauty is its own attribute, and, in any meaningful sense of the word, a matter of content, not style: a thing unto itself,explained only by reference to itself. Nothing else accounts for it, no itemization counts it up. And to say it is content is to say that beauty is its own message. Beauty is not a glittering wrapper that can be bound around a message that is something other and might have been anything at all, it is not a glistening conviction injected into a polemic that thereby might bypass all critical disinclination. Beauty in itself means something.

Means what, exactly what? As the appearance of beauty does not arrive as a summation of attributes, so it is not a summary of other thoughts. As the look of it does not come of piecemealing the facts, so it is not an instance of the mental match for the facts: an idea, built up other ideas, as all ideas are. (Ideas are distinguished from other mental contents by their genealogies; every idea possesses an intellectual genealogy, that is what tells them apart from mere opinions.)

But there are other forms of meaning, other than ideas. Ideas in themselves may be nothing more than dead leaves: scraps of facts thought upon and lying inert and dormant, lifeless items littering the mind. They may imply the observations and prior ideas they came from, and carry the import of what they logically imply - but they may only imply logically. They may be merely thought upon - or they may be appreciated, sympathetically sensed for the quality of vibrancy, the sense of internal life they acquired from that which engendered them: the experience in the living world from which they came and to which they refer. Ideas may be listings of dead facts of observation, or they may render a living vision of a living universe. They may be alive in the mind, they may be poetic symbols, artistic images: they themselves maybe beautiful. That sense of life they carry like an infection of vitality is a meaning, as well: the meaning of beauty.

That meaning is as easy to learn as any, for it is everywhere around us, and as difficult to possess as anything is. It requires tutelage, the tutelage of artists, artists who are intelligent enough not to polemicize their experience and argue their arguments, who have realized it is their business to return the world to us as something alive, as something vital and stunning in its vision and encounter, as something brilliant and almost blinding in its splendor, as something like us in our own vibrancy: something miraculous. It requires artists who know it is their vocation to show the miracle, the balm of the astonishment that cures the wound of the world, that buoys the weight of it. That is knowledge, too - it must be, for it is wisdom.

It requires tutelage, the lessons of a master, of a master artist. There is no one who teaches this now so well as Raffael, and nowhere can this imperative lesson, this lesson of urgency, be learned so well as at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery, in an exhibition that should be seen now, right now.

By Mark Daniel Cohen

joseph raffael biography