Joseph Raffael (born 1933) grew up (like John Marin) a solitary and imaginative child in a household of women. He began drawing at age 7 and pursued art studies in high school and at the Brooklyn Museum; in 1951-54 he studied at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science in New York, then from 1954-56 for a BFA at the Yale University School of Art under Joseph Albers (whose only comment on Raffael's work was apparently "Aachhh!! Boy!! SHIT!!!"). He worked as a freelance textile designer at the Jack Price Textile Studio alongside artists Carolyn Brady, Audrey Flack, and others; in 1958-60 he studied in Florence on a Fulbright Fellowship, and began painting complexly colored watercolors of flower forms. He mounted his first New York exhibition, of his Umbrian watercolors, in 1963; but after nearly dying of hepatitis, he shifted to "real life" images based on photographs. In 1966 he taught at UC Davis Davis, then moved permanently to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969. In 1972 he began his "water painting" series using photographs of lily ponds by William Allen. In 1973 quit teaching to paint full time and received first prize, Tokyo International Biennale in 1974. The death of his son and divorce in 1980 caused him to focus more on spiritualism, including imagery related to Buddhism and the works of Carl Jung. He began a relationship with his spiritual counselor, Lannis Wood, in 1984; they married in 1986 and moved to Europe (Provence) where he now resides, working in watercolors and acrylics.

Raffael's paintings are almost all presented on a very large scale, influenced by the enveloping paintscapes of the Abstract Expressionists and his early experiences in textile design. His method has always relied heavily on photographs— his recurrent themes include Japanese carp, water, flowers, gardens and lily ponds — but the photographs are always interpreted to bring painterly qualities, rather than blunt realism, to the fore. Many of his early paintings emphasize the abstract patterns of paint blossoming in water to produce subtle and spontaneous mixtures of values and hues, often as background or ornamental effects around a literally rendered theme. Listening Lily (1976, 76x102cm) mixes dull violets and browns with brighter accents of green and blue in heavily layered backruns, which overlap and mingle in a subtle vertical bias that suggests water flowing down a sheet of glass, or the flow of water in a pond. The lily blossom is rendered in a more subdued style, with carefully graded color transitions, causing it to step forward from the background (Victorian watercolorists achieved a similar effect by painting foreground figures in gouache against a transparent watercolor landscape). The backruns and blossoms are not merely decorative (although they contribute to the overall decorative effect): they symbolize the nature of water and the complex layers of matter that comprise the physical world. Above this complexity the lily floats in serenely smooth pastel colors, a symbol of the spiritual energy that breathes through all forms of life.

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In 1969 Raffael began prepainting his oil canvases with ten or more coats of white gesso, sanding between each coat and diluting the oils with turpentine to give the oils a translucent luminence. (Victorian painters such as Arthur Melville got similar results by precoating their papers with zinc oxide paint.) He then sought out watercolor papers that would produce a similar effect. During a flight delay returning from Hawaii as part of a Bicentennial program in 1976, Raffael happened upon and photographed a lily pond. In The Color of Transition (1994, 113x173cm) we see Raffael's style at its more literal, with pigment and water textures minimized in favor of a crystalline, almost cloisonné surface. He has analyzed the photographic image into jigsaw cells when he made the pencil tracing; each cell was then filled with a saturated application of pure watercolor. He filled in the entire painting, one tiny cell at a time, with an extremely varied color palette; sometimes Raffael uses 40 or more different paints in a single work. Hardly visible in the small reproduction shown here, the technique bejewels tiny details and exalts the image through color intensity, taking it beyond photorealism to a mystical intensity of beauty. The composition is also a beautiful arrangement of greens and blue violets, with accenting yellows in the central cluster of leaves, and textural contrast between the vertical reeds and the wedge of rounded lily pads. All aspects of color and visual texture interlock in a satisfyingly monumental design.

Because these are enormous works — often cut lengthwise from four foot wide rolls of watercolor paper — the web or lattice of prismatic color seen up close dissolves into an illusion of visual realism from several feet away. In this way the paintings celebrate both the sensual surface of the visual world and a spiritual intensity beneath its surface. The stunning Vernal Equinox After the Blooming (1995, 178x114cm) might seem to be a saturated photographic print or perhaps an acrylic painting, but it is a carefully rendered large watercolor, detailed down to the individual dewdrops. No reproduction can do justice to the powerfully saturated quality of the painting, which seems lit from behind in an effect that watercolors are uniquely capable of creating. A theme running through many of Raffael's paintings is the active effect of light — dewdrop reflections, shimmering water, the backlit translucence of autumn leaves, iridescent color transitions — which Raffael often presents in ways that are unabashedly decorative yet natural to his faceted, pure color painting style. Unfortunately, Raffael mitigates this effect by also transcribing the artifacts of camera optics (the out of focus background leaves), and by a somewhat haphazard use of color that weakens for me the strength of the overall image. Unifying all these variations is the effort to see the world in a spiritual key, relying on color intensity and the physical size of the format to push our vision beyond the material surface of things.

In the United States, Raffael's works are available for viewing at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. A fairly good pictorial and bibliographic documentation of his works, with a regrettably feeble text, is available in Reflections of Nature: Paintings by Joseph Raffael by Donald Kuspit and Amei Wallich (Abbeville Press, 1998). Biographical material, with a listing of past and current exhibitions, and images of Raffael's studio, works in progress, and recent paintings and prints are available at the Joseph Raffael web site.