Rafael Leonardo Black, solitary and self-trained artist, dies at 71

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Rafael Leonardo Black, solitary and self-trained artist, dies at 71
Paintings by Rafael Leonardo Black in his apartment in Brooklyn, June 3, 2013. Black, a self-trained artist who spent more than 40 years creating elaborate pictorial mythologies steeped in art history and popular culture, and who had his first New York gallery show at 64, died on May 15, 2020, in Brooklyn. He was 71. Victor J. Blue/The New York Times.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Rafael Leonardo Black, a self-trained artist who spent more than 40 years creating elaborate pictorial mythologies steeped in art history and popular culture, and who had his first New York gallery show at 64, died May 15 in Brooklyn. He was 71.

The cause was complications of COVID-19, said Francis Naumann, the art dealer who represented him.

Black’s 2013 debut, at Francis Naumann Fine Art in Manhattan, consisted of collagelike pencil drawings of historically diverse figures and scenes brought together under umbrella themes. The work was so minutely detailed that the gallery provided magnifying glasses to view it. There was also a multipage exhibition guide, with numbered charts of the compositions and annotations by the artist identifying the figures depicted.

A 1982 drawing called “Oneirology,” Black explained, “presents the towering beauty as well as the horrors of the 20th century.” The tutelary spirit was Picasso, represented by a centrally placed mini-version of one of his 1930s “Weeping Woman” paintings, around which circulated figures of Coco Chanel, André Breton and the 19th-century Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, known for her love of French fashion, who was mentioned by Marcel Proust.

If these images may be seen as occupying positions on the beauty side of Black’s 20th-century equation, the horror component had at least equal weight. It included images of three Latin American dictators, a Shell Oil refinery and a portrait, excerpted from a photograph, of a Roman Catholic cardinal in deep conversation with Joseph Goebbels.

Black himself refrained from any obvious passing of judgment. The players in “Oneirology,” including Orpheus, Andy Warhol and three giraffes, commingle as if at a party. They are all overseen by a guiding star in the form of a glowing image of disco diva Grace Jones’ smiling lips.

Rafael Leonardo Black was born Jan. 6, 1949, on Aruba, a Caribbean island that remains Dutch territory. He started drawing as a child, encouraged by his parents.

When asked, in an interview published for his 2013 show, whether he had been named for Italian Renaissance artists, he said that “Rafael” was in honor of an uncle, Rafael Hodge, and “Leonardo” came from “Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the first person of color to became president of the Dominican Republic,” adding, “My mother admired him.” (People who knew Black called him Ray.)

A prodigious early reader — he was proficient in Dutch, French and Spanish, as well as English — he came to New York City in 1965 to attend high school. He spent a lot of time in museums and almost immediately began exploring the city’s rock counterculture, going to small nightclubs where he heard, among other performers, the pre-superstar Jimi Hendrix.

After hanging out, sketchbook in hand, at the offices of Crawdaddy magazine in 1967, he was invited to illustrate the magazine’s reviews of two major albums: the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced.” Densely composed but done with fine-grained precision in black and white, the results set a model for his later work.

That same year he also began college at Columbia University, where he majored in art history. “At Columbia, a wider world of the arts opened up to me,” he said in the gallery interview; the historical styles that particularly interested him, he said, were symbolism and surrealism.

But he left Columbia in his senior year before graduating. “My grades were not good, so they asked me to take some time and come back later,” he said. “I left but I never came back.”

Supporting himself with various jobs — he was a typist in a law firm, a salesman at Gimbels and then at Macy’s, and a hospital receptionist — he continued to read voraciously. Books on comparative mythology by Joseph Campbell particularly interested him, as did the work of African American poet, novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed.

Always, his life revolved around his art. He lived alone in a small apartment that doubled as his studio in Brooklyn. There he devoted himself to his complex, labor-intensive drawings, which were often years in the making.

Jim Dwyer of The New York Times visited Black at the time of his Naumann show. “For more than three decades, Black, 64, has made a portal to the world in dense, miniature renderings of ancient myth and modern figures,” Dwyer wrote. “Until recently, few people ever saw his work because he had almost no visitors.”

“Day after day, year after year,” he continued, “he labored like a monk.”

Speaking of his art to Dwyer, Black said he “just never made the effort to sell it,” although, he added, “I’ve always done it since — well, I guess, since I’ve known myself.”

Black is survived by a nephew, Jean Murphy.

Black’s first New York solo show, titled “Insider Art” — a reference to his profound knowledge of art history — proved to be his last. Most of the pictures sold, earning him more money than he had ever had. He contemplated traveling back to Aruba but never did. He preferred his daily studio routine, a painstaking mode of production that meant that he left little new work behind.

“What I do is read and make my pictures,” he told Dwyer. “People who become what are called artists don’t stop. There’s a saying: ‘Everybody writes poems at 15; real poets write them at 50.’”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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