Raphael Collazo

Rosemary Cohane Erpf, 1990


Five years ago, I spent a day at Artist's Space viewing their Slide Marathon, a wonderful, now defunct ritual, in which slides from several thousand artists' files were presented in speedy succession. Though blurry-eyed, I responded to Raphael Collazo's paintings in the ten second flash of the slide projector. The collaged paintings on panel divulged a very personal style and a fine draftsman.

It took me a few months to get to Raphael's studio on the upper west side, but when I did I found a small space crammed with large paintings -- all unique and noteworthy. Here was an undiscovered painter of unusual natural talents. His work was then moving from a lyrical landscape style steeped in Watteau, and lacy with Rococo embellishments, to full palette paintings knit loosely with biomorphic automatic drawings, punctuated by bravado passages of collage and collage-like surfaces. A key painting during this period was Veduta, a 96 x 96 inch mixed media and oil painting on two wooden panels completed in 1985. The abstract landscape space -- misty, ethereal, and green, seemed as an organic breeding ground for some unidentifiable preconscious life forms. During the evolution of this painting, Raphael took his triangular palette from which he was working and glued it directly to the painting. The most surprising result was that the displaced palette seemed perfectly at home on the panel, strengthening the composition by underscoring other triangular elements in the piece.

I later exhibited Veduta along with five other large paintings in my gallery [see Raphael Collazo: New Work]. Though out of the mainstream and untrendy, Raphael's paintings appealed to a few independent-minded collectors and many, many artists. One visitor commented that he felt like he was underwater when standing in the gallery. The liquid way one's eyes travelled in, out, and around each painting, and the sanded tonality of the all-over panels did, in fact, constitute an almost aquatic domain. Collaged elements were also present. Pieces of gold molding and street-vendors' plastic flowers were presented in the scale and manner of salon paintings. These decorative fragments were unfettered by the irony usually associated with kitsch, because of the painterly hand in which they were integrated. In a painting titled Goodbye Rococo, fragments of velvet printed rugs peaked out under globs and layerings of paint. Gestural strokes of paint all but covered pieces of ornamental plastic.

At this particular time, Collazo's paintings were informed by an incessant, automatic-type drawing much in the tradition of Matta and early Gorky. Raphael drew constantly when he was painting, and when he was not. He filled notebooks with pencil and ball point pen drawings while watching television at night. Some of the created organic forms appeared in the studio the next day [see 1985 Portfolio, Sheet 27].

This type of activity lead him to the next body of work, which was the core of his second exhibition at my gallery [see Raphael Collazo: Recent Paintings and Drawings]. Following the evolution of insects through the various stages of growth and metamorphoses, Raphael had found a metaphor for his personal way of creating a painting. In a way, this series of paintings freed him of his specific biomorphic vocabulary by thoroughly exploring its development. While painting works such as Nymphal Instars [Nymphal Instars I], Instars [Wing Venation], and Complete Metamorphes in 1987 [middle and late 1986], Raphael moved from dense, jungle-like landscapes packed with fantastic organisms to airier, richly colored abstractions. The meandering black lines on which so much of his paintings compositional unity had depended prior to this, was gradually being abandoned.

For Raphael, this increased freedom with color and unabashed painterliness was a source of both strength and frustration. From our earliest conversations, Raphael and I had always agreed that his biggest hurdle was to work against his tremendous facility as an artist. He was now doing this, spending months on paintings, which went through numerous changes and alterations. Under each finished painting were ten others. This was a method I had observed in the practice of Abstract-Expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart's work, which was the subject of my Master's thesis. Knowing when a painting was finished and destroying a painting to repaint another one on top of it was a source of angst for Raphael. One his best paintings, titled The Visitors, was his reward [this series is believed to have been the subject of Collazo's third and final exhibition at the gallery, which closed in August of 1988. See Raphael Collazo: Healing Gardens].

At his studio in 1988, I told Raphael he was like a grand pastry chef, the way he orgiastically mixed his pigments with a delicious assortment of gessos, varnishes, even sand. He loved the exotic and lush properties of oil painting. During 1987 and 1988, he painted many successful smaller works on paper. Torsos and personages began to emerge from these pieces -- at first in the guises of angels and fairies, returning to his homage to Rococo salon paintings [see Fold-a-Roll and Passage II]. But this also paved the way for the later and last figurative paintings, The Jokers and Bon Vivant [see The Paintings of Raphael Collazo: Transcendence].

A faint pink figure barely materializes in the pastel-colored All Souls Night [All Souls' Day]. However, the thrust of this painting is not the figure, but that of painter become mosaicist. Gluing irregular-shaped discs to the canvas, Raphael took his passion for collage and paint to their extreme.

With The Jokers and Bon Vivant, Raphael radically abandoned color. With Bon Vivant, he completely covered the colorful palette with variations of grey, beige, white and black. This piece was also Raphael's self portrait. For those of us who knew him, this painting tells us about the artist we knew and the person we cared about. The works in this exhibition tell Raphael's story and its tragically early conclusion. With the painting Forest Rendezvous, influenced by his stay at Yaddo artists' colony in New York, Raphael achieved the control of his own powers as an artist. In this work of great beauty and strength, one realizes a mature work by an artist of our time.

The Author

Rosemary C. Erpf was the director of the R. C. Erpf Gallery of New York, which represented Collazo from late 1985-1988.


Manuscript, Raphael Collazo, New York, March 1990, written for the unpublished catalog of the memorial exhibition Healing Garden, Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, New York, March 23-April 14, 1990, curated by Nilda M. Peraza.