Rafael Leonardo Black

January 6th, 1949 — May 16th, 2020

Obituaries for Rafael (Ray) Leonardo Black:
FRANCIS NAUMANN’S (Ray’s Gallery )
NEW YORK TIMES written by Holland Cotter.
TIME, INC. by Andrew R. Chow , 7th article from the top.
WHITEBOX MAGAZINE written by artist & writer Mark Bloch

Down the scroll can be seen some of Ray’s works.

Ray Black in front of his home,. fall 2019

Ray Black in front of his apartment building, fall 2019. In his right hand he holds his cup of tools, lead pencils he always sharpened with an exacta knife. Ray never used a magnifying glass for his miniature drawings or paintings. On May 16th Ray separated from his body after a valiant fight that including being on a ventilator with dialysis for his kidneys. His heart failed. He had been in hospital over a month for other problems but contracted Covid-19 once inside.

RAFAEL LEONARDO BLACK WAS BURIED ON JUNE 10th AT PINELAWN MEMORIAL CEMETARY in Farmingdale (Suffolk County, Long Island). It was strictly outdoor ceremony attended by his Nephew Jean Murphy and his wife Rose, their daughter Janoi and a family friend, Ms. Frances the pastor, Ray’s gallery owner and dealer Francis Naumann, Ray’s angelic next door neighbor Margo Gregory, my son Sage Hazarika and myself, Tej Hazarika. After Ray’s satin gray and silver metal coffin was lowered into his grave, the rites uttered, attendees all took turns to speak to their memories and feelings for Ray. The sky was clear and atmosphere was limpid. There were statements pointing to a united resolve to uphold, for posterity, Ray’s legacy, left behind in his works and our memories of him.

at Columbia University in the early ’70’s

Here is what I know about Ray Black’s On the case (reproduced below).  In 1975 Ray asked me, a rank dabbler, to paint the composition he had drafted in pencil, the ‘little painting’ in the middle of his big painting.  It was a road construction crew making repairs underground through an opening in the hard surface. They were focused and on the case, I thought. This opportunity was heaven sent. When as a freshman at Columbia I first met Ray (1969), he was a sophomore already deep into kaleidoscopic art history and making miniature oil paintings using theory and techniques from masters of European painting including his open homage to Salvador Dali. He was having serious fun. There were also pencil line drawing compositions, drafts for his oil paintings or reproductions or adaptations of the Neo-Classic bi-coastal psychedelic poster trend of the period he had witnessed.  His everyday handwriting was old school cursive and precise. Examples are to be found on pieces of paper on which he made lists of things —groupings of themes he would sometimes give me to check out in my own time. I took to On the case like a fish to water. Upon graduation I had assiduously avoided corporate money jobs in favor of self driven study of art, literature, music and just living in the ‘University of New York City’ persevering my way out of my official refugee status.

Back in ’72  Ray lent me a copy of author Ishmael Reed’s seminal, ‘psychic’ who-done-it Mumbo Jumbo. Three years later Ray showed me On the case, and when I saw the black and white painted postcard scene of Ishmael Reed with likely a foxy manifestation of the goddess  Erzuli in the background, I got why he called it On the case. There were other embedded clues, like the Watergate Towers security guard who caught the thieves and other objects like his box of oil paint tubes. Notice also the arcane inclusion of the Syrian twin saints Cosmas and Damian, renowned healers, both martyred in the 3rd century AD. They are popular with children in Brazil. Lastly on the left, three electric chairs.

For me Mumbo Jumbo addressed many burning questions I had about the real United States of America, my adopted ‘home’ with my zero attraction to the standard immigrants’ goal posts such as ‘good job with ‘big company’ with hefty salary and big mortgage. I ditched all that for freedom and profound uncertainty.  Not only was I a real border crosser now I was really on the infamous cross-road itself. My goose was cooked but at least I knew what I wanted and for a period painting became both, a path and the goal. It was a solitary enterprise but it allowed me to paint my way out of my confusion into some semblance of clarity of purpose. Ray’s knowing juxtapositions of symbols and individuals from contemporary and local culture with artifacts and personalities from other worlds and eras portended vast new horizons and open sourcing for someone attempting to reconcile multiple world-views meaningfully.  The liberating thing about On the case was that Ray showed how Surrealist techniques could be personalized and applied to our particular situation and backdrop to uncover the authenticity of one’s own orientation. He showed how this work would affirm one’s existence in the world. And his work never neglected folk history. Looking at such compositions triggered endless new perceptions, feelings and narratives that are both personal and social at the same time.

A notable attribute of Ray was that he would show his current work, naturally small enough to carry around in his small brief case, to his co-workers at Macy’s or some other place in the job world he might be in at the time. Though they would not see what an art critic could, they always found something to appreciate. It could be a color or an object or a person they could relate to. The pleasure would induce them to ask questions giving Ray the opportunity to relate complex mythological and narrative details with great patience in plain language, the symbols and meanings that were behind the work. They in turn would be amazed to find out how much thought went into the painting greatly appreciating the new ideas they had been introduced to by Ray on their lunch break!  Everyone appreciates mythology and history they can relate to. Ray was never a snob because he painted for himself and everyone, not just for art critics or collectors of Surrealist art. Ray always gave credit where it was due and as best as I can describe it, in retrospect, On the case was nothing short of a declaration of freedom from the tyranny of all forms. Here, in the heart of America, large was not necessarily better. There was no need for huge canvases and endless lofts to create paintings for the demands of the art world. Instead, his method offered a way to ‘be’ in the world in which we lived with our personal histories happily integrated into our present ‘selves’.  

Ray had found a way to keep Surrealism relevant and fresh. Being a great integrationist in everything he did, he was highly conscious of world history, it’s maddening richness of diversity and the perennial struggle, a history layered with the ugliness of depraved inhumanity lying next to unprecedented displays of human resilience, courage, compassion and invention in the face of the brutality of the African Slave Trade and its ugly aftermath. Painting was for him a way to come to terms with or at least resolve on canvas the barbarism extant in the world and particularly in America. But he also used painting to celebrate the greatness inherent in the human spirit. So to me, from the beginning, On the case was a kind of ‘gizmo’ that I recognized to be a prototype of a ‘tablet’ depicting not only the psychic ‘situation’ in the land but hinting at a clue, maybe a miraculous pathway out of the ugliness. On the book shelf in the painting is a book titled is “Les Armes Miraculeuse” by Aime Cesaire .  A beautiful black man from the French Caribbean, Cesaire was steeped in classical European literature and culture. He was also the co-founder of Negritude  with his friend and poet Leopold Senghor.  He was also venerated as one of the greatest poets by none other than the ‘Pope of Surrealism’ Andre Breton. Cesaire was friend and student of African scholar and historian Cheik Anta Diop considered the  father of an Afro-centric understanding of history.

Ray embraced everything human because he was open to sensible attributes from all cultures. Fully cognizant of the inherent contradictions and painful absence of bridges between different groupings of culture, he never lost his gaze on things beautiful or revealing, in turn utilizing them to build bridges in his paintings for viewers to perhaps cross to discover their humanity and inherent riches.  Surrealism became a vehicle for him to express many complex ideas. He gave me the painting in 1975. I had it with me for a year during which I painted what is visible now and after that, our respective karmas turned to separate us from each other for 28 years. I had returned the painting to him promising to finish it some day. Miraculously we reconnected in 2007 at a mutual friend’s memorial and stayed close to each other since then until his recent illness took him into Brooklyn hospitals in the heat of the pandemic never to emerge on this side of the great divide. On the case surfaced in Duchamp scholar and Surrealist art dealer  Francis Naumann’s catalog for Ray  INSIDER ART debut show in April 2013 at Francis Naumann Fine Arts. I hope to one day access the painting and complete my part, with Ray’s blessing.

by Ray Black, oil on canvas.
A study for ON THE CASE


From Ray I learned about metaphysical mind-scapes, Surrealism, metaphysical painting and Symbolism. He would have all the books as well. Art was always literary, functional, painterly and beautiful to behold. It offered a bold alternative to the deadly, ill spirited lies and humdrum of the Vietnam war and state racism — the exhausting barbaric social climate of the time. The world he drew and painted was an enchanted space not far from real life yet I his work evoked a timeless zone full of ecstatic sound and vision. There were also nods to pop art in studies of kisses and department store window. The elements of his future compositions are visible in this early work.

Into the 80’s and 90’s