Joseph Drapell

many-faces-of-JDJoseph In His Studio, 2013

The mystical power of images drives the history of art. In the West, this became explicit during the first great doctrinal schism of Christianity, that between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantonople. This occurred in 731 A.D. and was exactly about the power of images. Many in the East, like the Jews, and later, the followers of Islam, rejected all visual images of the Divine. A prohibition of such images is found both in the Old Testament and the Koran. God is too unimaginable, ineffable, tremendous and holy to be represented by a single, visual image and certainly not the image of a mere man. The visual image is considered altogether too literal, too particular, and mundane, to stand for the “living” God “who cannot be named.” But Christianity offered the incarnation of the living God in human form, and, therefore, cried out for the image, for the elevation of the image to the level of the word. In the Byzantine East, the iconophiles, those who loved images, finally triumphed over the iconoclasts, those who hated them. But this happened only after a long and bloody struggle, which also saw the destruction of many images. Only after 824 A.D. were the iconophiles triumphant and free to seek an image of the Divine. (The Christian, Roman West, educated by the Greeks,who were in turn educated by the Egyptians, embraced the human image from the first.) The iconophiles insisted that the icon offered a spiritual presence and a taste of paradise. (The followers of Islam have implicity accepted this definition as regards their calligraphy and architecture, but not in painting and sculpture).

Carbon-and-Hydrogen-both-2012“Carbon and Hydrogen”, 2012

The mystical potential of images is, of course, still very much with us today. Baudelaire called modern art, “the cult of images”. Abstract painters especially have insisted on the spiritual power of their images. They too, seek spiritual presence and an ecstatic, energy exchange. Mark Rothko said he wanted his pictures to be “miraculous revelations”, while Barnett Newman wrote “we reserve the right to create our own paradise”. Nowhere is this spiritual dimension of abstract painting more evident than in the work of Joseph Drapell. Always a strong presence in the room, his pictures give us breathtaking beauties and echoes of the sublime. They can evoke a transcendent moment in nature and sometimes cosmic awe. They might be called icons of freedom.

Plutonium-and-Iron-both-2012“Plutonium and Iron”, 2012

I met Joseph Drapell in 1971 and have been in his studio many times since then. In 1977 the Toronto painter Jack Bush died; he had named me a trustee of his estate along with Clement Greenberg, David Silcox and Aaron Milrad. We all met twice a year in Toronto and, at that those times, Clem and I would visit Toronto galleries and certain Toronto studios. We were following a group of painters who had came along in the 70’s and who were in Pollock’s tradition. Most immediately, their models were the second generation Color Field painters of the 60’s: Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Friedel Dzubas, Jack Bush and others. A number of these younger painters lived in Toronto and we got to see their work twice a year. But there were a good number of others both in the U.S. and abroad. I exhibited some of them including Drapell at an exhibition, which I curated at the Andre Emmerich gallery in 1881 under the title “The New Generation”.

For whatever reason, and despite their indisputable talent, none of these 70’s painters have become a fully fulfilled masters on the level of their mentors with the single exception of Drapell. He has become a towering figure. Already in 1973 he had developed a distinctive style. He used a wide spreading tool to create a large sweeping circular form more or less centered in the rectangle. As Karen Wilkin has pointed out Drapell’s style at this point relates to Noland’s centered circles just as the layering of successive spreads relates to Louis’s veils. Drapell was especially drawn to “process painting”, coming ultimately from Pollock’s drip style and used dramatically by Louis and Poons. Here the results are a broad impersonal “mark” which expands the basic unit from hand or arm gestures to something grand and nature-like. As a personal statement, the result is highly sublimated.

In addition to Noland, and Louis, Drapell’s painting was very much related to that of the reigning chef d’ecole of Color Field painting in the 70’s, Jules Olitski. After 1965, Olitski, master of the spray gun, seemed to dominate Pollock-type painting. He had given Pollock’s “all overness” the painterly richness and refinement of great Old Master painting while maintaining the high, sublimity of Pollock and Louis. By birth and sensibility, Drapell relates to this European, old masterly outlook of Olitski, and he too is a master of the painterly: the evocation of light and space through color and paint.

Once Drapell found his own direction he has never let up or lost concentration. His development has been a remarkably steady unfolding. After 1973 the central events were, first, a series of red pictures begun in 1977. He had often used red before, but here his use of thicker paint, thanks to the new acrylic gels, seemed to take his work to a whole new level. In 1983 he divised a comb or rake-like spreading tool which has been his signature ever since. Used with the gel, it creates high but finely cut ridges which offer a whole new kind of reflectivity of surface and delicacy of relief. More sculptural, the pictures also now had a distinctly plastic look. Since then Drapell has expanded his art in every direction. He has become ever freerer and richer as regards color, vocabulary and composition. Today he stands as one of the greatest masters of our age.

Eve's-Apple-LR“Eve’s Apple”, 2010

Starting in 1991 Drapell has been showing with a group of mostly younger painters who came along in the 80’s, the so-called, New New. The critic, Donald Kuspit once remarked that Drapell did not really belong with the New New. I do not agree with this, but I know what Kuspit is getting at. Drapell’s painting seems the polar opposite of that of hard core New New figures like Lucy Baker or Bruce Piermarini, whose work is explosively expressionistic. Drapell, by contrast, seems to seek beauty, richness, elegance and the sublime. He is closer to Color Field painting with its breathing chromaticism and stately mode of address. The New New went against Drapell’s instincts, but he was intelligent enough to align himself with the group, because he saw their work as most alive. They in turn have stimulated him to greater freedom and played no small role in his becoming the single exception of his generation to fully realize his potential.

Summer-with-Railing“Summer”, 2003

Drapell is special in another respect as well, in his generosity and purity of purpose. He founded The Museum of New New Painting in Toronto, a venue dedicated to show the work of other members of the group as well as his own. How many ambitious artists would be willing to spend their time and money promoting the art of others?

Joseph Drapell 2002
Joseph Drapell 2002
“At Noon”, 16×20″
acrylic with holographic additives on canvas