I hadn’t seen Bob Draffen in close to 20 years when I ran into his wife Ann at a show in High Falls of works by the late Jan Sawka. Draffen, Sawka and I hung out together sometimes: art talk; laughs aplenty. But this time Ann told me that Bob had passed away just a few months before. It sent my mind back to the last work of his: the Time Shard series of found metal objects left out in the elements to leave their imprint on the canvases on which they rested (“I’m big into dew,” he told me once, laughing and rearranging the objects early one summer morning) and then were waxed over. Encaustics: Bob was big into encaustics. Man, was he big into it.
Starting in the mid-1960s, Bob, after checking out the Greek fayoum (wax encaustics, consisting of mixing pigment with hot wax) painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decided that he wanted to give it a go. And being an artist who liked to experiment in media – he had already been steeped in kinetic wood sculpture and had a couple shows in the City – Bob took to wax like a moth to flame. He first used it “traditionally,” like the ancient Greeks, to preserve his paintings – mostly figurative, some abstract – and then hitting Eureka!-like on the notion that the wax could be an integral element of the painting, not only sealing in an image, but in a novel way also sculpting on a two-dimensional surface. The end result of this obsession was his Time Shards and his well-received solo show at the Queens Museum in 1991, as well as in group shows at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in SoHo in 1992 and 1995.
The connection between his kinetic sculptures and his penchant for discarded metal objects seemed to come from his technical skills as a tool designer for General Electric and other international tech companies, and came out of his schooling at Mount Pleasant Technical High School, aided and abetted by his sojourn at what is now SUNY-New Paltz (then it was New Paltz State Teachers’
College) and his head-on collision with the mercurial and oddly unprofessorial instructor, the well-known Mondrianist Ilya Bolotowsky. Bolo, as he was affectionately called, was like the Pied Piper of a small village – a fledgling artist village – and largely responsible for what could be referred to as the Golden Age of New Paltz art students, of which Bob Draffen, a little older than the rest, was the most (as would be said now) “out of the envelope.” His creative impulses seemed to be more intellectual, untainted by the early 1960s zeitgeist.
So it is with great joy for someone who has known Bob since those halcyon days to see that the Arts Upstairs Gallery in Phoenicia will be showing his work, called “A Life in Art: Robert H. Draffen (July 2, 1932 – March 27, 2010).” “When I spoke with Ann, she told me that it was always Bob’s dream to show all his various types of work in one show,” said the gallery’s Posie Strenz. “So, with the help of the family, that is what we’re doing, albeit posthumously: giving the public a chance to see and be inspired by a retrospective of a stunning and amazing life’s work in art.”
“A Life in Art,” the work of Bob Draffen, opening Saturday, December 15, 6 to 10 p.m., up through January 13, Arts Upstairs Gallery, 60 Main Street, Phoenicia; (917) 754-7548.