This news certainly came as a shock. According to gallery owner Walter Otero, well-known Puerto Rican artist Arnaldo Roche-Rabell died of lung cancer this morning. He was 62 years old. Víctor Torres Montalvo reports for El Nuevo Día. [See original article in Spanish, with related videos and photos at El Nuevo Día.]
Roche-Rabell—for many, the most important contemporary Puerto Rican painter and, according to critics, one of the leading exponents in the world of figurative expressionism—suffered from lung cancer and spent his last days very discreetly, surrounded by his older sisters, Miriam, Raquel and Norma. Also with his close friend and protector—of his person and legacy—Otero, who met the visual arts educator when he was 17 years old and went to listen to him deliver a lecture at the university. Then he became an assistant at his art studio and, later, his exclusive representative at the international level.
[Roche-Rabell] used to say, “The greatest challenge that contemporary artists have is not the issue of originality, but rather, that of sincerity.” And so he lived his life—with an intense and unlimited dedication to his art, with its sculpted-like matter, its tactile presence, its eternal contradiction between real surface and fictitious depth—scratching the oil-impregnated canvas with his fingernails.
Humble and reserved, Roche-Rabell always avoided pompous ceremonies and commitments where he was expected to wear a jacket and tie, where he was treated like a celebrity. Although he had all the merits to be thus treated. Furthermore, if to attend he had to get on a plane, the complications were already “in crescendo” and you had to excuse him outright or try to negotiate. “To this day,” he said, “I do not attend birthdays, weddings, funerals, or hospitals. I am always focused on the living, on those who move; I am focused on making every day a miracle, and of every encounter, an event that I can celebrate.” That was another of his fixed ideas.
He never thought of himself as a genius. Although he had plenty of genius. He did not like luxuries either. He always remained in the same apartment at El Monte, in Hato Rey. Perhaps a good car, although it seemed better to him if someone else drove it. A cap, glasses, jeans and a sweater, were the only things he needed to undertake any adventure. [. . .]
[. . .] At times, he produced, with a kind of violence, a work that was never docile, calm or quiet. Instead, it had more of a strong psychological content, nourished by historical referents, and heartbreakingly personal. Therefore, Roche-Rabell’s intention was never to close wounds, but rather to pick at them. There were wounds, which, he admitted, were never going to close. That is why he dared to paint his beloved mother María; his father, who was a policeman; and to make public—through clues in “Fraternos”—the schizophrenic disorder of his brother, who killed his sister in the living room of their home, and was later found dead of hunger and thirst in the forest. [. . .]
Roche-Rabell began his training at the Luchetti Art School in Santurce, the same town where he grew up in a wooden house. He was also a student of Lope Máx Díaz. As an adult, he began studying architecture at the University of Puerto Rico, although he did not finish. He took a sabbatical, encouraged by his professor Antonio Torres Martinó, who saw his true vocation as a painter. Then, with the help of visionaries—like Luis A. Ferré, who gave him funds for his studies and bought one of his paintings, entitled Homenaje a la madre [Homage to the Mother] and Ana G. Méndez, who also sponsored him—he enrolled in the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, a city that would be decisive in the time that he spent away from his country. Roche-Rabell always said that the city, with its energy and its museums, were the best possible education. Add to the mix, the Institute’s historian, Bob Loescher; his art teacher, Ray Yoshida; and his drawing teacher, Richard Keane. And, in Puerto Rico, from the early 1980s, the Botello Gallery would become his second home, with Maud Duquella as his guide on the roadways of the arts. They even worked together until the early nineties.
However, he never forgot José Campeche, Francisco Oller, or Ramón Frade, the Puerto Rican painters through whom, together with the Dutchman Van Gogh, he developed an aftertaste of dreams and pain. Roche-Rabell seemed to operate on a deeply unconscious level, in the great story that was his painting.
“Usually, I start a painting by placing three or four layers of paint on a previously prepared canvas. These layers are applied uniformly one on top of the other leaving several days between each application,” he would explain about his work. “I uniformly apply yellow, orange, red, and then darker oil colors, such as blue, violet, or green and let them dry until they are ready to receive figurative elements that are traced below the canvas, or the imprint of leaves, lace, or projections that appear in the foreground. The final result is an exploration of forms that makes use of the expressive capacities of oil, and in which techniques as varied as sculpture, drawing, and engraving are an essential part of these surfaces. I usually work on the floor around the painting. When I have to trace a body or an object, I must completely remove the canvas from its frame and stretch it while it is covered by multiple layers of oil paint, a minimum of five times average for each painting before finishing it. In the case of a live model, the individual must be able to breathe comfortably under the canvas, while I must maintain a spontaneous automatism and thus pay tribute to the inherent beauty of a body full of life or transposition of inanimate objects that accompany it.”
If “in this world created on canvas, everything must leave its mark”—which was one of the phrases on which he most liked to ruminate, because of his strong spiritual conscience—Arnaldo Roche-Rabell, undoubtedly, left his mark. Moving. Indelible. Unforgettable.
[Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full article, in Spanish, see https://www.elnuevodia.com/entretenimiento/cultura/nota/muereelpintorarnaldoroche-2460308/. Also see https://www.primerahora.com/estilos-de-vida/cultura/nota/falleceelpintorboricuaarnaldorocherabell-1312517/ and https://www.metro.pr/pr/entretenimiento/2018/11/17/fallece-pintor-arnaldo-roche.html.]