Back to home page Artist Art History Contact
Paintings Watercolors Drawings Early Works

Artist Biography:
I studied in the Design Department of Brooklyn College from 1949 to 1952, where I was fortunate to have among my teachers Burgoyne Diller, Jimmy Ernst, Stanley William Hayter, Mark Rothko, Alfred Russell, Clyfford Still, and Robert Jay Wolff. After two years in the army I spent a year at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London (1954-55). I returned to do a Masters degree in painting at Oberlin College from 1955 to 1957; Irving Marcus and Paul Arnold were among my teachers there. I then moved to San Francisco, where I painted for two years and exhibited locally in group shows. Around that time I began to study art history at Berkeley, where I did a dissertation on the early work of Claude Monet, receiving my PhD in 1967.

I taught history of art at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, from 1964 through 1995; my research and writing was mainly in the area of French Impressionism. After retirement I moved back to Berkeley in early 1996 and resumed a painting career lain fallow for 35 years.

I have been painting full time since 1996. For several years I worked almost exclusively in pen, gouache, and watercolor, mostly figurative (see Watercolors), then in 2002 returned to my roots in abstract painting and for the next several years worked primarily in oils on canvas. In 2010, I stepped back from oil painting, returning to paper and working for the most part with brush pens, markers, and pastel (see Drawings/still lifes and trunks).

Artist Statement:
From 2003 to 2009 I worked exclusively in oils on canvas, mostly 36" square or 40" x 30" in vertical format. Almost all the work is abstract, guided in the first few years by a commitment to process, to discovery, letting one thing follow from another. Sometimes I would have a theme or program in mind that led me along the way, like "the seasons" or "colors" or "still lifes."

Around 2005, however, I began to concentrate on two series, the "Wall" and the "Burqa", and in those works process was fully engaged with a predetermined goal. These series provided the dominant theme of my solo exhibition "Walls" at the Graduate Theological Union Library in 2008.

The Burqa series emerged as a response to 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. The section of the destroyed World Trade Center that stood briefly after the towers fell -- the original delicate screen-work of the façade now bent and torn into a jagged filigree -- soon blended in my mind's eye with the threaded opening of the burqa, through which Afghan women looked out at the world. The criss-crossed web of the burqa became for me the sign of everything that was wrong with the Afghan misadventure.

The Wall series is concerned with the construction of the separation barriers between Israel and Palestine and the United States and Mexico. My principal focus has been on the fence that Israel has been building in an effort to protect its citizens from the threat of Palestinian suicide attacks. I see the fence as inimical to the forging of a just resolution to a conflict that has lasted for more than half a century. The wall is destructive by its very nature--destructive of human community, of livelihood, of land and landscape, and of hope for a peaceful future. As well, I see the U.S./Mexico fence as a crude instrument that is bound to fail in its purpose: to exclude job-seeking Mexican and Central American immigrants from reaching this side of the border. It addresses the issue of how the border might be secured, but it does not deal with why the situation exists in the first place.

Solo Exhibitions
Joel Isaacson: Bark, Berkeley Arts Festival, 2133 University Ave, Berkeley, CA, March 13-April 5, 2015 [Press Release.]
Joel Isaacson: Walls, Flora Lamson Hewlett Library, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, October 2, 2008-January 30, 2009     [Video interview.]

Group Exhibitions
Art for Change, Flora Lamson Hewlett Library, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, March 15-June 15, 2012
Pro Arts Juried Annual, Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, CA, 2008
Pro Arts Juried Annual, Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland , CA, 2007
A Tribute to Peter Selz, b. sakata garo, Sacramento, CA, November 6-December 7, 2007
Since 1996 I have shown my work at annual members showcases at the Berkeley Art Center and Richmond Art Center and contributed paintings to several of the annual benefit auctions at both institutions. I also exhibited with East Bay Open Studios in June 2005.
Art History:
Selected books, catalogues, articles

Manet and Spain, exhibition catalogue, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1969.

Monet: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, London and New York, 1972

Claude Monet: Observation and Reflection, Oxford and New York, 1978

The Crisis of Impressionism, 1878-1882, exhibition catalogue, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1980

"Impressionism and Journalistic Illustration," Arts Magazine, 56, June 1982, pp. 95-115

"Observation and Experiment in the Early Work of Claude Monet," in Aspects of Monet, ed. J. Rewald and F. Weitzenhoffer, New York, 1984, pp. 14-35

"The Painters Called Impressionists," in The New Painting, Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco and Washington, DC, 1986, pp. 357-93

"Manet's Empathy," Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Art, 2, 1987, pp. 99-110

"Pissarro's Doubt," Apollo, 136, Nov. 1992, pp. 320-24

"Constable, Duranty, Mallarmé, Impressionism, Plein Air, and Forgetting," The Art Bulletin, 76, September 1994, pp. 427-50

"Sisley, Snow, Structure," in Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1998, pp. 57-77