the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art opened about 10 years ago on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, devoted to the art of Abraham Rattner, a not-so-well-known 20th century artist who had well-known friends, including Pablo Picasso.
Rattner's stepson, Allen Leepa, and his wife, Isabelle, were its great benefactors, giving almost all of the art in it and a substantial monetary donation to help build it. It has provided a great boost to Rattner's reputation in the art world and to upper Pinellas County, where it is the only art museum.
Lynn Whitelaw, the founding director, capitalized on that cultural monopoly with shows in the special exhibitions gallery that complemented the core Rattner collection. It contained not only works by Rattner (plus some by Leepa and his mother, Esther Gentle) but those by famous friends and a trove of letters and documents that create a rich and real feel of his life and times, especially Rattner's years in Paris between the wars. Whitelaw also broadened the museum's scope with shows that highlighted other 20th century artists and movements.
What no one foresaw in the early years was that the collection would grow significantly. It already had most of the works by Rattner that weren't owned by museums. The Leepa-Rattner didn't have a collecting mission much beyond its namesake artist. But something interesting happened along the way: People who fell in love with the museum began to donate art, especially fine art prints.
"Telling Stories: Building a Legacy — Prints From the Collection" is an homage to the burgeoning holdings in prints.
"I wanted to call this show 'From Goya to Gilliam' because of its span," says Whitelaw, who stepped down from the director's job to become chief curator, following his primary professional love.
It is an expansive gathering with more than 100 works by almost as many artists, beginning with 18th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya and continuing into the contemporary world of living artists such as Sam Gilliam. The variety guarantees a lively walk-through, as does the arrangement.
The show begins in the museum lobby with an introduction of printmaking techniques with examples from the collection. The centerpiece is a lovely etching by Rattner, Among Those Who Stood, accompanied by the preliminary pen and ink drawing, the metal plate he created for the print (a wonderful addition) and the same image printed with different colors and tones to illustrate the malleability of the medium.
Rather than taking a chronological approach to the rest of the exhibition, Whitelaw broke the prints out by themes such as portraits, social commentary and abstraction.
You'll find your own favorites. Here are a few of mine:
• Leonard Baskin's 1970 etching Thistle and Flower is a lovely botanical print that gets it color from the delicate incised lines rather than washes and is composed with about 40 percent of the paper left blank. So elegant.
• Among a group of marvelous portraits, Edouard Manet's Charles Baudelaire, Paul Cézanne's Portrait of A. Guillaumin and George Z. Constant's dual portraits of Marc Chagall and Madame Chagall show the range of effects possible with the etching process.
• Nine color etchings by Pierre Spalaikovitch that relate to Salvador Dalí's life and work are displayed individually. But when we also see them arranged together in a certain order, they become a portrait of Dalí. In another order, they become a portrait of his wife, Gala. The Many Faces of Truth is a fun and clever riff on Dalí's famous optical illusion works.
• The work itself isn't one of my favorites, but I like Victor Vasarely's Czakk, a colored screenprint on wood, because it is a three-dimensional sculpture that will surprise some viewers. Same for George Sugerman's double print that looks like a painting and has dimensional accordion folds.
A wall panel at the gallery entrance isn't art, but it's an important and compelling part of the show. It lists the 60 or so donors who have contributed art to the museum over the past decade. Some are individuals, some institutions and businesses. The panel is a testament to the importance of generosity. The exhibition is a testament to its power.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.