Allen Leepa died in July. A richly deserved tribute to the artist has been organized at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, the institution he founded at St. Petersburg College. Though not anywhere close to a comprehensive retrospective, it includes paintings, plus a few prints, drawings and one sculpture, that span his long career. • I have to say with regret that the homage is more appropriate as honoring his philanthropic gifts rather than his art because, though interesting and sometimes very good, the art doesn't ascend to greatness. Still it's worth seeing, especially in the context of the museum's larger collection of works by Leepa's stepfather, Abraham Rattner, providing lessons in the strengths and weaknesses of expressionism.
It's an approach to art, not an art movement. El Greco, for example, is termed an expressionist painter, as are Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock, three very different artists who have in common a sense that emotional reality is more important and truer than physical reality. You see that philosophy in the mystical distortions of El Greco, the landscaped dramas of van Gogh and the tortured drips of Pollock.
Leepa (1919-2009) came of age during the high days of an expressionist movement called abstract expressionism (Pollock is attached to it) and hewed to that sensibility throughout his career. His paintings seem to throb with intense feeling.
At their best, the staccato slashes of paint make deeper points than their abundance on the canvases, and seem like more than monologues using paint as a private language.
Confessions of a Clown, an early oil painting overlaid with pastel, owes something to the French artist Rouault but is more commanding than Untitled, created in 1998, with its bands of sweet colors — peach, raspberry, turquoise — that float pretty much unharnessed by a discernible organizing principle.
Two monumentally sized paintings in the museum lobby offer good contrasts, too. Grotesque Self Portrait has far more to say than Negative and Positive, a red, white and blue jigsaw puzzle of shapes and forms that looks flat next to the wonderfully layered look the artist gives us of himself, his face a black cutout with colorful ideas dancing around in its cavities, eyes looking bleak or plaintive depending on your angle in the room.
The emergent idea for me is that Leepa needed something specific to channel the deep feelings he wanted to transform into art. The Crucifixion group uses loosely represented hands stretching upward toward the heavens, weighted by deep, rich colors and somber black lines that suggest their bondage to the earth.
Lyric Tensions, Leepa's salute to his teacher Hans Hoffman, is one of my favorites in the show. It looks as if the artist's paint box exploded, a good idea because Hoffman was a master colorist. This is a brainstorm: a dense, tight diagonal grid of collaged colors sparked with spidery black. The core dissolves into a maelstrom of broader, looser color bands. The painting isn't resolved so much as dissolved, and it's smart, like walking away from an argument you can't win.
The problem with any form of expressionism is that one's depth of feeling must be matched by transcendent technique. It's probably one of the most difficult balances in art to get right.
A significant part of Leepa's contributions to the art world are the thousands of students he taught, both during his 38-year tenure as a professor at Michigan State University and as the author of The Challenge of Modern Art, a textbook now in its fifth printing. And of course in donating the enormous collection of works by Rattner, also an expressionist painter, along with works by Rattner's peer group that included Pablo Picasso and writer Henry Miller. Its value is estimated to be between $16 million and $20 million, and included about $2 million to build the museum, a cultural anchor in north Pinellas County.
Will Allen Leepa be celebrated in art history tomes? Probably not. And that omission will not necessarily reflect Leepa's legacy. He wanted to make a difference, wanted to translate his deep well of emotion into something meaningful. And he did.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.