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  1. Visual Arts

Leepa-Rattner's 'Henry and Abe' exhibition celebrates friendship

The friendship that Abraham Rattner, left, and Henry Miller began in Paris endured for their lifetimes. They are shown here at a cafe where they often met.
The friendship that Abraham Rattner, left, and Henry Miller began in Paris endured for their lifetimes. They are shown here at a cafe where they often met.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

TARPON SPRINGS

Henry Miller and Abraham Rattner were the unlikeliest BFFs.

Miller's nerdy appearance masked a raunchy ego, and Rattner's burly frame and wild mane of hair hid a gentle soul. Yet close they were as we discover in "Henry and Abe: Finding America" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art. The exhibition is a remarkable achievement by Lynn Whitelaw, the museum's founding director and now its chief curator.

"Henry and Abe'' contains hundreds of drawings, paintings, books, artifacts and other items that bear witness to their friendship and to a celebrated road trip the writer Miller (1891-1980) and artist Rattner (1893-1978) took in the early 1940s.

The friendship began in Paris in the early 1930s when both expatriates were part of its vibrant arts scene that included luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and John Dos Passos. Miller, who loved painting with watercolors, often visited Rattner's studio and a wall of portraits of Miller that Rattner made during those visits. Miller loved watching Rattner work and admired his discipline. A bromance was born.

The Paris years unfold in the first gallery with copies of Miller's novels inscribed to Rattner and his wife, Bettina; a literary magazine with a story by Dos Passos; and a cover by Rattner, and a landscape he created in 1920 when he first came to Paris with Weeks Hall, a fellow graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It's a moody river view done before he began exploring contemporary movements such as cubism and surrealism, but in it are the interpretive elements he would develop as he matured. Several works that were bought by or gifts to Dos Passos have also been lent to the museum by his daughter, Lucy Coggin. One of them, Le Bistrot, is a bustling cafe scene that shows the influences he was absorbing during his Paris years as he began reimagining them in his own unique style.

By the late 1930s, with political tensions increasing, the Rattners returned to the United States. Miller arrived in 1940, in between his second and third marriages. He would have five in all. Rattner had been gone for almost 20 years (and would never have left France had the war not intervened) and Miller for 10. They decided that they should reacquaint themselves with their country and planned a trip that would begin in New York and wind down and around until they reached Louisiana, where Hall lived in a lovely old family home.

They also planned a book, and with a $500 advance from Miller's publisher he bought a second-hand 1932 Buick roadster. Neither knew how to drive so Miller took a few lessons. During their three-month trek, Rattner created more than 500 sketches and chronicled the adventure in notebooks. Dozens of them are displayed and show the range of their discoveries.

Of that journey, Miller wrote, "While I drove at 60 miles an hour, Rattner made pen and ink sketches, or rather brush and ink sketches, of the landscape ahead. He made hundreds of them, all at the same speed as the car, so to speak. At night, in a hostelry, we would go over them and rehearse the day's itinerary."

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The drawings confirm Rattner's skill as a draftsman and his ability to see the essential components of a scene and capture it with spontaneity and authority.

A trio of photographs records a hilarious (probably alcohol-fueled) Dada-esque scenario during their reunion with Hall in which the three men pose amid random items that include antlers, which are also part of the show.

After that visit Rattner returned to New York and Miller continued west, where he eventually settled in Big Sur, Calif. The collaborative book never happened because the publisher reportedly didn't want Rattner's illustrations, so each man wrote about his experiences separately.

Rattner's career was taking off in the United States, while Miller was nearly destitute. His books, such as Tropic of Cancer, had been banned here for their sexually explicit language. Only in the 1960s, when the Supreme Court overruled obscenity charges, did he become widely read (and wealthy) and revered as a cult figure as he had been for years in Europe.

During the war years, the two remained close even though Miller was a staunch pacifist and Rattner an active supporter. Like many artists, he created posters for the war bond effort, and one of them is part of the exhibition. Throughout their later years, they continued to write about their admiration for each other in extravagant language that borders on gushing.

You have probably discerned that I'm writing about "Henry and Abe" as a historical and biographical story rather than my usual straight-on art review. This show's great value is in its documentation of a relationship and how it shaped each man. Whitelaw has worked on it for more than a decade, doing copious amounts of research almost since the museum opened in 2002. The many details of their friendship and their road trip had never been studied until he took it on.

"I knew it would be a show someday," he said. "I'm hopeful that the text may get published and then I'll feel it's research that got to go forward."

There was urgency in organizing it now, too, because Whitelaw, 66, will retire in October after a distinguished career. He decided to step down from the directorship in 2010 after accepting the state's DROP plan for deferred retirement so he could spend the time remaining on the collection and curating exhibitions. This is his final big show, and it's appropriate that "Henry and Abe: Finding America" is probably the best one he has ever done.

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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