Writings of Henry Miller, ‘Just a Brooklyn Boy,’ featured in art exhibit in Tarpon Springs, Florida

June 29, 2015 By Palmer Hasty Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
"Henry and Abe" artwork. Rattner pen and ink on paper with Miller writing. Image courtesy of Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art.

The Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, Florida is currently holding an exhibition of works by figurative expressionist painter Abraham Rattner and Brooklyn author Henry Miller, known as the “bad boy” of American literature. The exhibition will run through Aug. 23.  

The exhibition is titled “Henry & Abe Finding America” and is promoted as “An exhibition celebrating the travels of two of America’s most interesting 20th-century cultural figures who, in 1940, set out to ‘rediscover’ America after years as expatriates in Paris, France.”

The show is a documentation of original artwork (“words and images”) created during Miller’s and Rattner’s artistic road trip from New York City to New Iberia, Louisiana.   

The Trip’s Origin
Henry Miller moved from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Paris in 1930 and lived the life of an expatriate writer. In Paris he was subsidized by Anais Nin, another well-known writer from that period. It is said that Nin and her husband paid Miller’s rent during the 10 years Miller lived in Paris. Miller was also having an affair with Nin.  

Miller and Nin were part of the dynamic art scene of expatriates in Paris during the 1930s that included the likes of Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and writer John Dos Passos. Miller also liked the expressionist work of another expatriate, Abraham Rattner, whose studio he often visited in Paris. The two eventually became friends.

Miller had returned to the states in 1940. Rattner was living in Paris for 20 years before returning to the states that same year because of the fear of a Nazi invasion. Back in the states, the two friends met again in New York City and decided to “reacquaint” themselves with their homeland. They planned an artistic road trip from New York to New Iberia, Louisiana. They traveled by way of the Mid-Atlantic, Appalachian and southern states.

Neither one of them knew how to drive, so they both took driving lessons. Miller bought a 1932 Buick four-door sedan and off they went. Rattner produced more than 500 pen, ink and wash sketches during the three-month road trip.

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Local Coverage
Local art critic for the Tampa Bay Times Lennie Bennett wrote a feature review of the Miller-Rattner exhibition earlier this month for the “Latitudes” section of the paper. As Bennett said her feature review of “Henry and Abe” is more “a historical and biographical story rather than my usual straight-on art review.”
(One can read Bennett’s full review and see more artwork here)  

In the review, Bennett quotes one of Miller’s own interesting observations of the trip: “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.” 

 

Museum Curator Lynn Whitelaw
In an interview with Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art Curator Lynn Whitelaw, we learned that Whitelaw spent a decade collecting original artwork and organizing the exhibition.

Whitelaw said that he was fascinated with how the two opposite personalities came to admire and respect each other — Miller, the reckless bohemian, and Rattner, the quiet, introspective humanist. While involved in a Rattner exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art in 1995, Whitelaw said he decided to further study the relationship between the writer and the painter through the artwork created during the famous road trip they took together. The opening reception for the “Henry & Abe” exhibition featured a restored 1932 Buick four-door sedan, like the one used for the trip, with two professional look-alike actors playing the respective roles of Rattner and Miller.

 

Miller and Brooklyn
When Miller was born in 1891 his family lived at 450 East 85th St. in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. He spent nine years of his early childhood in Williamsburg at 662 Driggs Ave. Miller is known for having referred to the address as the “Fourteeth Ward” in his later writings. In 1900, his family moved to 1063 Decatur St. in Bushwick. He attended Eastern District High School (in Williamsburg) while his family remained in Bushwick.

Miller and his first wife Beatrice Sylvas Wickens lived at 244 6th Ave. in Park Slope from about 1917 to 1930, at which time he moved to Paris. While living in Park Slope with Wickens, Miller wrote his first novel titled “Clipped Wings,” which was never published.


Museum’s Brooklyn Connection
Another Brooklyn connection to the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art is that it was founded by Brooklyn native Allen Leepa. An abstract expressionist painter who graduated from Erasmus High School in 1937 and gave lectures on Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1940s, Leepa later moved to Tarpon Springs and subsequently founded the museum that thrives today as an integral part of the St. Petersburg College campus in Tarpon Springs. Leepa and his wife donated the initial $2.5 million, as well as his impressive collection of art to be permanently housed in the museum. Leepa’s role in creating the museum is also one of many subjects from a forthcoming online project by the Brooklyn Eagle titled “Brooklyn Footprints in Florida.”
 

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