Featured Windows, August 2004
Flint Institute of Arts Window
Building: Flint Institute of Arts (formerly known as DeWaters Art Center)
Photograph by Barbara Krueger by Permission of Flint Institute of Arts
It is not often that a stained glass window has been designed by a person not technically trained in stained glass but who is well known for work in other media. The Flint Institute of Arts, formerly known as the DeWaters Art Center, is quite fortunate to have a window designed by Abraham Rattner (1893-1978), well known in the New York and European pre- and post-World War II contemporary art world, before he experimented outside the canvas medium with mosaics, tapestry…. and stained glass.
Abraham Rattner was born in Poughkeepsie, NY, second of six children. His parents emigrated from Russia to escape anti-Semitism. Relatively poor, they encouraged him to draw and paint at a young age, and after high school he went to Washington, DC to study architecture at George Washington University. While there, Rattner took art courses at night at the Corcoran School of Art where he soon became a full-time art student. Further studies led him to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia where World War I interrupted his work. Because of his art background, he was put in charge of "camouflage," which in his later years became a subtle part of his artwork. He returned to school in 1919 and received a scholarship in 1920 to study and travel abroad. Shortly thereafter, Rattner's studies were completed and he settled in France for the next twenty years, marrying an American who was an art student and a Paris fashion correspondent.
This gave Rattner an unusual opportunity to become one of the few Americans who became very close to the modern art movements of the time, such as Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Modernism. He became a member of an avant-guard art group that included Picasso, Miro, Giacometti, Le Corbusier, Braque, Dali, and Dos Passos. But Rattner did not have a one-man show until 1935 while in his 40s in Paris. The impending political situation in Europe caused many Jewish artists, including the Rattners, to flee to the United States, unfortunately leaving many paintings behind. Rattner had a major adjustment to living in the United States. One of his first activities upon returning was to take a multi-state auto trip with author Henry Miller whom he knew in Paris and, as they were driving, to illustrate a book that Miller would write. Interestingly, they both had to learn to drive first. After the war, Rattner frequently returned to Paris, keeping an apartment there for many years.
Rattner's first wife, Bettina Bedwell, died suddenly after a short illness in 1947 and in 1949 he married Esther Gentile, who had three sons. One of his stepsons, Dr. Allen Leepa (1919-), was an instructor in the Art Department at Michigan State University (for 38 years) and encouraged Rattner to be a visiting artist at the school, which he did periodically from 1956 to 1961. In 1957 Rattner established his own summer art school with Leepa in East Hampton and Sag Harbor on Long Island in New York. At other times, Rattner was also a visiting artist at art schools and universities both in the U.S. and abroad.
Although Rattner may have experimented in stained glass as early as 1951, his first major venture into the art form was in 1955 when he was invited, along with seven stained glass designers and ten artists normally associated with canvas, to make a design that could be fabricated in stained glass. The Stained Glass Association of America and the American Federation of Art jointly sponsored the exhibition. These eighteen panels (each about 30"x30") were exhibited in numerous places across the United States including New York City, Cincinnati, Mount Holyoke, MA, the Philadelphia Art Alliance and the Arts Club of Chicago. Several of the artists made their own work. However, established stained glass studios in Chicago, St. Louis and New York fabricated many of the works in the show.
Most likely it was the publicity from this traveling exhibit that led to Rattner's Flint commission in 1956-58, the first of his two major stained glass commissions. While Rattner was teaching at MSU, he was contacted by Zoltan Sepeshy, president of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI concerning his possible interest in designing a window for the new museum under construction in Flint. Designed by the Detroit firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, this building would become the DeWaters Art Center.
As in his canvas painting, Rattner's stained glass designs are generally abstract, but with related symbolism that after World War II involved religious iconography expressing his concern for the inhumanity in the world. The Flint window contains a dove of peace, a balance scale and a sun, interwoven with blue, red and yellow glass. These colors also predominate in many of his paintings. Art critics and authors have remarked how his paintings, like those of Georges Rouault, look like stained glass, due to his use of black outlines. The Flint installation was fabricated by the Rambusch Studios in New York, measuring approximately 10' tall by 6' wide.
Rattner's second major stained glass commission was for the Chicago Loop Synagogue in 1960. This installation constitutes one whole wall, 30'x40', is three stories tall and was fabricated in Paris by the Jean Barrillet studio under Rattner's direct supervision.
In 1977, shortly before he died, Rattner was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Michigan State University. Rattner and his wife Esther are buried in Green River Cemetery in East Hampton on Long Island.
After his retirement from MSU, Allen Leepa and his wife moved to Florida and have contributed a $15 million art collection to St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs. This collection of more than 2,000 pieces, now called the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, includes Leepa's own work, but also that of Abraham Rattner, as well as important artwork Rattner and his wives collected.
Rattner and his wife Esther donated many of their papers and other documents to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington DC. This began in stages in 1972 while they were still living and then with family assistance continued until 1992, after both their deaths. A representative of the archives describes the collection as follows: "The collection documents Rattner's life and career as an artist through interviews, extensive correspondence, gallery files, studio notebooks, writings, letters, notes, date books and diaries, photographs, and works of art."
Bibliography: Show Bibliography
Text by Barbara Krueger, Michigan Stained Glass Census, August , 2004.