A Great Beginning
When Ed Block’s father died three years ago, he and his siblings were left to look for keepsakes while disposing of the contents of his Florida home. When opening a large, flat box stored in a closet, they were flooded by memories of their father, ever eager to show off a possession prized for 30 years: an unframed lithograph series by Abraham Rattner, a contemporary Jewish American painter.
"He loved to show them," said Block, of Laguna Hills. "But he never figured out what to do with it," he said of the collection. "He didn’t want to split them all up" between his three children.
In vivid primary colors with figures drawn in bold, black strokes, the 12 large pictures in the series titled, "In the Beginning," depict seminal moments of Jewish biblical history, along with an appropriate citation and quote. Several suggest the dreamy fantasies of Chagall; others are painted with a dark, foreboding cubism in a style reminiscent of Picasso. Just 200 were printed in the early ’70s.
Among the biblical characters portrayed are Moses at the burning bush, Adam and Eve and Sampson and Delilah. The abstract lithographs mounted in contemporary frameless Lucite will be permanently displayed on the second floor of the synagogue under a vast skylight.
The collection can be viewed through Aug. 27 in the current exhibit at the Kershaw Museum in Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. The modernist series aptly fits Beth El’s contemporary architecture, reborn after an extensive remodeling from its original industrial use. The congregation relocated from trailers in 2001.
Block’s father owned the lithograph collection, because he was a childhood friend of Rattner’s publisher, New York art dealer Bill Haber.
After his father’s death in February 2001, neither Block nor his two siblings, Cheryl Gelber and Marilyn Harvey, were ready to hang the collection in their homes. Eventually, they decided to celebrate their father by making the collection a gift to Beth El. Jo Anne Simon, whose family helped establish the synagogue, served as an intermediary.
"I wanted it close to home so I could go and visit it," said Block, a physician. He and Lori, his wife, are 15-year synagogue members. His own artistic preference favors the realism of Israeli artist Tarkay, who sentimentally portrays women in vibrant scenes.
Recent appraisals valued the collection, one of Rattner’s lesser known works, at about $15,000, Block said. "It’s not that valuable. Its value is that it’s intact."
Individual prints from the series can be found for sale but not the entire collection, he said. Alan Wofsy Fine Art in San Francisco acquired Rattner’s portfolio a decade ago and currently lists signed and numbered lithographs made by the artist in the last decade of his life for $400 each.
In the decade that preceded Rattner’s biblical series, the artist’s work began reflecting religious themes and his Jewish heritage. One of his best known from that era is "Victory — Jerusalem the Golden," honoring Israel’s 20th anniversary of independence.
Rattner was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His parents were immigrants who came to the United States to flee anti-Semitism and czarist Russia. Work by the artist, who died in 1978, was widely exhibited in his lifetime and is included in several museum collections.
His personal papers and those of his second wife, Esther Gentle, are archived in the Smithsonian’s collections, in part because of Rattner’s friendships with some of the century’s most creative luminaries. After serving in World War I, where duty included painting camouflage, Rattner spent 20 formative years in Paris, a cultural center for disillusioned expatriates. He experimented with cubism, futurism and expressionism, which would inform his later work that pushed the boundaries of artistic tradition.
During that period in Paris, he was part of a group that included Picasso, Dali and Miro and writers such as Henry Miller, a friend for 40 years who would join the artist on a road trip in the United States.
The introduction to "In the Beginning" is by the artist’s dealer. Haber wrote, "The 12 scenes symbolize man’s aspirations, his triumphs and defeats, his wisdom, his folly, his hopes and his prayers. There is no end to ‘In the Beginning.’"
Miller, too, added an introductory comment: "I’m so happy to see that with the advance of time, my dear old friend, Abe Rattner, continues to reveal that exaltation of spirit. He has the uncommon faculty of combining wrath, biblical wrath, with ecstasy. His work speaks of a living God, a God of infinite compassion and understanding. It belongs not in the museum, but in the cathedral of a new and promising world."
At least by one measure, Miller’s comments proved prophetic. For sure, Beth El’s remodeling transformed a secular environment into a public space with cathedral-like qualities.