Two Friends of Henry Miller

Abe Rattner’s “Darkness Fell Over the Land” (1942)

I have been reading Henry Miller’s Remember to Remember (1947), his sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). Miller has always been interesting to me, even when he descends into rant, as he not infrequently does. Where the earlier book talked about places, the sequel deals mostly with people. Two painters appearing in that book are Abe Rattner (1896-1978) and Beauford Delaney (1901-1979).

As you may know, I reject the tendency of much of 20th century painting, whether here or in Europe, to go in for abstract expressionism. That might well be of interest to interior decorators, but the result of that tendency is a body of work that, of itself, strikes me as empty. Colorful, perhaps, but not so much as inviting a second glance. Art has to represent something other than mere color and form. The literary equivalent might be a selection of adverbs or prepositions without any human context.

In “A Bodhisattva Artist,” Henry Miller expresses his unbounded admiration for Rattner as a person and for his work. such as the above illustrated “Darkness Fell Over the Land,” referring to the aftermath of the crucifixion. Rattner is an artist of the sacred, somewhat like Georges Rouault, but with both a Christian and a Jewish perspective.

Beauford Delaney’s “Jazz Club” (1950)

Beauford Delaney is an African-American artist who was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and died in Paris, France. Miller got to know him in New York, and wrote an essay about the painter and his work in “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford DeLaney.” He is considered to be a representative artist of the Harlem Renaissance, though when he moved to France, he converted (alas) to abstract expressionism.

According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Delaney felt an immediate affinity with [New York’s] “multitude of people of all races – spending every night of their lives in parks and cafes” surviving on next to nothing. Their courage and shared camaraderie inspired him to feel that “somehow, someway there was something I could manage if only with some stronger force of will I could find the courage to surmount the terror and fear of this immense city and accept everything insofar as possible with some calm and determination.”

I am always interested in finding outliers to the predominant currents of art. Henry Miller, being no mean painter himself, did at times exhibit exquisite tastes.


Outliers: James Castle of Idaho

Outlier Artist James Castle (1899-1977)

When I look at the recent history of art in, say, the last hundred years, I see a host of reputations I would like to see toppled. Enough of the Mondrians, the de Koonings, the Pollockses, the Rothkos, and their ilk! That’s why I am interested in exploring the outliers, who explored the boundaries of art without trapping themselves in some movemen such as abstract expressionism.

Today, I look at James Charles Castle of Garden Valley, Idaho. According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Castle was a self-taught artist who created drawings, assemblage and books throughout his lifetime. Castle was born profoundly deaf and for at least some time attended the Gooding School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding, Idaho, but it is not known to what extent he could read, write, or use sign language. Castle’s artworks were created almost exclusively with found materials such as papers salvaged from common packaging and mail, in addition to food containers of all types. Castle mixed ink using soot from the woodstove and saliva and applied it with tools of his own making, including sharpened sticks, and other found objects. His drawings sensitively depict interiors, buildings, animals, landscapes and people based on his family’s rural Garden Valley homestead as well as the architecture and landscapes of the places he lived and visited.


Like many of Castle’s works, the above obviously used a folded sheet of paper that had come his way with a tear toward the lower right corner. Created as it is of spit, soot, and found paper, it beautifully balances shapes and tones.


Even when his own work approaches the abstract, Castle manages to make the viewer stop and think. What is this? A tree, a person, a skyscraper, a computer printer—all drawn at the same scale? And what of those geometric designs in the lower right corner? And the picture is in the form, basically, of a horizontal landscape.


Outliers: From Slavery to the Art World

Alabama Artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949) Surrounded by His Works

Bill Traylor was born in Benton, Alabama, where his parents were slaves of a white cotton grower named George Hartwell Traylor. It was only when Traylor was in his seventies that his work began to be noticed. His first show was in 1942, when the artist was in his eighties. By this time, he had only a few years left to him.

Community Building a House

An American primitive, Traylor painted both rural and urban scenes containing people, animals, and plants. Some of his works are on irregularly-shaped backgrounds, as you can see from the top photo.

Black Couple Dancing

Some people get enthusiastic about abstract expressionism. I for one do not. Bill Traylor’s drawings speak volumes nto me. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko do not.


Outliers: Czeching Out the Women

Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) with Home-Made Junk Camera

This is one of an occasional series on alternatives to the “giants” of modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists whose work I so dislike. Today I write about Miroslav Tichý of the Czech Republic, who made his own cameras. His subject? The women of Kyjov, the town where he lived. None of the pictures for which he is noted are sharp. He seems to be intent on seeing how fuzzy his pictures can be and still communicate what he wants them to.

Women at Swimming Pool

The above photograph is a good example. It shows three young bikini-clad girls walking around the edge of a swimming pool.  It is framed by surrounding foliage including the trunk of a tree at left and bushes and leaves on three sides.

Nude with Frame

Here we have what, in the hands of a realist painter, would be a classical nude partially obscured on the lower left by an unidentified object. At first, I thought it was her leg; but it couldn’t be.

Looking at his pictures, I cannot deny that they have a certain elegance and beauty. Tichý described his methods tersely in two unconnected sentences:

  • “First of all, you have to have a bad camera”
  • “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

As American urban slang shows, you can be bad and good at the same time.


Outliers: Henry Darger

Henry Darger, “Untitled”

Much of 20th century art, particularly abstract expressionism, has taken painting down a rathole. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman—that whole crew has eschewed images of reality in favor of splotches of color and assorted shapes referring only to themselves.

Yesterday, I read an article in The New York Review of Books by Sanford Schwartz entitled “In Their Own Worlds” (June 7, 2018) which described two art exhibitions featuring folk art and other “outsider” art:

In recent decades, a tale unfolding within the larger story of contemporary art has been our gradually learning more about, and our trying to place, outsider artists. Problems begin at once, with the label. It is a description that many remain ambivalent about, and often believe should be put in quotation marks, to indicate its tentativeness. The situation somewhat echoes the moment, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, when folk art was being taken out of attics and looked at anew, and commentators were not sure whether that term—or the labels “self-taught,” “naive,” or “primitive,” among others—was the appropriate one or would merely suffice. “Self-taught,” though imprevcise in its way—it has been said, for example, that most of the significant painters of the nineteenth century were essentially self-trained—has remained interchangeable with “folk art” for many commentators.

I have decided to focus on one of the artists mentioned in the article, Henry Joseph Darger Jr (1892-1973).

He Seems to Like Painting Pictures of Little Girls

Darger’s paintings are frequently of little girls, clothed and unclothed, sometimes with penises. In the picture above, the girls, blonde, beribboned, and, for the most part, wearing identical dresses and red socks, are running from the path of an advancing steam locomotive.

More Little Girls, This Time Including Blondes and Brunettes

Many of the Chicago artists are in horizontal scroll format. I guess what I like about Darger’s paintings is that they are so cryptic and surrealistic. One is repeatedly drawn to the images and finding something new in them. Slightly to the left of center of the above painting, for instance, is a witch riding a broom confronting a little blonde girl riding a tricycle.

I hope to find a few more outlier painters whom I like and present their work to you in future posts.