The painter Ruth Miller (born 1930) moved into a tiny, shared apartment somewhere in the slice of East Tenth Street bounded by Third and Fourth Avenue, at a time when a small but promising subculture there was transforming into Art History, capital-A, capital-H. The birth of performance art, the rebirth of American painting, the libertinism of the new poets—it all happened, between 1949 and 1959, in that dirty sliver of lower Manhattan.
Miller herself arrived in 1953. The neighborhood was flooded with a virile, unyielding energy. She enrolled in the Art Students League during its Rauschenberg–Judd–Twombly–Frankenthaler heyday. She attended parties, visited the World House Gallery, befriended Esteban Vicente, Philip Guston, and her neighbor, the doyenne of Tenth Street, Elaine de Kooning. But those halcyon days came to an end, as they inevitably do, in 1959, when Miller decided to move to Landenberg, Pennsylvania—a name so nondescript that it seems lifted straight from the sepia world of Sherwood Anderson.
This fateful decision is a juncture that, although never emphasized nor played up, seems to animate “Ruth Miller’s Enduring View” at the New York Studio School. At its core, “Enduring View” is a kind of intimate tribute to the painted form and a demonstration of Miller’s lifelong commitment to it. Her launching point, like that of so many of her epoch, was Cézanne. “I believe,” said Miller in a 2008 lecture, “Cézanne’s apples were a stand-in for the world; maybe they were the world for Cézanne. When I look at his apples, they’re the world for me.”
Cézanne’s method revolved around the principal necessity to aller sur le motif—an enigmatic idiom meaning roughly to “go to the source.” But it’s difficult to encapsulate what exactly is held in that little French word motif, at once a source, an image, and an idea. The curator Kara Carmack based the exhibition upon her reaction to the untiring recurrence of certain visual motifs that she found throughout Miller’s career; or rather, found in Miller’s work after 1959, for the Landenberg relocation seems to be where Miller’s story was really set in motion. It was there that she took what she’d learned at the febrile heart of the New York scene and impressed it upon her most pervasive motif, the Landenberg trees. Karmack originally envisioned an exhibition exclusively of paintings from this time just after the New York departure, and of primarily large-scale canvases to boot. One can only be grateful the plan changed, because much of this early, oversized work is Miller’s weakest: a nod toward the monumentality so in vogue among her Abstract Expressionist compeers, but lacking the requisite skill or panache. Four Trees, Emerald, Purple (#8) (ca. 1960s) is poorly arranged, and its color is overplayed. One finds a similar tendency in Red Tree, Landenberg (ca. 1960s)—here we see for the first time Miller’s struggles with the color red, which, even in her later work, she never mastered.
The exhibition features a smattering of still lifes and landscapes, in which Miller is constantly looking for that elusive “enduring view,” wherein the subject retains its individuality, its wholeness as an object: “If I’m lucky, the painting will look back at me with the force of a portrait.” Miller paints stones, trees, shells, a variety of fruits. Miller experimented in her paintings of these subjects again and again, but in the early work they are devoid of that certain “force” she’s looking to impart.
Then, sometime around the turn of the century, a gradual yet momentous shift occurs. The forms clarify; the colors vitalize; the canvasses shrink in scale but deepen in resonance. In other words, it all comes together. The work in “Enduring View” may be uneven, but the exhibition itself is compelling for the way it narrativizes the painter’s common struggle: that of incorporating, over a lifetime of work, one’s many influences into a clarified approach to the canvas. Miller’s career bears the imprint of a struggle with Cézanne, Chardin, Morandi, Matisse, and Rembrandt. And finally, after fifty years, this struggle finds its peace.
The proof? Maple and Shed in Winter (2009), painted when she was seventy-nine. It has all the Miller hallmarks—a certain neutrality, a flatness, and, of course, a deciduous tree that twists and surges out of view. But what it also has is a clarity that none of her early work possesses. The arrangement of the scene is simple. The barrenness of winter reduces each object to a pared-back shape, a strong line. The deep browns, murky whites, and melancholic olives hold the weight of the objects they represent with a fullness that only comes with the proper handling of paint. The scene is beautiful and wholly satisfying—far more so than anything she made while jaunting through the brownstones of Tenth Street.
Perhaps the Landenberg move, more than a going to the source, was Miller’s inchoate rejection of where American art was going by 1959. Miller’s more total abstractions don’t work; she even admitted as much. “At that time, I didn’t know that much about painting,” she said. “I had prejudices instead of skills.” It’s only once she embraced a more recognizable style of representation—and the technical draughtsmanship that goes with it—that her canvases caught fire.
And yet, Miller never really let go of abstraction; she has simply repurposed it, attuned it to her delicate and ever more refined sensibility. In a 2014 interview with Stuart Shils, Miller said: “I’m not interested in describing the object. I’m interested in the presence, the weight, the mass, relationships. But it’s not about describing things. I don’t think that is enough. I think that’s nothing, really.” Landenberg or no, the will of the young painter hidden away next door to Elaine de Kooning continues to pulsate in the older woman. And now, at the Studio School just a couple of blocks south from that central locus of the American artistic golden age, we see how far Ruth Miller voyaged to return to where she began.