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Mama MoMA


Unlike her mentor, who tended to spend most of his time amid the white-glove set on the Upper East Side, Miller was most comfortable in the bohemian casualness downtown. “If I hadn’t known any artists,” she says, “I certainly wouldn’t know a damn thing about art. You simply have to know the people and see them working and let them tell you about their pictures.” She was out in artists’ studios as much as she was in museums, cajoling and socializing. She’d go to Walker Evans’s apartment on Bethune Street, strung with clothesline on which his photographs were hanging. “I’d crack the whip and have a drink,” she said.

When she began working at the museum, Miller was living with Cahill—itself an avant-garde concept—on 8th Street. Rents were low, and many of their artist friends lived in crumbling brownstones on nearby blocks. “It was wonderful,” she said. “You know, you’d just regularly say, ‘Hello, Hans Hofmann!’ every morning when you went out, or whatever. It was very pleasant.” Everyone was poor, though she and her husband were slightly less poor than some of the painters. The two took painting lessons from their friends Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis, partly to help support them as painters.

Her favorite hangout in the thirties was Romany Marie’s Cafe, on 8th Street, which served cheap Romanian food and beer and had, at the time, the best salon. There she met Buckminster Fuller, and hung out with Isamu Noguchi and even Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, the Arctic explorer. “At Marie’s, people didn’t have enough money to get drunk. People just talked and talked and talked,” she said. “It was very amusing.”

Later, she was a regular at the Club, the seminal Abstract Expressionist discussion group, which included De Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell, as well as the critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. “We all went like going to prayer meeting,” she said.

In the fifties, she became den mother to an entire generation of American painters, mostly men. She made the rounds of their studios, visiting Rothko’s on Sixth Avenue, or Franz Kline at his place on Tompkins Square Park. (“It’s terrible in Tompkins Square,” Kline told her. “Everybody is in bed by eight o’clock at night. You could be in northern Vermont.”) After a long night of drinking at the Cedar Tavern, Pollock would often drop over to visit with Miller and her husband.

The artists vied for her attention, which she was unfailingly generous with. Her female charm was apparently a necessary antidote to the testosterone (and, of course, alcohol) that drove the Greenwich Village art scene at the time. “Miller approached painting with a very particular, personal, what I would call a womanly warmth,” says the painter Jack Youngerman, now 77, another of the anointed in her “Sixteen Americans” show. “Her physical presence—the voice was part of it, this very subtle, imperceptible animation.

“I lived in a very out-of-the-way place in a very out-of-the-way part of the building,” he adds, recalling his first visit with Miller. “Just to visit was an act of generosity on her part. There was no big ego out there to block her vision.”

“A lot of the time, people were working in the dark,” says James Rosenquist. “It was nice to be noticed. Dorothy was very pretty, very elegant, yet dealing with avant-garde people in their rough-and-tumble studios.”

“A lot of the time, people were working in the dark,” says James Rosenquist. “It was nice to be noticed. Dorothy was very pretty, very elegant, and yet dealing with these avant-garde people in the rough-and-tough studios of the day.” Miller was the first to give the former billboard painter a one-man museum show, in 1963.

Miller retired from the museum in 1969 at age 65, but she wasn’t about to leave the art world. Through contacts she had made over the years, particularly with the Rockefeller family, who were instrumental in building the museum, she was hired for a number of high-profile consulting jobs, such as creating the art collections for Chase Bank and Rockefeller University.

The summer following her retirement from MoMA, Miller was up at her country house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Ellsworth Kelly, who lived ten miles away, invited her for lunch at his house, and swung by to pick her up. She lived in a house “filled with beautiful early-American furniture,” Kelly notes, directly across the street from the year-old Norman Rockwell Museum. Miller had planted a row of trees—ostensibly to block her view of the tour buses—but it worked as an apt expression of her taste as well.

“Her generosity, and her smile, and her eyes,” Kelly says. “Her eyes were just incredible, smart and very important in the art world.” Kelly, now 80, tears up when he recalls this warm afternoon in the Berkshires. “I don’t know anyone else in the art world quite like her,” he says. “There will never be anyone quite like her again.”

Canaday, the Times critic, who died in 1985, eventually came around and fell in love with some of the painters he’d been so dismissive of. But Miller, whose appreciation for what was new was always so sunny, never stopped wondering about her old antagonist. “One of the things about Canaday and his bitterness is that he’s a destructive man and he really wants to destroy an artist that he doesn’t like,” she said many years later. “But he found that he couldn’t do this. He found that no matter what he said, no matter how devastating, that artist was going to go right on working.”

“I’m glad he changed,” she said, “but I don’t know—I think one should be more open.”


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