Mama MoMA

Photo: Soichi Sunami

A few days after the opening of the MoMA’s 1959 show “Sixteen Americans,” a letter arrived at the museum from New York Times critic John Canaday. “For my money,” Canaday wrote, “these are the sixteen artists most slated for oblivion.” In the show were targets and flags by Jasper Johns, a collage of debris, including four Coke bottles, by Robert Rauschenberg, and works by Louise Nevelson and Ellsworth Kelly, among others. At the Herald Tribune, the critic Emily Genauer had a similarly bleak take. “It’s the usual Modern Museum potpourri, and since the museum people themselves don’t appear to take it too seriously, it would be wise to follow suit.” Genauer took particular offense at four austere black canvases—“unspeakably boring,” she called them—by a 23-year-old painter the show’s curator had discovered in a studio on West Broadway. The painter’s name was Frank Stella.

Dorothy Miller, the cheerfully radical champion of new American work who had curated the show, one of a series she organized spotlighting American artists, found the outrage highly amusing. In later years, she wished that Canaday had offered his dour prediction in the pages of the newspaper, rather than in a private letter, so she could make him pay for it. She was the most unflappable of soldiers in the battle over modern art—and also, certainly, the most underrated.

Brought onboard by Alfred H. Barr Jr. in 1934 initially as his assistant (her husband, Holger Cahill, had been working with Barr from early on and had been MoMA’s acting director while Barr traveled in Europe, but had left for a job with the WPA), Miller became the museum’s first curator, and worked happily in Barr’s considerable shadow for decades. Her charm and easygoing manners concealed a flinty Yankee toughness and an iconoclast’s eye for modern art. “She brought sparkle and prestige and credibility to American art,” artist James Rosenquist recalled. She took what curator and NYU professor Robert Rosenblum called “outrageous chances.” She was willing to “let the public think artists had gone crazy.”

For much of Miller’s tenure, the gallery scene in New York was almost nonexistent. The museum was a lifeline for young artists, and Miller was virtually a modernist den mother, as at home with a drunken Jackson Pollock as with Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, who used to take her out in her chauffered car in order to catch up on museum goings-on.

In July, Miller quietly passed away in her Greenwich Village apartment, seven months shy of her 100th birthday. She was remembered at a MoMA memorial service last week, and an auction of her art collection at Christie’s in November will remind the latest generation of collectors, connoisseurs, dealers, and scholars of her role in the postwar ascension of American art. Auction experts predict the paintings, sculpture, folk art, and furniture that decorated her rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment on 8th Street (which had no doorman, no alarm, and no insurance) will sell for well over $12 million.

Money was never Miller’s motivation; she bought the art she loved, whether it was a $5 folk-art watercolor or a $100 painting by Arshile Gorky. Her museum work and her collecting went together. A majority of the pieces in her collection were gifts from artists, such as a quivering mobile from her friend Alexander Calder (expected to sell for somewhere between $500,000 and $700,000), which he constructed in her living room and then rigged to the ceiling. She paid $325 for a Jasper Johns from his first show at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958; the painting, with numbers rendered in subtle gray tones, is expected to fetch between $5 million and $7 million at auction this month. She bought it when she was scouting Johns for one of her American-painting exhibitions. When her friend Stuart Davis was desperate for money during the Depression, she bought a small abstract oil from him—it’s now estimated at $250,000 to $350,000.

In the summer of 1929, Miller and a Smith College classmate, Elinor Robinson, were working “like little slaves,” Miller remembered later, at the Newark Museum when they read an article in a magazine about the founding of a new museum, the Museum of Modern Art. “We looked at each other,” she recalled, “and we said, ‘We ought to work there.’ ”

Miller was born in Hopedale, Massachusetts, and later moved with her family to Montclair, New Jersey. Her father was an architect and engineer who’d always wanted his daughter to be an artist. “I didn’t have any talent,” she said, matter-of-factly. But the Newark Museum was then among the most creative and ambitious museums in the country; with Miller’s help, it had put on the first major exhibition of American folk art.

Miller caught Barr’s eye during the flap that erupted after the Rockefellers destroyed the Diego Rivera mural at Rockefeller Center, which was still under construction. At the time, she was hanging a show in a space donated by the Rockefellers. After about half the artists threatened to boycott the show, she called on Barr—though only 31, he was to Miller a towering and remote figure—to intercede. To her amazement, Barr took up her cause, and their friendship was launched. Soon afterward, she put on “my best summer hat” and went in to ask him for a job.

“There are dozens of things I want you to do to help me,” Miller recalled Barr telling her after he hired her, “but the first one is to interview all these artists that are on my neck. I can’t get any work done because they’re coming in droves.” Miller’s work was cut out for her. “I had this terribly sad job of seeing all these artists who were starving,” she said. “There were no galleries to send them to.”

Barr believed that a show that was hung properly could tell a viewer more than any catalogue, and he preferred to work alone, figuring the order out in the quiet of an empty gallery. But as he worked to hang the Van Gogh show in 1935—the painter’s first major exhibit in this country—Miller shadowed Barr through the gallery, peering around corners, learning from the master. They quickly developed a close working relationship. “He had this wonderful quality of pushing people ahead,” Miller said. “He never wanted to stay the boss. He wanted to get all the younger people who were working for him doing it on their own. And it was a marvelous thing to work with anybody with that kind of brain.”

At that point, the excitement of what was happening in Europe—that riotous sprouting of “isms”—had not found its way to young artists across the Atlantic. Miller found the art of the thirties depressing overall. Yet there were bright spots. The first one-artist exhibit she handled by herself was of Charles Sheeler, the painter and photographer who poeticized the American industrial landscape. “Such a very delightful man,” Miller remembered later. “Wonderful, dry New England wit. He was great.”

The museum in its first decades was a cult of the new. Miller and Barr and a few others sometimes traveled en masse to an artist’s studio to select work for an exhibition. One day in 1942, Louise Nevelson arrived at the museum with an ornately decorated shoe-shine stand that she had discovered on the street, along with the Italian bootblack who had made it. Miller found it remarkable, and called Barr down, who agreed, whereupon they decided to display it in the lobby. Herald Tribune critic Genauer, a frequent antagonist of Miller’s, was outraged. “Her pure soul was defiled by it,” Miller later jokingly remembered. Miller always wished MoMA had purchased the shoe-shine stand.

After Miller visited the 23-year-old Frank Stella’s studio (she went with Leo Castelli, who then became his dealer), she returned to the museum and told Barr as soon as she could: “Want a treat? I’ve got something to show you.” The two jumped in a cab and headed downtown.

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.”

Mama MoMA