The discerning eye of the collector-curator

By Wendy Jeffers

The collector and curator Dorothy C. Miller (1904-2003) was the last of a pioneering generation of curators, who helped to define, exhibit and collect modern art in the United States. Her own wide-ranging collection, which includes Post-War Art, American Folk Art, American Tribal and Decorative Arts will be sold in November and December at Christie's New York.

Miller was the first professionally trained curator to be hired by the legendary founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Opening in 1929, the Museum quickly became the most important venue for the dissemination of information on every aspect of modern art, architecture and design.

Through a series of groundbreaking exhibitions called the Americans, which introduced the works of over 120 artists, Miller became the resident expert in American art. Miller's career was marked by an uncanny ability to recognize new and innovative artists encompassing many different styles. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, she left many more conservative curators in her wake.

Because it established the importance of contemporary American painting to an international audience, Miller's most influential Americans exhibition was The New American Painting, which traveled to eight major European museums in 1958 and 1959.

The exhibition included the work of William Baziotes, James Brooks, Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Jack Tworkov.

The sale of the Dorothy C. Miller collection includes a number of iconic works directly related to her Americans exhibitions.

The core of this exceptional collection comprises works by Jasper Johns (included in Sixteen Americans), Franz Kline (Twelve Americans), Lee Bontecou (Americans 1963), Morris Graves and Loren Maclver (Americans 1942), Saul Steinberg (Fourteen Americans), Fritz Glarner (Twelve Americans), Philip Guston (Twelve Americans), and Bradley Walker Tomlin (Fifteen Americans) together with important early works by Stuart Davis, Walker Evans and Alexander Calder and a number of European modernists.

Remarkable both for its quality and breadth, the Dorothy C. Miller collection echoes the lively aesthetic debates that took place in and around her Greenwich Village apartment during the intellectual genesis of Abstract Expressionist art in the 1930s and 1940s.

Her husband Holger Cahill (1887-1960) was a writer, an early pioneer of American folk art and the national director of the WPA Federal Art Project during the Great Depression who introduced Miller to the first generation of American modernists.

In the late 1920s, Miller and Cahill began to study and collect American Folk Art and Shaker furniture, which they admired for its spare simplicity and its relationship to the emerging American modernism. In 1930, Cahill organized, with Miller's assistance, the first museum exhibition of folk art at the Newark Museum. Shortly thereafter, Cahill began to buy folk art for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection.

Dorothy Miller was an ardent supporter of Alexander Calder who fabricated the mobile The Red Ghost for the focal point of the ceiling of her apartment. As Miller told the story, Calder arrived with pliers, a suitcase full of wires and various biomorphic shapes which, after mounting a rickety wooden stepladder, he hung from a chandelier finial in her ceiling. Black Rocker, a stabile, which fits neatly into a corner and swings in a diagonal articulated by the adjacent walls, was another gift were a number of pieces of his signature jewelry.

Four Square by Franz Kline was the centerpiece of her apartment, and for that reason, she was reluctant to lend the painting to exhibitions. She used to refer to it as 'an absolutely perfect painting.' Painted in 1953, in what many feel was Kline's strongest period, the painting is remarkable for its domestic scale and its expensive composition.

Miller bought the painting Gray Numbers by Jasper Johns from his first exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958 on the same visit that she and Alfred Barr selected White Numbers for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The works were the first in a series of 'numbers' paintings by Johns and were hand painted, without the use of stencils prevalent in the later paintings. The title notwithstanding, Gray Numbers is surprisingly colorful with a delicate and nuanced encaustic surface.

Also included in the sale are several exceptional works on paper by Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Jasper Johns. The Litanies of the Chariot, a compelling 1961 pencil on paper by Jasper Johns, is a unique and early example of the influence of Marcel Duchamp. Franz Kline's calligraphic masterpiece Study for White Forms, is an ink-on-paper for a painting of the same name in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

One of Dorothy Miller's early discoveries was the West Coast artist Morris Graves, whose work she included in her first Americans exhibition, Americans 1942. With great trepidation, Graves rolled his paintings and sent them in a tube to the Museum. After Miller had unwrapped them, Barr stepped forward to say that the Museum would certainly want to purchase at least one but that Miller would get first choice since she had discovered the artist. Her selection, Bird Singing in the Moonlight, (1938-39) is generally considered to be one of Morris Graves' most important paintings. That work, with three others from the same period, will also be included in the upcoming Dorothy C. Miller sale.

Wendy Jeffers, independent curator and biographer of Dorothy Miller

FRANZ KLINE (1910-1962)

Sale 1301, Lot 20
Four Square, 1953
Oil on canvas
Estimate: $1,500,000-2,000,000

JASPER JOHNS (b. 1930)

Sale 1301, Lot 15
Gray Numbers, 1957
Encaustic on canvas
Estimate: $5,000,000-7,000,000