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THE DOROTHY C. MILLER COLLECTION
Dorothy C. Miller (1904-2003) was the last of a pioneering generation of individuals who helped to define, exhibit and collect modern art in the United States. The first professionally trained curator to be hired by Alfred H. Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, she was celebrated for a series of exhibitions called the American, which introduced the work of over 120 artists.
Miller's approach to art can be described as intuitive rather than intellectual. Her selections were made carefully, the process almost painstaking, without the support of art history as a guide. Because she was so often on the cutting edge of the new, interpretation was left to those who followed. The interrelationship of styles and cultures fascinated her. An installation by Miller always included surprising and original juxtapositions of forms that challenged the way the art was seen. In her own apartment, she plavced a tall Shaker cabinet on the same wall as the painting Four Square by Franz Kline, creating a complementary vertical dialogue. The Kline, like the cabinet, is lean and austere with exactly the right balance of line to surface. Miller referred to it as "an absolute perfect painting."
With income, albeit modest, from her position at the Museum of Modern Art, Miller began to collect in the late 1930s. She tried to assist struggling artists by purchasing their art, taking art lessons or encouraging others to collect. Some years, Miller spent more than 20 of her income on art, a commitment to collecting that is rare even today.
Miller's 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. Under Cahills enlightened leadership, the Federal Art Project was the most important patron of the visual arts in the United States during the Great Depression. Through Cahill, who was 17 years her senior, Miller met the first generation of American modernists. The artists, in turn, introduced them to folk art and Shaker furniture which were admired for their simplicity and unadorned form.
Miller and Cahill's growing collection of modern art seen in the context of their folk art, made for many provocative parallels. At times, they collected to preserve objects from extinction, such as tribal art which was then comparatively unknown. Cahill and Miller literally rescued folk art from barns, attics and junk shops. Their folk art collection is probably the last extant compilation from that important first-generation.
In addition to Americans 1942, Miller organized (she disliked the term curated) American Realists and Magic Realists, 1943, co-organized with Lincoln Kirstein; Romantic Painting in America 1944, co-organized with James Thrall Soby; Fourteen Americans, 1946; Fifteen Americans, 1952; Twelve Americans, 1956; Sixteen Americans, 1959; Americans 1963 and many group and one-person exhibitions at MoMA. Under the auspices of MoMAs national and international circulating exhibition program, a number of her exhibitions toured, reaching audiences well beyond New York. One of these, The New American Painting, organized at the request of the Europeans, traveled to Basel, Milan, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and London in 1958 and 1959, before its final showing at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 1959. Considered by many to be her most influential exhibition, it significantly changed European awareness of the new American painting.
Miller and Cahill were part of a wide circle of friends that included many of the artists living in and around Greenwich Village in New York. Friends included Stuart Davis, Niles Spencer, Walker Evans, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Mark Tobey and Thomas Hart Benton from the first generation. The younger artists who followed included Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and many of the other members of the New York School. Alexander Calder and Miller met at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942. Calder made her a pin with the initials 'DM' and shortly thereafter, designed the mobile Red Ghost for her Greenwich Village apartment. The Black Rocker, which fits neatly into a corner and swings in a diagonal articulated by the adjacent walls, was another gift.
Miller bought the subtly modulated 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. She was considering Johns for inclusion in her upcoming exhibition Sixteen Americans and Castelli suggested that they go together to his studio to see more work. Johns introduced them to his downstairs neighbor the artist Robert Rauschenberg and she decided to include both artists in her exhibition in 1959. Today, it is difficult to imagine the critical maelstroms that Miller encountered organizing her Americans exhibitions. Through a nationwide network of sources, Miller attempted to keep abreast of a vast array of new and developing artists, assembling a large database of notes and images that she drew on as source material. Miller organized the shows at the last minute, keeping her choices secret and conferring only with trusted colleagues about her selections. The shows opened to criticism from the press, other artists and sometimes, the board of trustees. "Congratulations Dorothy," remarked Barr after one of the openings, "You've done it again, they all hate it." Many of the works in the Miller collection were appreciative gifts from artists. "She was the one who made it all possible," said one of them, "she created our audience."
c Wendy Jeffers 2003