PRINT Summer 1967

Richard A. Miller, “Primary” Realist

RICHARD A. MILLER’S SCULPTURE, you can be sure, was not represented in the Whitney Museum’s recent survey of American sculpture, though it was acceptable to the Whitney in 1964. Since that time of course, the Whitney has built itself a new museum and the art world has gone ape over “primary structures.” Apparently the Whitney now feels that Don Judd and Bob Morris are the heirs of William Zorach and Jose de Creeft.

Miller is 45. His show in May at the Peridot Gallery was only his second in New York. In the early sixties he destroyed virtually all of his previous work, which must have been interesting since, for his private amusement, he makes fantastic objects that are a kind of pop Surrealism. Miller’s family in Ohio is still in the business of mass-producing dime-store plaster objects—“genuine kitsch,” he says—and he himself was in a similar business until 1961. But he is a new kind of sculptor, and the oldest kind at the same time—a figurative sculptor who rejects modernism’s principal formal tradition, the “open form” idea as it developed from Gonzalez to David Smith. But he also rejects the de Creefts, the Zorachs and the Grosses whose deference to their materials was more sentimental than romantic and failed to quicken expressions which were so vague that only their yearning after expression, and style, gave them any distinguishable character. Miller, instead, has reverted to the traditional monolithic situation so as to achieve a clear and uncluttered reading of volume. I’m thinking very much of primary structures here for Miller shares with the abstract sculptors a similar idealism—the aforementioned restoration of the monolith to a state uncorrupted by taste or ideals unrelated to the essential geometric character of volume when the volume is also an idea.

Thus Miller and the new sculptors differ mainly in their approach to an idea. The basic problem of the “best” primary structures is the problem of proportion which is exposed to a number of linear or plastic structural possibilities. Correspondingly, Miller employs in his studies of the female nude only simple physical acts—walking, sitting, standing—so as not to detract from the formal operation of volume on the one hand and to avoid on the other sentimentality or rhetoric which, in addition to their archaism, would cause the volumes to be read as statues rather than as formed things. Formalism, in other words, makes a new realism possible. Thus both Miller and the non-image sculptors, as Bob Morris would call them, are idealists who equate simplicity with integrity and beauty—an ideal that is also real, or “literal” in the case of sculptural abstraction. Current new realism, to which minority trend Miller is the first sculptor that I know of to make application, and most structural abstraction represent different ideological and, perhaps, different moral orientations to the same nostalgic impulse. Conventional abstract painting, by comparison, may be the last of its line.

But more than his seeming and perhaps tenuous spiritual kinship with an extremely purist faction, Miller’s real radicalism, conventionality and nostalgia, which attributes combine to characterize the prevailing, obviously conflicted, spirit in new contemporary art, lies in a singular fact. Miller is not a convert from painting; he has always been a sculptor, whereas the new sculptors are mostly former painters. The difference is crucial. First, it testifies to the extent to which painting has gradually taken over abstractionist sculpture. Second, it establishes Miller’s motive. Specifically, he seeks to liberate sculpture from the pictorial dominion to which it has been gradually assimilated in modern times. One of David Smith’s last works was more frame than mass and Louise Nevelson’s walls are more murals than they are reliefs. Some sculptures are barely more than lines. Miller, in other words, is not so much anti-abstract as anti-pictorial, and, especially, anti-graphic. His sculpture evokes a functional relationship to architecture even though it is actually of the tradition which liberated itself from architecture, inferring through movement its “own” space.

Here again Miller is linked to the sensibility of non-image sculpture. For autonomous space figures prominently in the thinking of at least one major abstract sculptor, the aforementioned Morris. In his Notes on Sculpture, published in this magazine in February, 1966, Morris wrote: “The relief has always been accepted as a viable mode. However it cannot be accepted today as legitimate. The autonomous and literal nature of sculpture demands that it have its own, equally literal space—not a surface shared with painting.” The fact, of course, is that some non-image sculpture is at least deep relief (Don Judd’s wall pieces) and that the planar masses of the style can be read as extrapolations of flat masses rather than as true monoliths “in the round.” That the forms of non-image sculpture are frequently hollow (Judd, Bell) or graphic (Flavin, LeWitt) suggests an assimilation of modernist sculpture’s prior “openness” which resulted from the application by Gonzalez of Cubism to sculpture. It resulted from, in other words, the application of pictorial design.

As his sculpture is not “literal,” meaning that it is involved with illusion in addition to form, Miller is free to practice relief sculpture. But those which I have seen are not as effective as his sculpture in the round because they limit the dialogue between movement and volume through which Miller is leading sculpture away from two-dimensional painting. Consequently, the utter lack of movement in constructed sculpture is another indication of its, at least, subliminal relationship to the two-dimensional.

Movement in fact would be inimical to its formal intention. It is too baroque an element. For instance, the diagonal when used to create tension must be employed with great care since it connotes greater tension only by suggesting movement which renders the density of the structure more fluid, more painterly and probably less complex. The massive tilted slabs by Ronnie Bladen which attracted so much attention in the Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum, evoking no thrust counter to their own, dissipate their literal power by their inclination which is rhetorical rather than structural, imitating stress rather than composing it within a delimiting conceptual outline. Similarly the sculpture of Tony Smith breaks out of the delimiting outline into a disturbing allusiveness to something other than structure. Frankly I find many of his shapes old-fashioned, forms within a frame of space as opposed to a whole new class of objects.

Meanwhile the role of movement, or the lack of it, in all new sculpture is dramatized by George Segal’s cast plaster figures whose curious and disturbing immobility must be the result of Segal’s having conceived of the figure as object rather than illusion, of realizing, in other words, Morris’s idea of literalness in an improbable, far too complex shape. (The idea behind abstract sculpture is complex; the shapes aren’t.) Whereas in a recent “experiment” by Miller—a life-size work called Only The Dead Know Brooklyn, in which a body is covered with plaster-stiffened canvas, the image is of immobility, not the figure. Indeed, the work has little formal interest (hence its resemblance to a Segal) and Miller has rejected further investigation in this direction as “too easy.”

Obviously, there ought to be a connection between Miller’s realism and a similar development in painting, and there is. Just as Miller uses the figure to restore the monolith as a reaction against the pictorialization of sculpture, so do figurative illusionists like Pearlstein, Beal and Laderman employ illusion to rescue the pictorial from sheer abstract design. That is to say, they employ the sculptural. The abstract is now mainly an aspect of structure, whereas in non-image sculpture, the shape is an image of structure.

The presence of so many former painters, then, in the ranks of abstract sculpture (Newman tried his hand at sculpture years ago, and Olitski recently) is explained by a wish for sculptural illusion without returning to nature. But the deeper consideration is in the area of scale. The continued rejection of nature is based on a feeling for scale to which it is felt figurative illusionism is inimical. Structure is favored for those impersonal generalities which seem to convey a kind of loftiness in which nostalgia can be obscured. And, indeed, scale is a problem in figurative illusionism. Its pressure is most evident in Pearlstein’s huge nudes whose apathy is due to the fact that if they can’t choose the past they are not ready for the future either. Miller’s figures, while edging toward it, have not yet achieved a rigorous monumentality. For Pearlstein monumentality is a sentiment. For Miller sentiment is something in addition to monumentality, and he is willing to risk the sentimental. But the feeling for style is there. Another of his recent experiments is a plaster head ten times life size. It is sheared off on the right side, evoking the colossal heads of Roman antiquity. Its significance is less that of an esthetic achievement than of a singular expression of the problem of scale. As such, and though it is not so heroic as huge, it is oddly impressive in its sincerity.

Suddenly, one recalls that the end of the Middle Ages was already prefigured in the rebirth of monumental sculpture in Romanesque times; and the fate and aspirations of the new figurative illusionism are all somehow embodied in problems of scale, and by extension realism and idealism. Primary structures process a kind of technological and, I think, ultimately simplistic, possibly narcissistic Platonism. Its real sentiment is more a kind of functional shedding of the gratuitous in search of what Don Judd described, in another context, as “the plain beauty of well made things.” Miller’s sculpture is not totally devoid of the gratuitous in the sense that a vestigial neo-Classicism lingers in his forms, softening his drawing somewhat, and depriving his sculpture of some specific power. For all their realism, there is a general quality that is not directly won from the particulars themselves which instead are shoved into the contour leaving their mass—with the significant exception of fingers and toes—slightly slack. And where there is convincing generalness throughout, as in his small figures which are barely more than seven inches high, the forms are not as freshly seen as the gestures. One does not think of Degas in front of Miller’s large works.

In these latter, despite their slight inconsistency, Miller achieves a plausible if modest monumentality. It is most evident in the recent Sandy Sitting which would be life-size if she were standing. She is powerfully formed, but the complexity of her pose cuts her monumental impact somewhat. Monumentality, however, is not a fully blown ambition in the earlier and largest of two versions of Mary Walking (1964) which consists of three poses of the same ambulatory model and which stands a fraction less than 31 inches high. Sandy Sitting is, as I said, the bigger form, yet Mary Walking (in an edition of four) will probably prove to be one of Miller’s early masterpieces for its brilliant proportioning of scale to mass and movement. One feels that the simple, normal, human movement is an affront to all the gratuitous stylizations that long ago claimed and corrupted the classic tradition, a corruption which Nadelman outwitted through humor, Lachaise through eroticism.

Miller’s achievement, finally, is best understood in the light of one very important fact—that most sculpture in the 20th century has taken its cues from painting. The rest was taken over by the National Sculpture Society. But sculpture borrowed from painting, especially from Cubism, in order to keep up with it. But with, or “after” Abstract Expressionism, sculpture could not keep up with painting because painting had become so general, so “flat.” It was unable to follow painting into the purely abstract because despite its “openness” its relation to structure was revealed to be essentially “figural,” and the persistence of the pedestal was taken as proof of it. Even David Smith, hallowed otherwise, is regarded as essentially a “figural” sculptor and therefore a representative of another era, while sculptors like Chamberlain, Nakian and even Caro find themselves in limbo, torn between figural and formalist impulses.

Meanwhile, ex-painters like Judd, Flavin, LeWitt, Bladen and others (including Morris to the extent that his early work derived from the picture object tradition of Duchamp and Johns) brought abstraction—and iconoclasm—with them when they came over into sculpture. Their presence in sculpture, however, is the result of a situation in painting which was struggling to overcome a meaningless decorativeness. And where some painters had chosen color and others figurative illusion as reactions against the deprivation of formed space by a demanding yet ambiguous picture plane, the new sculptors extrapolated from painting its abstract structure and sought to literalize it in three dimensions. Pointing as they did to the possibility of a literal extension of the picture plane into space, the shaped canvases of Frank Stella proved to be the bridge across which the bulk of abstractionist painting passed over into sculpture and simply snatched formal initiative away from it. As Barbara Rose has pointed out, the new sculpture is as abstract as the most abstract painting being done.

Miller’s sculpture, on the other hand, is as realistic, and as formal, as the most realistic painting being done, and in point of fact, no new generation of abstract painting exists. The newer painters are figurative ones. And like these painters, who basically have repudiated the entire Cubist matrix of modernist painting and find, instead, their models in earlier history, in Giovanni Bellini, in Michelangelo, in Chinese art, wherever, in other words, there are affinities of form and figurative illusion (and in spots Bougereau can surprise you), so with Miller. His touch in certain works has Impressionist echoes, but his line is Roman, with its imperialism filtered out and a slight accent of classicism substituted; and, lest nostalgia overwhelm, an American mid-Western plainness of assertion checks a meaningful backward flight. One feels, as in the best of primary structures, the fullness of an authentic idea and one prefers finally the deeper perspective, figuratively and literally, of representational illusionism.

The profoundly new is actually renewal. Revolutionary values are versions of prior ones. In The Shape of Time historian George Kubler anticipates a future of limited originality. In which case, he concludes, “instead of regarding the past as a microscopic annex to a future of astronomical magnitudes, we would have to envisage a future with limited room for changes and these of types to which the past already yields the key” (italics mine). If we assume the periodicity of Kubler’s principle, we would have to recognize that it was applicable some 500 years ago in Italy. The result then was, of course, a Renaissance.

Sidney Tillim