New York

Kenneth Hayes Miller

Zabriskie Gallery

Kenneth Hayes Miller was one of the eminent figures to span the period from Ash Can painting to the end of American provincialism. His teaching career began at the Fourteenth Street School and continued for thirty-eight years at the Art Student’s League—when it still meant something to go to the League. According to the faithful Lloyd Goodrich—himself once a student of Miller’s—Marsh, Bellows, Kuniyoshi, Hopper and Hartley, at some point in their considerably more impressive careers, passed through Miller’s studio. Doubtless his qualities as a teacher overshadowed his deficiencies as a painter. Haunted by a conscientious awareness of The Beautiful, Miller’s depictions of urban matrons of the 1920s and ’30s today more tellingly reveal his essentially sculptural proclivities. These fulsome ladies transpose a Romanizing, rotund and noble ideal into a painting seemingly detached from emotional priorities. Yet, a certain eroticism is not absent, particularly in those works which look back to Rubens or Courbet. In short, there is a fascinating mix of artistic reference.

We are far enough away from the 1920s and ’30s to no longer consider as merely funny Miner’s thoroughly middle-class housewives clutching at parcels and fox fur pieces. Their fleshy forms, rendered in broad ovoid and convexly swollen surfaces, begin to appear esthetically. striking. Miller’s color is pedestrian, utilitarian, as serviceable as the dark tweed coats in which his corpulent subjects are wrapped. Volume is schematized, projecting surfaces are warmed and highlighted. Features are generalized so that all subjects seem devoid of idiosyncratic differences and part of the same porcine family. These glum figures, drawn by a painter unconsciously longing to be a sculptor, seem oddly frozen. Transient gestures are given the heavy permanence that only aspiring and ambitious figure drawing can conjure. Underneath it all, a dormant libido. At moments the 18th century breaks through, as in the ruff-collared figure in a tight brimless cloche (Shoppers In the Rain). Cropped sleeping figures and large figure pieces presage similar solutions in the erotically surcharged work of Balthus. A painting, Waiting For the Bus, of 1931 (and reproduced at that time), depicts a mother and child before a dress shop, with a clothed mannequin in the background. Later amended (the date now reads 1931+) the garment was removed from the dummy to reveal the Hellenistic Venus which slumbered there all along.

Robert Pincus-Witten