New York

Jay Miller

Richard Green Gallery

It’s a relief to know that, in 1966–67, when Pop art and Minimalism were in their heyday, these intimate pictures of biblical scenes were being made. Historical circumstances have changed our perception of these paintings by Jay Milder, almost 50 of which were shown here: their expressionism no longer seems as outlandish and retardataire as it must have in the year of their making. Moreover, their expressionism is not so much aggressive and violent as exuberant, giving off a rather benevolent aura.

With innocence and wit, Milder renders various biblical scenes in a kind of Hasidic dance of gestures so joyously rapid as to seem unstoppable. In a sense, they synthesize and update both the Bible and Martin Buber’s Hasidic stories. Some of them have been transposed to the New York subway; the expulsion from Eden, for example, occurs on the IRT. But I don’t think the narrative dimension of these works counts as much as their cabalistic import. According to a mystical 16th-century interpretation of cabalistic doctrine, when the Messiah finally comes the scriptures will undergo a perceptual transformation, with people reading the white space between the Hebrew letters rather than the black letters themselves. This negative space, or “white light,” is where spirit resides. Milder tries to make this space tangible, articulating it in earth colors, particularly a sullen gray-green that seems to belie it. But “in the beginning” the spirit materialized itself as fertile nature—which seems to be the point of Milder’s color here. Indeed, the works are generally about fertility, as even two pictures about plagues make clear. In both of these works, the plague creatures—a trio of frogs in Plague VI, representing one of the ten biblical plagues, and Plague VI’s rats, those carriers of the pestilence of the “black death”—seem more playful than evil. Milder depicts them as creatures spawned out of spirit, pure and innocent, presented as a celebration of animal life and the fecundity of nature.

Most of these works are extremely small and hectic, to the extent that they seem to have no structure—just a putting down of dynamic clusters of painted strokes. Their painterliness is not particularly startling, but the total effect is. However, one work, the largest, After the Rainbow (Destruction of the Covenant), has a special toughness to it, formally and conceptually. Here, a self-conflicted figure—part animal and part human, even hermaphroditic—is shown ambiguously straddling a rainbow while floating above the rooftops of a city and its sinister creatures. Although the image is clearly apocalyptic, the ambiguity of the central figure suggests the uncertainty of the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, the reparative and the destructive. God’s creation is after all unpredictable, which is partly why we respond to it ambivalently—a theme that shows up as an undercurrent in every one of these works. This ambivalence is inherent in the very process of the paint and color, beneath the deceptive cuteness of many of the pictures, and gives the entire series an impressive weight—impressive enough for me to say, perhaps extravagantly, that, after Nolde’s biblical pictures, these are the best and most integral group of biblical pictures in the 20th-century.

Donald Kuspit