New York

Nachume Miller

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Nachume Miller’s development has followed a complicated, difficult path from allegorical representational art, heavily figural and usually depicting interior (studio) space, to allegorical abstract art, oriented toward landscape. The connecting psychic thread is the continued introversion, and the connecting technical thread is Miller’s gesture. Initially thick and labored, it emerges with a vehement, amazingly fresh fluidity as a highly serviceable, flexible instrument for conveying a sense of ceaseless dynamic tension. Miller’s dramatic landscape invariably consists of whorls/whirlpools, which function both as atmosphere and as abstract “figures”; they are emblematic of a kind of panic. In all these works there is a sense of grand scale and heroic energy.

Miller combines a neo-Expressionistic sense of the infinite spiral with an Old Master inspiration, Leonardo’s famous deluge drawings. Many of the works remind me of Albrecht Dürer’s drawing depicting his dream of the world apocalyptically destroyed by heavenly floods, a drawing known to Miller. (He used another Renaissance source—Michelangelo—for his earlier figural works.) Miller brings a Renaissance sense of system to works with a Baroque visionary dimension: it is as though he wanted to bring clarity and distinctness to the inarticulate, to chaos. He wants to communicate profundity discursively, and succeeds.

The ideal of articulating primary process—the so-called stream of consciousness, really a “creative flux” (Alfred North Whitehead) in which signifiers exist as mnemonic traces, if at all—is inseparable from the Modern sensibility. The aim is to express the dynamic drive of the unconscious and repressed, which, in the words of Henri Ellenberger, “follows exclusively the pleasure principle, ignores time, death, logic, values, and morals.” But the result can be a sense of bombast and incoherence, and of the familiar world arbitrarily disrupted, rather than of the inner depths made manifest.

Miller’s dream pictures avoid this trap by hanging on to the form of the flux as a timeless, pleasurable end in itself. But this intensity sometimes comes to seem like a Hollywood spectacle, especially in the works with strong, glamorous color. While the flux form seems hermetic and self-generating, as it should, its constructed character sometimes becomes all too apparent. The automatist freedom implied by the seemingly freehand drawing comes to seem self-limiting. This effect is encouraged by what at first glance looks like the endless repetition of the flux form in the installation, with its large number of works in all sizes. But the sense of variation on a predictable theme quickly dissipates, for the works convey the artist’s compulsion. It is this quality that finally prevents the flux form from betraying itself completely as an invented spectacle. The work becomes hallucinatory—transfixing and full of posthypnotic suggestions, rather than, like a Hollywood construction, made entirely for the dubiously fascinating moment. Miller doesn’t quite have the terribilità and fury he admires, but his best works are like cobras that hold our gaze while preparing to strike.

Donald Kuspit