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Dorothy Canning Miller: Champion of Abstract Expressionism

”Congratulations, Dorothy, you’ve done it again. They all hate it.” So said Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, to Dorothy Canning Miller, its first professionally trained curator, about the reaction to her exhibition “Americans 1942,” a show of 18 emerging artists that appalled both art critics and museum trustees. Yet that didn’t stop this Greenwich Village resident from including the then-revolutionary work of many little-known artists in future displays, helping to forge the world of modern art.

Irving Penn, Eight American Artists & Dorothy Miller of MoMA, New York, 1958, via the Irving Penn Foundation

The “Americans” shows continued under Miller’s tenure, with five more shows under that heading taking place between 1946 and 1963, each similar in theme with a focus on emerging artists. “Sixteen Americans” in 1959, for example, introduced such essential postwar American artists as Jay DeFeo, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella to a larger audience from MoMA’s stage. In addition to being a beacon for these artists, she was friends with many of them, and they introduced her to the cutting-edge work of their colleagues. “If I hadn’t known any artists I wouldn’t know a damn thing about art,” she said. “You simply have to know the people and see them working and let them tell you about their pictures.”

In 1948, Miller’s keen eye and unwavering support for emerging talent led her to recommend that MoMA acquire a black-and-white painting from Willem de Kooning’s first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery. This move proved pivotal, as de Kooning later became a seminal figure in the abstract expressionist movement, and Miller’s endorsement played a crucial role in acknowledging his talent. Ten years after the acquisition, de Kooning was one of 17 artists included in what may have been Miller’s most influential exhibitions, “The New American Painting,” which toured through eight European countries before landing at MoMA in 1959; other participants in that show included James Brooks, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. “It significantly changed European perceptions of American art,” The New York Times noted in its 2003 obituary for Miller, “putting Abstract Expressionism on the map there once and for all.”

Miller included works by Frank Stella (The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II) and Jasper Johns (Green Target) in her 1959 “Sixteen Americans” exhibition

Miller was both a curator for the museum and a collector in her own right, cramming her apartment at 12 East 8th Street with a remarkable grouping of contemporary paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, and photographs, as well as Native American and folk art. Some she purchased on her own modest salary, including a Jasper Johns piece from his first show at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958. Others were gifts from the artists she became friendly with and helped nurture; Alexander Calder, for example, built a mobile in her living room that was rigged to the ceiling. (She also lived at 295 West 11th Street in the 1940s.)

Barr hired Miller in 1934 to serve as an assistant to the director of MoMA, and she was named an assistant curator the following year. By the time of her retirement from the institution in 1969, she was senior curator. She also was an art consultant for a variety of corporations and private clients, including the Rockefeller family, Rockefeller University, Chase Manhattan Bank, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the World Trade Center, with much of her work being done from her office at 1 Macdougal Alley from 1969 to 1987.

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