Jay Milder, Urban Visionary

In Jay Milder: Urban Visionary: Retrospective 1958-1991, New England Center for Contemporary Art, 1991.


Every artist finds certain visual possibilities before him, to which he is bound. Not everything is possible at all times. Vision itself has its history, and the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history. [ii]

It’s a commonplace characterization of art history that American art in the decade of the 1950s was hot, gestural and expressive. Abstract Expressionists worked from their insides out, mining the rich territory of the subconscious. Figuration was frowned upon as retardataire. With the advent of Pop Art and Minimalism in the 1960s, temperatures cooled. The figure reappeared, clad in the crisp, hard-edged style of comics and slick advertisements. Indications of the artist’s emotions and the mark of the artist’s hand were effaced. By the 1970s the critics declared expressionist painting had died altogether.

These art historical generalizations tend to render invisible the achievements of such artists as Lester Johnson, Robert Beauchamp, Bob Thompson and Jay Milder, all of whom raised the expressionist temperature in their paintings, even as the climate around them cooled. Their contributions went largely unobserved until the decade of the 1980s, when expressionism again became a popular aesthetic. Revisionist art historians, with a new awareness of those who worked outside of the canonical style, now began to “see” the work of such previously unfashionable artists.

During World War II the Army had a policy of stamping the papers of those leftists who had in the thirties actively fought against Hitler and Franco with the semantic tongue-twister “Premature Anti-fascist.” Implicit in this ex post facto stigmatization was a begrudged acknowledgement that unpopular convictions can eventually become sanctioned. This politically convoluted phrase comes to mind now as we survey Jay Milder’s career. History, it seems, has caught up with him, belatedly validating his work as an unreconstructed expressionist. Through the vehicle of this current retrospective exhibition we are able to take his full measure as an artist, tracing the evolution of his art over a thirty year period. In this essay I shall focus on his early influences and work.

Jay Milder was born on May 12, 1934 in Omaha, Nebraska, the third of four children of Jeannette and Leo Milder. His family came originally from Bredeslav in the Ukraine. They were descendants of the Chassidic mystic Rab Nachman. His maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1851 to homestead in Devil’s Lake North Dakota, which boasts one of the coldest climates in the nation. Subsequently the family moved to Omaha where his enterprising grandfather prospered as the owner of a large grocery store. Jews in the community tended to gravitate towards this pious and erudite man, who always wore a black Homburg and long black coat, and who would lead the men in meditation every Friday night. As a young boy Milder immersed himself in drawing, but as a teenager his involvement in art lessened as his interested in spiritualism and mysticism increased. The teachings of Rab Nachman were an important early influence on Milder’s philosophy of life and art as they were on Kafka’s writing, a secondary source of inspiration for Milder who did not learn of his family ties to the great mystic until his thirties.

In high school Milder was an indifferent student, preferring to read in the library rather than attend class. He claims that the most important date he remembers from his education is 622, the year of Mohammed’s hegira. His enthusiasm for live jazz prompted him to explore Omaha’s black night clubs where he was often the only white face in the crowd during riveting performances by Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald.

Graduating from high school at seventeen, Milder left the Midwest for New York City. Convincing his employers that he was older, he worked in the garment district, starting with a pushcart in the Lower East Side and later serving as the office manager of a clothing company. During this time, he was drawn to the Theosophical Society and the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian religious figure. Interestingly, the teenage Jackson Pollock had also come under Krishnamurti’s sway some twenty-five years earlier in California. Imbued with romantic desire to homestead in a holistic society, Milder took off for North Africa in late 1953, stopping first in Europe.

After a short stay in London, he established himself in Paris where he met the artist Yves Klein and the redoubtable Raymond Duncan, the artistic and visionary brother of Isadora Duncan, the founder of modern dance. Raymond Duncan, who was then operating a tapestry factory, imparted to the young artist his profound belief in humanitarian and political acts.

Milder supported himself as a building superintendent and was hired at the sculpture atelier run by Ossip Zadkine, and influential Russian Jewish sculptor living in France. Although he was previously untrained, his job allowed Milder access to the classes, and he qualified for admission to the school after executing a simple stick figure. Admitted to Zadkine’s sculpture class, is first assignment was to work from a live model, the aged fellow who had posed for Rodin’s The Kiss in his youth. Milder’s raw energy and expressionist approach to the figure resulted in a sculpture startlingly different from the work of his classmates, who were all professional sculptors. In a critique session open to the public, Zadkine greatly praised Jay’s work and honored the young artists by making him his assistant. Milder received his first press coverage when one of the people present in the audience, a writer from a Polish magazine, did a celebratory story on the American talent discovered that day by the esteemed master.

In 1955, Milder began studying with the painter André L’Hote, a well known proponent of Cubism who had known Cézanne in his youth. Then in his seventies, L’Hote had been active in the Paris art community for nearly sixty years and conveyed to his students the living history of the School of Paris. It was L’Hote who urged Milder to see a show of his friend, the Fauvist painter Maurice Vlaminck, because he observed “you paint just like him.” L’Hote always wanted his students to study Poussin, whom he regarded as the father of Impressionism. Milder would comply by visiting the Louvre on Sunday, the free day, following his stops at Saint Suplice to hear Duprée play the organ, and at a Greek Orthodox church to hear Gregorian chants. In Paris he lived next door to Brancusi for a short while, but never sought to disturb the great artist’s privacy by proposing a meeting.

But for all of these experiences, Milder today feels that he had but one real master during those early years in Paris, namely Chaim Soutine. A Lithuanian-born painter who died in Paris in 1943, Soutine was perhaps the best-known of the circle of Jewish artists working in Paris who were known as the peintres maudits. Drawing on such sources as Van Gogh and the Fauves, Soutine rendered emotionally charged portraits, visionary landscapes and visceral still lives with a highly activated gestural expressionism.

Eventually Milder made his way to North Africa and lived for awhile in the Arab section of Tethuan. Two of his close friends were Moslem men who played ceramic drums on the many ancient synagogues in the area which influenced Milder’s sense of color, rhythm and scale. The visual impact of his travels to the Atlas Mountains and Tangiers would abide in his art – the vivid colors and the clarity and intensity of the Moroccan sunlight were such rich stimuli to his sense that he learned to give brilliance even to pastel colors and developed a color scheme that he would frequently draw upon during the next thirty-five years.

When Milder was ready to return to the U.S. after two and a half years abroad, he asked Zadkine’s advice as to where he should study. Unable to follow the master’s admonition to haunt the cafes, Milder enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. As an artist who disdained grades and irked the administration by creating his own curriculum, Milder was a student at the educational institution for only six months. During his brief stint in Chicago he worked on abstract images. He painted in the mornings, drew in the afternoon and took every opportunity to study the world famous paintings in the galleries of the Art Institute. One of his fellow students was Benny Andrews, who subsequently would become part of his circle of friends in New York City.

His drawing teacher, Isabel McKinnen, helped bridge the gap between the tradition of European culture he had so recently left and the realities of the American art world in the fifties. One of Milder’s favorite instructors, the sophisticated McKinnen was a veteran of Gertrude Stein’s soirees as the rue du Fleuris. She has studied with Hans Hofmann in Munich and had been one of those instrumental in bringing the great teacher to the United States in the thirties. Milder also worked with Paul Weegart, who had been a student of both Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus.

After leaving the Art Institute milder spent the summer in the Yucatan, hitching down to Campeche. When he returned to Chicago, he worked as a bartender where he gleaned from friends that Provincetown was a good place for artists, so in the summer of 1958 he set off by bus. Upon arriving at the Provincetown bus depot he met two jazz musicians who offered to help him find a place to stay. They escorted him to a tiny shack with large colorful paintings drying outside. The dwelling and the paintings belonged to Bob Thompson, who was to become his close friend. Thompson soon invited Milder to show his work in the Provincetown-based Chrysler Art Museum’s competitive exhibition. To Milder’s surprise, collector Walter Chrysler bought one of his paintings from that show, thus freeing him from the need to support himself as a dishwasher,[iii] as many artists did. Milder’s wide circle of friends in Provincetown included the directors of the Sun Gallery, Val Falcone and Yvonne Andersen as well as Mimi Gross, Red Grooms, Christopher Lane, Emilio Cruz, Gandie Brody, Bill Barrell and Lester Johnson.

Shortly after he arrived in Provincetown, Milder was walking down the street carrying one of his small paintings over to Bob Thompson’s place when a car stopped for a light in front of him. The art-work caught the eye of the driver, teacher Hans Hoffman, who got out and engaged Milder in conversation for several minutes concluding with an invitation to come and meet his wife the next day. Subsequently, Milder was to study with Hofmann during the summer of 1958.

At that time, Provincetown was a yeasty environment for the visual arts. Young artists such as Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Alex Katz, Robert Frank, Mary Frank and Red Grooms were attracted by the experimental spirit and avant-garde atmosphere of the Sun Gallery. While imbued with the aesthetics of Action Painting, the youthful renegades, like Jay Milder who exhibited there, were not deterred from figurative images, as were the preceding generation of Abstract Expressionists. Indeed their freedom to work with the figure was a mark of the independence from any doctrinaire approach. Like most of the artist who gravitate to Provincetown in the summer, Milder retained his circle of new acquaintances when he moved to New York at the end of the season.[iv]

Milder participated in the cooperative Phoenix Gallery on Tenth Street and played an instrumental role in founding the City Gallery in 1958 with Bob Thompson and Red Grooms. Lester Johnson, who met Milder through Red Grooms, describes him as a warm and gregarious man who was very popular: “We always considered him as the mayor of the loft; if he had a party, everybody would come.”[v] Somewhat later Milder moved to Staten Island, where he worked in an abandoned hospital with no electricity, using the top floor operating room as a studio. Johnson remembers an extraordinary Halloween party given there by Jay. In describing the character of the young artists working in New York in the late fifties and early sixties, Johnson notes that: “Jay, Bob and Red were really into something fresh, all the others (like Dine, Oldenburg, Wesselmann) were hangers-on.” Within a few years, the momentum of popular taste for Pop Art would sweep the others into international prominence, while Jay Milder and Bob Thompson resisted the commercialism and remained within the confines of New York’s avant-garde art world.

From the onset of his career Jay Milder refused to adhere to either an abstract or a figurative mode, but rather to “figurative symbolism.” When Mimi Gross met him in Provincetown in 1958 she was impressed by his large geometric abstractions, a mode he had started while in Chicago. For Lester Johnson, Milder’s 1960 Delancey Street Museum show of figurative expressionist images that used his pregnant wife as a model, was “quite shocking at the time.” Painter and writer Emilio Cruz describes Jay Milder as “one of a handful of individuals who took the lessons of Abstract Expressionts, the CoBrA group and  l’art brut and who put a new emphasis on the condition of man.” Lester Johnson recalls that he “greatly admired” a series of fairly realistic black and white paintings by Milder that included large portraits of Mimi Gross and Red Grooms.

Milder’s work once again took a more abstract turn when he started modifying the surfaces of his paintings with the flames of a blow torch. Emilio Cruz recollects Milder’s great freedom and enthusiasm for experimentation with such diverse media as epoxy resins and newspapers. He recalls an instance when Milder miscalculated the chemical formula and had literally to toss a smoking batch of resins out the studio window. In 1960, Milder had a major exhibition at the Allen Stone Gallery during its first year in business. Milder had employed earth and polyester resin, a technique he quickly abandoned when he became of the health hazards involved. He was then working in a studio near Fulton Street, close to commercial businesses that sold job lots. He would buy quantities of sienna earth and large cans of pigment which he mixed with oil and clay substances, pressing them through a simple meat grinder fixed to a chair back. To achieve the rich expressive textures he desired, Milder would paint surfaces with rakes, combs and spray guns. In his Moroccan series, he sprayed over thickly painted areas and then incised the thinner skin to allow the under color to penetrate to the surface.

Rich textures would remain a natural characteristic of Milder’s work, whether he worked with a abstract geometry or recognizable imagery. Bill Barrell describes Milder’s paintings as having “a very strong feeling of creation. The surfaces of many of his works have the quality of Mother Earth herself.” As he did in his Subway and Biblical series of the 1960s, which have been discussed in more detail by Peter Selz earlier in this catalogue, [vi] Milder continued to use techniques that maximized the act of discovery in the process of painting. Regarding his work as a figurative artist Milder says “I do not paint figures, I personify shapes.” In a 1976 Arts article entitled “Jay Milder: Painter of Discovery, Resolution and Rediscovery,” George N. Preston described Milder’s “trance-like” working methods, terming him “and important painter’s paint and … an historian’s painter.”[vii]

In the first half of the 1970s, Milder was part of an exhibiting group called the Rhino Horn, composed of several of his peers including Benny Andrews, whom he had met as a student at the Chicago Art Institute; Peter Dean; and Nicholas Sperakis, introduced to him by Bill Barrell. Several of the artists in this disparate collection of individualists had a surrealist or visionary bent in their art. But the one element they all held in common was a desire to declare themselves as unabashed humanists and expressionists in a period that disdained emotions and discounted painting. In Emilio Cruz’s description, Jay Milder “was always true to his convictions, and was unbending in his integrity.”

A self-described “hermit” who pays no mind to the vagaries of the art world, Milder’s dedication to his art has had a positive impact on several of his peers. When Mimi Gross, then seventeen, first met Milder, who was twenty-four, she had not yet decided to become a painter. “He made painting seem so available (and showed me that) it was a twenty-four hour activity not separated from everyday life.” For her, Milder is an artist whose skills keep expanding: “He is very original in his art. He pushes it away when he thinks that it looks familiar.”

Similarly, the painter and writer Anne Tabachnick also praised his unique example: “No one really understands de Kooning’s touch as well as Jay Milder does, because they come from the same source – Soutine. Milder is the true heir to Abstract Expressionism at the end of the twentieth century. He understands structure and color, touch and feelings and mood and everything that makes art. Jay Milder experiments continually and has never allowed himself to be boxed in. He still paints in the religious frenzy that produced Abstract Expressionism at its best – as opposed to the school-taught imitative devices – that’s why he’s the real last Abstract Expressionist. There are several painters who are also still viable, but nobody paints as well as Jay Milder.”

Judith E. Stein


[i] Carter Ratcliff, in his July 1986 Art in America review of Jay Milder’s show at Sid Deutsch Gallery, used the phrase “urban visionary” to describe the artist and defined it as “one who has transformed the oppressive feelings induced by the city, but not forgotten them.” p. 118.

[ii] Heinrich Wolfflin, Principles of Art History (New York: Dover Publications, 1964) p. 11.

[iii] Jay Milder, “Bob Thompson: His Life and Friendships,” Artist and Influence 1985, ed. Leo Hamalian and Judith Wilson (New York: Hatch-Billops Collection, 1985), p. 133.

[iv] See for example, Judith Stein, “Red Grooms: The Early Years (1937-1969),” in Red Grooms a Retrospective, 1956-1984 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1985) pp. 32-37; Barbara Haskell, BLAM! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance 1958-1964 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art/ W.W. Norton and Company, 1984), pp. 19-20; and Judith Wilson, unpublished Yale University doctoral dissertation on Bob Thompson, passim.

[v] Interview with the author and Lester Johnson, July 1989. Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent quotations in the text come from artist interviews conducted by Judith Stein between 1989 and 1991.

[vi] See also Martha Henry, “Essay,” Jay Milder, “Messiah on the IND and Other Biblical Tales, (New York: Richard Green Gallery, 1987) u.p.

[vii] George N. Preston, “Jay Milder: Painter of Discovery, Resolution and Rediscovery,” Arts (November 1976), p.89.

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