Contributed by Leslie Wayne / If you meet Holly Miller on the street, you will encounter a warm, exuberant, emotionally expressive, and funny person who immediately pulls you into her space. You would not expect her art to be highly controlled, minimal, and geometric. Yet she has built her career on paintings that are just that – slightly irregular geometric shapes, flatly painted and intersected by lines sewn with thread. But Miller is now at a crossroads and her work is suddenly exploding outward, making room for new materials, chance encounters, and unpredictable forms. Perhaps, as with many artists, COVID has had something to do with this shift. Life seems a little more precious these days, and taking new aesthetic chances is a small way of asserting courage in the face of the unknown.
Born in New York, Miller and her family moved to Rome when she was two when her father, a journalist, landed with the Associated Press. Tragically, he was killed eight years later on assignment in Cambodia. Soon thereafter, she returned to New York with her mother and sister. But Italy never left her heart, and, when she was 18, Miller came back to the Eternal City and attended Art History and Italian Literature classes at the Dante Alighieri School. She decided to become an artist, graduating from the School of Visual Arts and embarking on a long, winding road of intertwining American and European influences, finding ways to keep a foot in each continent. She and her husband, an architect, just purchased a small pied-à-terre in the Marais section of Paris, where they encamped for the month of October. I caught up with her there by email.
Leslie Wayne: Holly, I know you speak French as well as Italian, having gone to a French lycée as a child living in Rome. How does it feel to be in the City of Lights as a resident?
Holly Miller: I feel like a fish in water – as much European as American. Though probably slightly foreign in both, but because of my fluency in French, I’ve always felt comfortable here. I’ve also noticed some nice changes since visiting in my youth. For one, young people really seem to embrace anything or anyone coming from the States and there is no longer that criticism of foreigners who don’t speak the language. The other thing is that Paris always used to be so cold and rainy compared to my perennially warm and sunny Rome, and I thought I would never want to live here. But because of climate change, for better or for worse, Paris now feels like Rome: sunny, bright, warm and breezy, plus the Parisians seem less grumpy!
LW: So let’s go back for a minute to your early days in New York. Tell me a little bit about your time at SVA and how that influenced your next moves. I know that Michael Goldberg, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, was your teacher, and that he was integral to your development as a young artist.
HM: Yes, he was my teacher in my fourth year at SVA and he encouraged me to go back and live and work in Italy as an artist after I graduated. He was very supportive of both me and my French boyfriend at the time, who was also an art student, and financed our first few months there. Michael and his wife, Lynn Umlauf – also an accomplished artist – had a place in Tuscany where they lived and worked five months out of each year and they invited us to come stay with them, which we did the following year. So it was really an education.
LW: After you stayed with them, where did you go to live?
HM: We went straight to Rome and got a place in Trastevere. It was a very raw space where we could live and work. I had been influenced by Basquiat when I was in New York, so I kind of channeled his style and energy by painting street scenes and everyday objects.
LW: Did you meet any other artists during that time?
HM: Yes. I met Mario Schifano, who was known as the Italian Andy Warhol. It’s kind of a crazy story. My boyfriend and I had been thrown out of our Trastevere loft because the landlord was going to renovate the building. So we moved into a large, cheap apartment with no bathroom, but a toilet on the balcony! We transformed the place into studios. When the Trastevere loft renovation was finished, Mario Schifano moved in. Gino De Dominics and others followed. Cy Twombly rented there, too. So one day I wanted to see what the loft we had lived in looked like all fixed up. When I rang the bell, Mario answered. He invited me in and from that day on, for the following six months, every morning I would get a call from him asking me to come by. We spent about an hour a day talking about ideas and sharing stories. He was very curious about New York. He would start out sitting on his couch with the TV on with no sound, and as we spoke, he had his remote in one hand, flipping channels, his eyes on the constant stream of images. He introduced me to his collectors, Giulio Einaudi among others, and Italian art critics. We traded work and he would often include me in his projects.
LW: So he kind of took you under his wing. Do you feel that the lessons you drew from him and from those years in Italy are filtering back into your work today?
HM: Yes. I feel like I am returning to an interest in Arte Povera with a New York sensibility.
Those three years in Rome let me digest what I had learned when I was in school in New York. When I finally returned to the States, I began to absorb and process my Rome experience. I wanted to shed the literal and the representational and find a way to convey metaphors and emotions through the use of humble materials. I wanted to allow for different possibilities of interpretation and create an openness in the work. Process and materials have always interested me, and having been immersed in Italian culture informed my approach, especially through artists like Burri, Fontana, Manzoni, and even Schifano. In the last 20 years or so, I have been painting abstract geometric shapes underscored by the physicality of threaded lines. When Covid struck and we were all in lockdown, I began to feel as if life had changed in a fundamental way and that I needed my work to open up. Materiality is still very important to me and the work I am doing today focuses on conveying a sense of the human touch.
LW: Yes, the new work is much more physical and haptic, and less geometric. There is also another element to these pieces that engages with one of the driving forces behind Arte Povera, which is the use of humble materials as a direct reaction to the fraught state of the world. Burri, Fontana, and others were responding to the Second World War with a desire to return to a kind of simplicity. I think COVID and the climate crisis have had a comparable effect on a lot of artists. Can you elaborate on that with regard to your use of plastic in the new work, which is something very new?
HM: Absolutely. Every morning, walking out of my home in Brooklyn, at least three plastic bags would be flying around the ground. At first, I picked them up and threw them into the garbage. But one morning, I realized that instead of having them end up in the ocean, I could maybe do something with them. I started to gather them, wash them and fold them into squares and rectangles. They took on a completely different meaning. I was surprised to see beauty in this rejected material. The delicate transparency, the pearlescent sheen, and the luminosity became another form of paint to me. Acrylic paint is a plastic material, so why not use plastic bags as a painting material? Once I began experimenting with the plastic bags, I remembered that Alberto Burri had used them in his 1960s series Le Plastiche. He burned and scorched the material. But I stitch and mend it. In this very difficult and discouraging time, I try in my work to convey a feeling of healing and a celebration of life, a sense of hope and optimism. Using these humble, everyday materials creates a visual and emotional link between art and life.
LW: The distinction you make between the hopelessness of Burri’s work and the optimism in yours is interesting and I think very true. These new pieces have a kind of explosive energy that feels generative rather than destructive. There is also another element that is different from your other paintings. The foundation on which you are placing the plastic and threaded lines is loosely painted and expressionistic. There are no hard lines or geometric shapes anywhere. I remember you telling me about an older piece you had done and put away because you weren’t ready to go in that direction. You just thought it was an anomaly and so you never showed it to anyone. And now here you are working in a way that sounds similar. Was that piece instrumental in your forging this new way forward?
HM: Not exactly, but that painting did speak to me and made me face the fact that I needed to make a change, even though I still wasn’t sure I was ready for it yet. When I was at SVA studying under Michael Goldberg, my paintings were gestural and abstract. I even made a large expressionistic painting with a big black garbage bag on it. My boyfriend said to me, “You wrap, and you splash!” And here I am, many years later, revisiting some of those same ideas in paint: letting go, allowing the paint to live and not controlling as much, letting accidents and unpredictable moments happen… basically letting the painting inform and surprise me. It is so interesting to see how one comes around to early ideas unconsciously. When that happens, you realize that it is who you were and maybe who you still are, only with more experience, recycling early concepts and materials through different eyes. So my new work is allowing me to wrap and splash, to stitch and drip. And maybe the contrast between the organic, spontaneous application of paint and the stitched industrial plastic bags creates a dichotomy that signifies my slight sense of dislocation in both New York and Europe. It might also suggest that I am at home in both.
For more on Holly Miller: www.hollymillerart.com
About the author: New York artist Leslie Wayne, an occasional writer and curator, is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery.
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