An exhibition at the National Arts Club in New York City earlier this year introduced me to the classical realist paintings of Adam Miller. I was largely unaware of his work until then. The explosion of new realism across the country has evolved rapidly, making it difficult to keep abreast of its progress. Realist art has always had different influences and themes, most significantly during the nineteenth century, particularly among the followers of Eugène Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, a subject examined later in this essay. For the moment, however, let us concentrate on the works of this relatively new, young artist.
An exhibition at the Last Rites Gallery,1 concurrent with the one at the National Arts Club, featured Miller’s Dusk (cover), 2012, a beautiful painting which reminds me of Frederick Leighton’s masterpiece Flaming June (1895), a portrait of a sleeping woman wearing a vibrant orange dress. Leighton’s composition is nearly perfect. The figure is opulent and sensuous, yet surprisingly chaste—beauty for beauty’s sake. The woman in Miller’s painting, unlike the one in Leighton’s, is wide awake, her voluptuous form subtly twisted in supple contrapposto, her head leaning back, gazing up at the sky. The orange cloak billows about her as if sustained by a soft wind, framing her upper torso and golden tresses. It is a romanticized image, the cloak providing the dynamic movement that binds the composition together. The cloak is framed against the cloudy, dun-colored sky, forming a complementary flat abstract shape to the curved opaqueness of the figure. All details are subordinated, through color, form and line, into one holistic image. There is gravitas in Miller’s work, which subtly introduces themes that resonate with the great tradition. What Miller is trying to do is twofold: to restore the humanistic classical realism of Western culture and, at the same time, to create iconography and narratives that are appropriate for the present age.
Miller belongs to what might be termed the third generation of modern realism, a movement I will briefly summarize. Being of an age to recall a talented group of realist artists of the 1950s, I can well remember the work of Burton Silverman and Harvey Dinnerstein, who founded a collective of realists in 1956 to replace the waning leadership of the Socialist Realists, with their regional political baggage. Both movements were shunted aside when Life magazine proclaimed the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock “the greatest American painter of our time.” Silverman and Dinnerstein are still painting wonderful representational works today.
They and others, such as Richard Lack, who in the 1960s organized a group of artists known as the Classical Realists, were responsible for nurturing a second generation of American realists who have had an enormous influence during the past forty years. These artists were also responsible for the establishment of many small art schools and ateliers across the country, as well as several in Italy. Despite the beautiful paintings and sculptures created by these artists, they were largely ignored by the art establishment, museums, the media and collectors. Only a handful of small galleries, such as the Forum in New York City and John Pence in San Francisco, paid much attention. Meanwhile, modernist art became one of the largest, most financially powerful enterprises in the United States, although the quality and integrity of the work has diminished.
In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the emergence of a third generation of realists. The second wave focused primarily on traditional academic subjects—portraits, still lifes and landscapes—with a desire to match the quality of nineteenth-century academic masters such as David, Ingres, Flandrin, Waterhouse, Leighton, Gérôme and Bouguereau. The third wave includes a number of talented artists who have discovered the missing link in the past sixty years of realist painting: the subject matter known in the nineteenth century as History Painting.
The realists have made great progress restoring the craft of drawing and painting the human figure. Contemporary artists such as Jacob Collins and Sabin Howard produce masterpieces in paint and marble. But missing from works by these second-generation artists is history. This is the challenge confronting the current generation of young realists. They know how to paint and sculpt the human figure. Now they are exploring what to paint, in terms of context and narrative. There is no story, history or myth that provides them with a ready-made ideological structure to contain the figure, so that it has broader cultural meaning.
Miller gives due credit to the two generations of artists who preceded him, but he elected not to study at the newly established ateliers. “I am trying to create something outside of the classical realist norm,” he said. By “classical realist norm” he is referring primarily to contemporary classical realism. Miller has said he believes that the educational system is not prepared to address the missing subject matter, which was the backbone of earlier Western art. History painting was so important to the nineteenth-century French Ministry of Culture and the National Academy that only artists who pursued themes that framed the social and religious vision could apply for the all-important annual Prix de Rome.
Yet Miller is hardly an establishment artist. He belongs to a group of artists who are living and working in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, that I would compare to the Left Bank in Paris, where the avant-garde poets and artists of the nineteenth century lived while they developed the visual language that eventually undermined the Academy. Miller approaches the problem of subject matter in an interesting way. He combines classical iconography of the human figure with an existential alienated landscape provided by modernism. He has not invented a new iconology. That would be asking a great deal from an artist who is still growing and enriching the classical form. Instead, he is trying to develop a modern cosmology that will reunite meaningful narrative with formal classical aesthetics.
Miller’s Among the Ruins (2012) is a haunting scene: a family huddles together beside a demolished brick wall at the edge of a deserted city. The figures range in age from young adults to infants. Some are seated; others lie on the cement pavement. A mother embraces two babies. All of the figures are nude, posed in a classical manner consistent with pre-twentieth-century academic art. They hold no symbolic objects, present no iconography. The sources of the male nudes are identifiable. The figure stretched out on the ground is influenced by Théodore Géricault’s masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa (1819), painted when the genius was only 28. The other, seated male figure could be informed by the work of Thomas Couture or Hippolyte Flandrin. In Miller’s work, the sky is dark, but with enough light to silhouette the ruined city towers in the distance across the river. Down the street, one can make out faint shadows of wolves and other predators among the corpses. A red flame streaks across the sky, hurtling toward Earth. A skeleton of a telephone booth has become a hawks’ nest. Despite the grimness, there is a soft light illuminating the figures in the foreground. Although many of Miller’s paintings are filled with an oppressive, existential darkness, a soft light usually filters in from one side. The Danish painter Odd Nerdrum, a mentor to Miller, uses a similar light source.
In Miller’s Narcissus (2012), an older woman bends over her reflection in the river, but her eyes look into the distance, the source of a faint light. In the ancient myth, a beautiful youth became so enamored of his own reflection in a pool that the gods changed him into a flower, endlessly hovering over its reflection. It was a popular subject for classical painters for centuries. The beautiful boy in Bouguereau’s Narcissus is clearly enchanted with his own reflection. But what is the meaning of Miller’s scene? Nothing is clear yet. He shows us pieces of the puzzle, but they don’t fit. Clearly, Miller is not limited by old themes.
In Among the Ruins, the beauty of the figures, the painterly quality of the sky’s darkness and the benign source of light contradict the scene’s overall grimness. Michael Gormerly writes that Millers presents “a chilling world view, one steeped in the modernist idea that people are doomed to endure a life in which they are essentially powerless.”2 I disagree with this analysis. The classically posed warriors in Jacques Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii (1784) are entirely consistent with the formal classical architectural interior and artifacts in the painting. Today, there is often a contradiction between classical figures and modernist settings, underscoring the challenge Miller and other painters face. These new classicists still bear modernist ties. They have not yet developed a rigorous cosmology that bonds with the contemporary world. The exhausted figures in Among the Ruins and its counterpart, End of the Road (2012), do not seem “doomed,” in the sense that figures in modernist paintings by Munch, Ensor and Francis Bacon do.
The subject of realism is not realism per se. Realism is not limited to fidelity to appearances, to mimesis or even to honest craftsmanship. It involves values such as truth and honor. During the nineteenth century, there was a great division between classical and Romantic realists, the followers of Ingres and the followers of Delacroix. The classicists prevailed until the Great War revealed the hypocrisy, corruption and decadence of the European powers. Empires and monarchies collapsed, along with Western cultural structure. Four hundred years of the academic hegemony disappeared along with classical realism. Modernism, so vigorous at the start of the twentieth century, has itself collapsed.
For decades, realism has been reasserting itself. As Rome crumbled about him, the fifth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinius observed that serious reading and philosophy were neglected while shallow entertainments thrived. Stephen Greenblatt summarizes his complaint about the “loss of cultural moorings, a descent into febrile triviality.”3 This is a fair description of the arts under postmodernism, which is now becoming passé.
Art acknowledges and celebrates what is sacred. This is why Plato and Aristotle so often discussed the arts. This is why the Medici invited Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael to work on three separate projects in the same hall of the Palazzo Vecchio at the same time. In America, the National Mall presents another cultural and spiritual center, although too many monuments of the last forty years have declined into mediocrity and kitsch.
The Academy of 400 years—from Raphael to Bouguereau—failed because its ideas were no longer relevant to the modern world. Conversely, modernism failed because, as Nietzsche predicted, man cannot live without God. This is what the new generation is confronting. This is why Miller and others resist joining the academies that seek out the classicism of old. What realism needs is a new, relevant iconography, fit for a nation that seeks greatness.
In the era of Delacroix and Ingres, realism was divided into two great camps. I would like to end this essay by comparing Miller to another contemporary artist, Steven Assael. To a degree, they mirror the Delacroix and Ingres debate. Assael is a realist; he paints what he sees. His teacher was Dinnerstein, not exactly a Romantic realist, either. In Assael’s Kristen with Mask (2012), a young woman dressed in a Pierrot-inspired ruff holds a large, horned carnival mask. The painting is not meant to be allegorical. She is a modern woman in a commedia dell’arte costume. At the same time, it is very well composed aesthetically. Assael has posed the model carefully, so that the rich, dark colors of the costume form a strong chiaroscuro pattern against the flat, dark background. A band of sunlight slants across her collar and the horned top of the mask she grasps in her hands.
Both Miller and Assael are very aware of the aesthetic components of good painting. Both artists know that mimesis is not enough to justify good realist art. Assael has experimented with allegory, but he always depicts realistically.
Miller depends on imagination, although he is a realist with the human figure. In Miller’s Baptism (2011), for example, three figures, nude or partially draped, sit on a rocky shore. One lets fall a handful of glossy coins, like mother-of-pearl shells. The title and the enigmatic action suggest a rite of initiation. The artist is trying to balance a sense of classical realism with a new American myth. “I think we can form a new community,” he explains. “We need an American Renaissance.”
1. Miller was featured in “Effigies and Idols” (March 2–April 6, 2013) at the Last Rites Gallery, 511 West 33rd Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 529-0666. lastritesgallery.com
2. Michael Gormerly, “Visions of Chaos,” American Artist (October 2012), p. 41.
3. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), p. 93.