Jay Milder (b. 1934, Omaha, Nebraska), first exhibited his “Subway Runners” series at Martha Jackson Gallery, NY, in 1964. These paintings, based on the subject of people running to catch trains, are explosive in their energy and materiality: dense, three-dimensional surfaces of oil paint mixed with volcanic ash. The faces and heads are huge, dominating most of the canvas, with arms and legs in motion, and the setting of subway stations and tracks depicted with loose, gestural marks.
The work is connected to European sources like Dubuffet and COBRA artists; Milder lived in Paris and studied with André Lhote and Ossip Zadkine in the mid-1950s. There, he also became aware of the work of Chaim Soutine, who would be an important influence in terms of a gestural, painterly approach to Cubism enlivened by spiritual belief. Milder’s early travels to Morroco and Mexico also informed his early development.
In the summer of 1958, Milder lived in Provincetown, where he came into contact with Red Grooms and Bob Thompson, and showed at the Sun Gallery alongside Mimi Gross, Alex Katz, and Lester Johnson. Milder became associated with a “second-generation New York School” Figurative Expressionism. Back in New York, he co-founded, with Red Grooms, the artist-run City Gallery in their shared loft in the Flatiron District, giving Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine their first New York exhibitions.
Jay Milder and Bob Thompson [Zabriskie; to June Il] make a lively show. Milder is the more mature. His oils are supposed to be still-lifes. In one, a huge table top, as doughy and vast as a dry river bed in Africa, reaches to the far horizon under the hovering mirage of a window sill. In another, three cabbages, giant swirls of black green, look like the churned wake of a docking ocean liner. Influenced by Lester Johnson, Milder's canvases seem to heave with an obscure romanticism, and though not in the least explicit, some sort of urge or struggle is brewing under the surface. Thompson, too, is a recent uptown arrival from Delancey Street. With him painting is a question of whimsical ideas. Dreams, a carnival of naked figures with ominous imps and wooden pets, are deployed in a never-never land of sexual freedom. In patch-work jungles, under lollypop trees, near rivers of lurid magenta, gawky, climbing, coupling, the population of Thompson's fancy enjoys itself. In the least strident of the canvases, with a coloring close to Art Nouveau, one might see a primer type of Arcadia--it is titled I see and people grow in it like a carpet of flowers. These awkward fables, influenced by Jan Müller, were invented by an obviously young talent. Not its shoots of imagination, but its form and color need pruning and ripening.
Milder was inspired by the energy and motion, history, and constant flux of the city. The surfaces of his paintings are emblematic of layers of paint and grit on building walls. He experimented, early on, with spray paint, and added volcanic ash to pigment to create a coarse impasto. This, along with his subject matter of the subway, have led art historians to connect his work to street art. Over the decades, the constant in his work has been what he terms “figurative symbolism” and a belief that paintings should convey a sense of the connection between mystical experience and material presence. Milder says, “If you don’t have joy, you don’t have anything.” Milder co-founded, with Red Grooms, the artist-run City Gallery in their shared loft in the Flatiron District, giving Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine their first New York exhibitions. In 1959, the City Gallery’s operations expanded to a studio loft run by Grooms, Milder, and Bob Thompson on the Lower East Side. The new gallery would become known as the Delancey Street Museum: an early site for “happenings,” including the first performances by Allan Kaprow.
“As early 1960, Thomas Hess, a highly astute critic, who as editor of Art News was also very influential, noted that "the new figurative painting which some have been expecting as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism was implicit in it at the start, and is one of its most linear continuities." But it is in recent years that a prevalent pluralism has been able to re-examine the past and reinstate the maverick New York figure painters like George McNeil, Robert Beauchamps, Lester Johnson, Bob Thompson, Jan Muller, and Jay Milder, whose inner direct energy eschewed the cool stance of Pop and also of the Expressionists before them, resulted in iconoclastic work, which was an embodiment of genuine emotion - not the grandiose replication of previously felt forms which the so-called Neo-Expressionists have recently been serving to the insatiable art market." - Peter Selz,
Former Director of the Museum of Modern Art NYC, Monograph, Jay Milder: Urban Visionary, Solo Exhibition, curated by Martha Henry, July 1991.
Excerpts from Jay Milder’s Interview with Dr. Jusep Torres Campanals, Jr.
Rhino Horn: Personal Interiors, 1974
To make any movement modern or viable or palatable for a certain age, it has to be something new. It can't be the same old shit drawn out. ... If you think of [the work of Leonel Góngora], for example, it's kind of poetic, allegorical parable. And it does something to the mind. Aside from the aesthetics of the work—the colors and the rhythms—it asks the mind to think, "What is it?" And in the process of thinking "What is it?" one does think of all the aspects of our times. Man needs some kind of mythology today.
—Jay Milder, 1974
“We live in a bandaid society bereft of
the spirit. Thomas Aquinas made the
Western World material, when be
ushered in the thoughts of Aristotle.
Einstein brought us back to pluralism
and the spirit. For me, painting is a
mantra or an energy field, harmonics,
pulsation. Two of my main influences
were Ornette Coleman and
Shostakovich. Art is nonlinear and
should not be classified in that way”
Jay Milder, 1962
Milder’s work is represented in the collections of the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, VA; the Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC; and the Museo Nacional de Arte Centro Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, Spain. He was the subject of a 1991 retrospective at the New England Center for Contemporary Art. Milder has lived in Brazil, and he was the subject of solo exhibitions in 2006 at the Museum of Modern Art in Salvador, Bahia, and Rio De Janeiro, and, in 2009, at the National Museum of Brazilia. He was the subject of a 2019 retrospective at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum: “Jay Milder: Unblotting the Rainbow.”
JAY MILDER: BROADWAY NONSTOP, Subway Paintings from the 1950s and 60s will be on view through May 14, 2022 Eric Firestone Gallery | 40 Great Jones Street, New York, NY 10012