VoyageATL - January 8, 2019
Today we’d like to introduce you to Holly Miller.
Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours? I was born in New York and raised in Italy. My dad, an American journalist, landed a job at Associated Press in Rome. In 1960, our family moved there. I was two years old. I went to the French Lycee of Rome and was trilingual by the age of four. In 1970, my father transferred to CBS News where he was sent to Cambodia to report on the war. He was killed there. A few years later, we returned to the US.
When I was in school in the late ’60s, I asked my mom to write a note excusing me from Art classes. She agreed.
After graduating from high school back in NY, I had only one dream and that was to return to the town I grew up in. So, at the age of 18, I moved back to the Eternal City by myself. I took classes in History of Art and Italian literature at the Dante Alighieri School and did various jobs to support myself. One day, walking through Villa Borghese, I was struck by the marble busts of famous composers, philosophers, and writers lining the shady paths of the park. I bought a sketchbook and began to draw them. Soon after that, I decided to get an education in fine art.
When I was a child in Rome, my grandmother from Kansas City used to come to visit us once in a while. She took me to the museums where she would find a Dutch or Flemish painting from the 17th century, most of the time a realistic still life and she would ask me “what do you see?” Gazing at the painting for a long time, I would slowly discover a ladybug or a caterpillar or a shell hiding under a piece of fruit. My grandmother taught me how to look and to see.
At the age of 20, I had applied to the School of Visual Arts to study drawing, painting, and sculpture. I had moved back to NY and was invited to an opening at MOMA. I had never been to a museum opening before. It was a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. I was absolutely blown away. I had no idea that art could be that exciting and provocative.
I spent my first year in Art school drawing the figure from life and doing gestural collage paintings inspired by Rauschenberg. During the early ’80s, I was living in the East Village, going to Art school during the day and cocktail waitressing several nights a week. Jean Michel Basquiat was the talk of the town and I could not get enough of his paintings. He became my next inspiration. I was also introduced to Egon Schiele’s work… both artists work mostly with line and drawing and I soon realized that line moved me and inspired me deeply.
After graduating from SVA with a BFA in 1984, it was time for me to return to my hometown. Michael Goldberg, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, had been my teacher at SVA and he was very supportive of me and my French boyfriend (also an artist at the time). Goldberg encouraged us to move back to Italy and financed our first few months there.
We moved into a beautiful, raw studio in Trastevere (in Rome) where we painted. My work was very influenced by Basquiat. I drew in the streets of Rome. A childlike, expressive, quirky line capturing everyday objects and buildings in the Roman city: Vespas, cupolas, palm trees, Bialetti coffee makers… I met Mario Schifano, known as the Italian Andy Warhol, and he took me under his wing. He introduced me to his collectors and we shared many conversations about Art in his studio.
I spent four years in Rome, working and showing and selling my Art.
But after a while, I felt that living in that beautiful and laid back city was like living in a Museum. The history of Art was a heavyweight, anchoring the city to its past, not allowing any room for a contemporary expression to flourish. I realized that in order for me to grow and expand as an artist, I needed a more current environment and a broader dialogue with other artists (including women artists). I finally returned to NY where I established my roots as a female, contemporary American artist.
Please tell us about your art. The work I did in Rome didn’t feel relevant anymore. Basquiat was so much better than anything I had done. I knew that I needed to move on from his influential grip on me. I also began to get interested in Abstraction.
I knew that line and materials where strong elements in my work and I wanted to let go of the figurative and representational and allow the work to have many possibilities of interpretation through process and metaphors. I was interested in conveying different dichotomies: feminine and masculine, warm and cool, presence and absence, bold and subtle.
I started stretching aluminum sheets of flashing over wood panels, using screws and bolts to attach the cool shiny material to the warm wood. They were sculptural paintings. I had entered the realm of Abstraction and was fascinated by how much I could suggest, convey and transcend through materials and mark making.
I eventually felt like I needed to open up the work, make it lighter and find a way to introduce line and/or drawing. I gave up the flashing and began to pierce the sides of the wooden stretcher bars. I then “drew” lines of aluminum or copper wire, weaving through the holes, creating “empty” paintings that had painted lines of wire floating across and off the wall. The wire lines were painted white so they would disappear against the white wall. The shadows became more pronounced and present than the actual materiality of the metal lines.
During that period, Lucio Fontana’s slashed paintings saturated my mind. I discovered Fontana and the Italian artists of the 20th century once I began working in the realm of Abstraction. They became a huge influence on me. Burri, Manzoni, and Fontana resonated with me in their approach to materiality, touch, and concepts. I believe that I share an inherent similar sensibility to theirs by having grown up in that culture.
I continued my exploration of drawing with materials and shadow by working directly on the wall. I did several installations where I would hammer a nail to the wall and paint it white allowing its shadow to draw a vertical line. I would build long irregular lines of a shadow descending the wall. They were sculptural drawings that captured the presence as much as the absence, the material, and the illusion. The purity and suggestive directness of Kelly’s paintings are elements that resonate for me in my work. Agnes Martin’s subtle, quiet, repetitive drawn lines, Fred Sandback’s strong, architectural, minimal fiber lines drawn in space, Eva Hesse’s emotionally loaded structured webs, Richard Tuttle’s quirky and fresh drawings and humble objects, Bridget Riley’s dynamic, optical compositions… these artists have left a deep impression on me and have inspired me to carve out my own voice in Abstraction.
I started working with thread, a material that has properties of drawing yet is tactile and sculptural, that relates to a canvas and carries endless metaphors. I began drawing with a long needle and thread instead of a pencil on canvas. Once I came around to working on the canvas after going through many steps with different materials, I was able to get involved with paint and explore color. I found a visual medium that combined drawing, painting, and sculpture while remaining simple and humble. I had achieved an economy that was reached through many years of exploring, taking risks, discovering and then discarding what wasn’t absolutely necessary. By distilling my experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions I have created an abstract personal language that has become the essence of my work. The geometric shapes in my paintings are shapes that surround me in my urban life and my palette is suggestive of my past (the colors of Italian industrial design from the ’60s). Every day, I am exposed to and inspired by the city I live in. I notice, absorb and translate my impressions, feelings and visual images into abstract paintings.
The act of stitching lines carries metaphors of puncturing and healing, connecting and disrupting, tearing and mending. The tiny pricks or stings remind us that everything that is beautiful or gentle can be slightly painful too. There lies the poetry in the work.
Do you have any advice for other artists? Any lessons you wished you learned earlier? Try to be as honest and true to yourself in your work (and your life). Take risks, push beyond your comfort zone, allow accidents to happen, give yourself permission to go off on a tangent… and then stop and look, contemplate, feel and see where to go next. You might need to pull back or push forward. Trust yourself and believe in what you do. Learn from your experimenting. Don’t become too comfortable in what you know how to do. Listen to your eyes and your heart. Art is about reflecting and/or reacting to our world, capturing and filtering our vision and sensibility.
It’s an ongoing, challenging journey, with many ups and downs, not an easy one. Yet, there is nothing else I would rather do with my life.
How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work? My website hollymillerart.com is the most accessible way to view my work. Ideelart.com is a platform I am on that presents artists from Europe and the US who work in Abstraction. I also post my work on Instagram at hollymillerguerin.
Art is about communication and these days lots of artists are able to exchange images and ideas through the internet. On one hand, it is strange to view art through a screen but on the other it allows many artists to connect around the world and support each other.
Address: 156 Douglass street Brooklyn NY 11217