[“Noah’s Ark 34” (2007-2009), mixed media on canvas. “Noah’s Ark 117” (2006-2009), mixed media on canvas. “Noah’s Ark 874” (2007-2009), mixed media on canvas.]
From his early studies with Hans Hofmann in 1958, in which he learned the vibrant vernacular of Push Pull Abstract Expressionism, Jay Milder has been a powerful and influential artist in the New York art scene. During that period in the late 1950s, he exhibited his work at Provincetown’s legendary Sun Gallery with other figurative expressionists such as African-American figurative painter Bob Thompson (1937-1966), sculptor Mary Frank, painter Lester Johnson, and multimedia artist Red Grooms. In 1959—with Thompson and Grooms—he founded the City Gallery in New York’s Chelsea, which later moved downtown to become the Delancey Street Museum, an early site for counterculture “Happenings.”
Girding and enriching Milder’s work has been a mystical belief system encompassing Kabbalistic numerology, Eastern philosophy, and Byzantine space, resulting in works combining the exuberance of pure painting with shamanistic ritual and the desire to communicate “universal truths.” The latter included his connection with the Theosophical Society and the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875 to advance its spiritual principles and search for “truth.” Krishnamurti was known for his talks on meditation, human relationships, and bringing about positive change—stressing the need for change in the individual human psyche. Additionally, Hasidic mystic practitioners in his familial background—conveyed to Milder through family stories in his youth—led him to an interest in spiritualism and mysticism. Both have been important influences in his art and life.
Indeed, Biblical references and numerology permeate Milder’s canvasses as eye-popping colors and textures communicate this excitement of revelation. Milder’s paintings contain an encoded collective knowledge, which is revealed through the artist’s ritualistic studio practice. Milder combines a child-like scrawl with the contemplation of a Theosophy scholar.
In pursuit of techniques that would maximize discovery in his painting and sculpture, rich textures (as seen by above examples from his current show) have remained part of his work throughout the decades. During the 1980s Milder experimented with various materials mixed with raw pigment, including porcelain, clay, and volcanic ash. As the 1990s moved into the 2000s this exploration has continued with heavy impastos built of clay, various binders, and raw pigment. Even use of media is informed by Milder’s spiritual interests—in this case such concepts as numerology and chakras (or centers of energy).
As a founding member of the influential Rhino Horn Group during the 1970s, Milder became a leading exponent of Figurative Expressionism, a movement that challenged the cool calculations of Minimalism and Pop Art. The group largely orbited around political commentary and expressionism. In a seminal exhibition of Rhino Horn work at the New School, there was an obvious effort to weave connections between art and life. The group was very committed to depicting the struggle of people’s lives and was very much part of the “consciousness raising” of that period. Afterward, Milder’s work continued on its path of heavily encrusted surfaces—containing its retinue of animals, inscriptions, and animistic forms.
Milder was the subject of two recent career retrospectives at the National Museum (Brasilia) and the Museum of Modern Art (Rio de Janeiro). His work has been seen in an array of places such as Art in America, ArtForum, The New York Times, The Brooklyn Rail, The Mint Museum (Charlotte), Neuberger Museum (Purchase), The Newark Museum, The New Museum (New York), Tel Aviv Museum, and the Weatherspoon Art Gallery (Greensboro).
Jay Milder’s paintings make visible a search for understanding the universe. Their physical urgency conveys a joyful struggle. An unfolding mystery, they are endowed with the excitement of a journey, which never quite ends.
Jay Milder: Recent Work
@ Lohin ∙ Geduld ∙ Gallery
Through November 14, 2009
531 West 25th Street, NYC 10001