Remembering Robert Miller, an Old-School Art Dealer Who Risked Standing Apart

Remembering Robert Miller, an Old-School Art Dealer Who Risked Standing Apart

The golden era of Robert Miller, the elegant and rainmaking dealer who died in Miami Beach last week of undisclosed causes at the age of 72, took place in a very different period in the art world. It was much smaller when his lively stable of mostly postwar artists came to notice in the late 1970s, and the chic galleries, like his, were on 57th Street. Collectors actually visited gallery shows and developed rapport with dealers on a regular basis; sales were not as yet dominated by art fairs and auctions.

In this sophisticated milieu, Miller always stood out by championing more quirky tastes, ranging from Jean-MichelBasquiat and Robert Mapplethorpe to a remarkable roster of women artists, including Krasner, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Patti Smith, and the estatesof Diane Arbus and Eva Hesse. Today his eponymous operation continues in Chelsea on 26th Street, led by his wife Betsy Wittenborn Miller since his retirement in 2001.

Miller started his art career as a painter, having two exhibitions at the Martha Jackson Gallery in the mid-1960s before switching to art dealing, first with the late and once-leading dealer Andre Emmerich. Before that transformation, Miller worked as a studio assistant of Lee Krasner, an experience that later helped him land the artist and Jackson Pollock intimate in his stable.

He became a director at Emmerich's gallery — located at the Fuller Building on 41 east 57th Street — and then a partner, mostly due to his winning personality and knowledge of a wide range of art, including antiquities. A serious illness and subsequent operation in the '70s ended his career at Emmerich, with the gallerist firing Miller while he lay in the hospital — an event that that caused much bitterness in Miller, who felt abandoned at a critical moment in his life, as he told this writer years ago. 

Miller, however, recovered sufficiently to open a beautifully designed gallery at 724 Fifth Avenue in 1977, and quickly came to the fore with crisply installed exhibitions, deluxe catalogues with serious essays, and hefty backroom sales. He also mounted shows with such prominent British artists and provocateurs as Gilbert & George, David Hockney, and Leon Kossoff.

Unlike such leading lights of that time as Leo Castelli and Paula Cooper, Miller never cared for SoHo, preferring the carriage trade of 57th Street. He later moved to take his own space at the Fuller Building, working on a different floor from his hated former employer. (Emmerich died in 2007 at the age of 82, having sold his gallery in 1996 to Sotheby's, which closed the space in 1998.)

Today, if some artists in Miller's onetime stable sound more familiar as being represented under the dealer banner of Cheim & Read, there is much logic there, since both John Cheim and Howard Read developed under Miller's guidance and worked as directors for his gallery for years before leaving to set up their own business in Chelsea in 1997.

In a statement released by the Robert Miller Gallery, Patti Smith noted that Miller was her "advocate and mentor."

After his retirement in 2000, Miller continued to paint and exhibit, including a 2001 exhibition at the Dorsch Gallery in Miami. He is survived by his three children, including Robert Peter Miller, Jr., who works at the gallery.

A memorial in New York is being planned by the family.