John M. Miller's abstractions have been quietly and persistently celebrated by critics, curators, collectors and fellow painters for nearly three decades. Quiet persistence can also be used to describe the way the subtle substance of his paintings reveals itself to you. Interviewing Mr. Miller was fun and grueling. Using words, we surfed over ideas and intentions that are notorious for eluding description and yet easily accessed through the kind of experience that comes from a prolonged and dedicated dialogue with the essence of creative intention. His description of his effort was similar to the effort involved in the Zen meditations of some monk friends of mine.
Coagula: You have been repeating the same format and imagery since 1972. That's almost thirty years! What is it about this work that sustains your commitment?
John M. Miller: There's an implication that not much has changed from one point to another point in time. There's a sense that the uniqueness of this particular structure has become a signature, which denies the reality of what is actually happening in the individual works. Consider the notion that the structure plane that I have been dealing with all these years is a plane that is continuous and conceptually everywhere. In the beginning the centering area would be very calm creating a conflict with the chaos on the edge. The resolution of that conflict was the beginning of a dialogue that continues to this day.
Coagula: One of the experiences I have while looking at your work is the perception of an area of stillness surrounded by vibrating energy. How did you come to the decisions about your format?
JMM: I was drawing the lattice structures on the canvas in the early 70's and measuring the rectangles inside. I had no control over the edge. It wasn't until the late 70's that I made the decision to create a dialogue of symmetry so that what was on the left side was in dialogue with what was on the right side. I wanted the physicality of its relationship with the viewer to be predicated on decisions I made about proportion rather than scale. Painting has parameters in terms of light, structure, proportion .. Using these elements I wanted to engage not only the mind but the body in terms of the physicality so the paintings have a sense of the familiar. All painters make marks. But in abstract painting this prelinguistic act is a priority. The goal of making a mark being to identify yourself with the singularity of it all.
Coagula: What do you mean when you're talking about singularity?
JMM: All things are interconnected. In these paintings I wish to bring the viewer to the experience of it within themselves. I have done this by making decisions regarding proportion, the marks in relationship to the edge, the size of the work and the color. This containment presents a continuum that exists everywhere and within it you are ultimately dealing with the paradox of time itself. It's all over and yet contained in a moment. Not a moment that is static but in flux. It's merely the silence of the episode, of the engagement. It presents itself and you as the participant. It's just a very individual silent place to go.
Coagula: Sometimes it sounds as if you are talking about a transcendant state.
JMM: Ideally. I became an abstract painter because I was looking for an art I could learn from. You are really trying to finds its voice. Everything about the painting that needs to exist in a particular kind of clarity is the same need that demands the painter to let go and merely experience its arrival. That is where its voice is.
Coagula: It's interesting that you say that because I started painting late, I was twenty-nine. I was self-taught and very full of myself.
JMM: You have to be to be a painter!
Coagula: Even though I was self-taught I had very strong instincts and opinions about what painting was. I felt that painting involved the experience of a kind of relationship between me and the actual act or process of painting. I was engaged in a process that had its own rules or parameters or its own way of being. I had to meet it half way. Find a way to let "it' happen as opposed to imposing myself on it. Not unlike a real relationship. The longer I work at it the stronger the relationship becomes. The stronger the dialogue. The more the activity lends itself to the manifestation of "it".
JMM: In its rather organic process where clear questions arise, the emphasis is not on the creator but rather the need for the creation to exist. It's a moral issue because I wish to affect the viewer. So I also think it's an issue of trying to get to the spirit within.
Coagula: So by meeting the demands these paintings make on you, you become a conduit for creating a visual atmosphere that encourages an intuitive manifestation of the Self.
JMM: Yes. So, there are many ways of being inspired to ask a clear question about what you are experiencing.
Coagula: My experience of your work is less about being forced or cajoled into asking questions and more about being encouraged to experience. I have to tell you ... the experience of sitting here and watching your painting behind you is very psychedelic. As you move from side to side this energetic field created by your marks seems to vibrate around you.
JMM: I remember you mentioning an experience you had with an abstract painter from the 50’s and the similar feeling of expressiveness you find in my work. I had to smile because the notion of an expressive force in my work is not about the way in which I put down the paint but rather the way in which the painting arrives as a result of the structure of the painting.
Coagula: We all understand the process of making art. You have an idea, you put your materials together, you manifest the idea. You go through the process of manifesting and the piece is finished. Within that basic structure of making a piece there are alot of different things that happen to different people. Because your perimeters are fairly settled from piece to piece is your experience from the beginning to the end of the work similar each time you work?
JMM: I think you need to ask whether or not the work is the end of the process or does it Iive unto itself? The argument becomes between me and it. If I win the argument I destroy it. If it wins the argument it lives and I learn something from it and move on. Move to where it needs to go.
Coagula: So you have a fresh dialogue from piece to piece?
JMM: For certain! I wouldn't be able to do it otherwise. That's what the dialogue is about. It’s voice. There's a sense that its need to exist is prior to the event.
Coagula: I've always supported the notion of the work as a living being.
JMM: Strangely enough I've always talked about them as people. I just have. They breath. They inform me. I'm not defining something as much as it's defining me. That's the relationship you are supposed to have. You have to be open to its need and see where it's going to go and just go there. Not because there's an idea about what it's supposed to be but rather what it needs to be ... because this particular thing existed prior to anything else. It (painting) becomes a breathing internal/external dialogue with this source of understanding. It's visual and pre-linguistic. You are experiencing and interconnecting with it.
Coagula: Do you have interests outside of art making?
JMM: At the moment it's difficult, to answer that question because I'm locked in (preparing his largest canvases yet for a new 'show). I've enjoyed camping and driving to natural phenomena. Most recently I've enjoyed viewing the illuminated manuscripts at the Getty. It's hard to get away to enjoy as much of the culture as I'd like. I'd love to have a secretary! Here's your schedule, now go!
Coagula: Do you vote?
JMM: All the time.
Coagula: What are your three most important values?
JMM: Do no harm. Rely on the notion that you can't keep up with change, you're going to make mistakes but as long as you learn from them it's fine. Remember to laugh.
Coagula: What would be the one clear message you'd like to get across to students?
JMM: Being a painter is not about choice ... it's about need. To engage it is to be aware that it doesn't necessarily become what you want it to be but that it takes on a life of its own. In the beginning make your own stretcher bars, stretch your own canvas, make decisions about proportion. Think about sketches. Be cognizant about what you are thinking, about how you are engaging it, so that once it is arrived at, you have a dialogue with it. Find out what it needs in order to become clearer so that it becomes a metaphor for how you live your life, what you place your values on. Notice what your commentary is becoming about all those things that are external to you. It's not about creating but creation. I became a painter because I thought there was this grand possibility of living a noble life. I think I have that.