The Third Way: An Interview with Michael Miller

Michael Miller. Photo: Kathleen King.

Michael Miller. Photo: Kathleen King.

The politically inflected prints of the late Michael Miller (1938-2014) defy easy classification. In two and three dimensions, they combine lament, diatribe and accusation, all enveloped in humor. Similar to the prints of his 19th-century predecessor Jean-Jacques Grandville, Miller created hybrid human-animal characters to critique white-collar types and the violence inflicted on individuals caught between external power and self-realization.

Miller’s prickly visual style and intricate layerings suggest a cross between a political cartoon and an encrusted artifact in a natural history museum. His drawings retain the spontaneity and the dynamic inventiveness of their impetus—the doodle—and his figures, recognizably human, are also patently absurd.

When Miller was teaching at the University of Delaware a graduate student referred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as “the monster school” (presumably because of its connection to Chicago Imagism and the Hairy Who); the student observed to Miller, “your work would fit well there.” It did. Miller taught at SAIC from 1973 until 2013.

Over the decades Miller’s dyspeptic subjects grew from flat prints into three-dimensional beings built from multiples and copies. Quandaries that other artists might be content to leave in paradox Miller resolved through unexpected turns. He considered himself a traditional printmaker while quietly redefining the medium.

I first met Miller in Chicago in 1985 through the print artist Phillip Chen. We saw each other periodically thereafter. I enjoyed his barbed wit, as layered as his art: it overlaid his kindness, which in turn clothed his discernment about human relations. These three qualities allowed him to penetrate beyond surface appearances and simplistic connections.

When I learned he was ill, I traveled to Chicago in early 2014 to see him. Miller’s perceptions were as wicked and funny as ever and we decided to record several of our talks with the intention of publishing them as an interview. Sadly, Michael Miller passed away before this article could come to print. His wit and spirit are greatly missed.


 
Lenore Metrick-Chen I thought that we’d talk a little about where you came from and how you got interested in printmaking.

Michael Miller Sure. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. I was kind of guided into the arts by my inability to get interested in anything else. In high school my teachers were commercial art teachers. I graduated from high school and went into the service, into the reserves in the years between Korea and Vietnam.

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