The artist on the importance of being concise and the relationship he has with viewers of his work.
Anthony Miler believes in being straightforward. But the painter's brand of transparency is anything but brash. Rather, it's poetic in nature and intimately linked with his desire to connect with others. On an overcast Brooklyn afternoon, Miler spoke with us about his newfound fascination with mushrooms, grappling with what it means to be an American painter and the importance of "life-giving" Turkish music.
In a lot of your paintings, you stain the canvas before layering on different types of paints. I read that technique described as high-risk because there's not a lot of room for error. What draws you to that process?
I think the concision of the process draws me to it. The work that I was doing prior to the color works is also fairly concise in that it was just one material, and the preparatory line was the final line. Concision is a strength in my rubric of what I look for in art that I like.
Because your process leaves so little room for error, do you outline your works in a really detailed manner before you begin, or do you improvise as you go, as well?
Yes and no. There's a fair amount of improvisation that’s built in. Part of that is physics and part is just how the imagination works so that the work itself retains life. I feel if I were to overburden the planning, it might suck a little bit of the life out and freeze up a little too much. But I do extensive studies.
You mentioned the quality of being concise in your work, and how that draws you to other artworks, as well. It might be difficult to describe, but how does being concise express itself in works of art? What does that mean for you?
I think part of it is a level of transparency or straightforwardness, like a contract with the viewer. I feel that one of the things that interests me in making work is that if we choose to approach it this way, we can choose to see it as a long-term, lifelong conversation with ourselves and with other people. If we engage in that conversation with a level of transparency, I think that might steer the conversation in a certain direction. I think my gut tells me that that might be less of a showmanship-type of entertainment zone and more of a searching for meaning, existential conversations, or questions that allow us to talk around principles or something like that.
It's interesting that you say, "contract with the viewer." What's your relationship with the people who view your art?
I don't know them personally really except for friends and peers, but I feel absolutely the aspiration is that the audience is of unknown but exceptionally intelligent people. I aspire to have conversations that are at as high a level as possible. And I mean that with humility. I want a lifelong growth to happen with the audience and with myself. I don't really believe in hero worship, but it gives us more agency to consider the people that we respect that came before us as peers and to try to be as responsible as we can to engage in those same conversations or similar conversations. Of course, culture has changed, but I think there’s a thread of humanity that we can trace back to some similar concerns and that we can engage. It's our responsibility. We're the ones that are alive now so it's in our hands to do our best.
Who are some predecessors you admire? People you think really achieved what you’re talking about?
I think there are going to be some familiar answers: Cezanne. I respect the vision and the dedication to the vision and that dedication is an example of many years of patterned behavior. It's no surprise to me that the commitment to that vision was also a commitment to support his friend and mentor, Pissarro, when Pissarro was experiencing a lot of backlash in Paris for being Jewish. Cezanne publicly supported him in a very difficult and unpopular time. I'm not surprised in that engagement coming from someone so focused on his own vision, who wasn’t always in the capital and returned to the country to pursue what he felt was important.
It’s a very different path, but also Ellsworth Kelly. He really engaged with modernism, but there's some other thing there that's maybe unnameable. Maybe it's best if it remains unnameable. That element of human nature, the poetic, I think really fueled what's underneath his work. When everyone was coming to New York, he went to Paris which, just in reading, some people thought was a backward move at the time, but he knew what was right for him. I think that's beautiful. I hesitate to use the term spirituality because it's loaded, but there's some sense of other in his work that tends toward something like spirituality or like nature.
Also Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe. There are some Americans that I've been thinking about more recently in the past few years because of how their work changed. I had never really thought about being an American painter and what that meant, because I always felt more aligned with Europe, possibly because that's what I was taught in school. It's also what I was attracted to. I was really attracted to art brut and the CoBrA movements, an alternative view of modernism that didn't get the hard edge.
What does being an American artist mean to you and how does that evolution in the work that you described show up for you?
I think I'm very much actively trying to learn how to even wrap my head around that question. I'm not a specialist in geopolitical situations, so I don't mean to say anything loaded, but I feel there's some reflex in me that has always tended toward the global, not the national, way of thinking about things, and thinking about things in lateral networks moving horizontally. I don't know what it means to be an American painter. I feel I'm learning more, through association, about American painting history that I had neglected to learn previously. I'd say I was just less inclined to be engaged with it because I was engaged so much with the immediate post-war art of Europe.
But I do find myself thinking a lot about climate change. And I think that's a global issue. And I think about, in engaging an idea in work, how do these ideas permeate down? And I'm looking for ways where you look forward by looking backward at the same time and expand one's sense of time a little bit. That's one option. Another option is to make work that's about something, right? Maybe gear it a little bit more directly toward a political end. And that's not what I'm doing, I don't think. I find myself thinking about land and the idea of land as a witness and trying to find some stillness and some quiet to look back through with a visual language that might not be super identifiable as exactly right now.
Speaking of those different approaches to making work, is there a specific catalyst for you to begin making artwork, or is that something that you just get in a rhythm of doing?
I think I fall into the camp of artists that need to make work as part of a thinking process. And I have felt that drawing and painting have been, so far, the mediums that allow me to think the most productively. And I also think one work informs the next, which informs the next. Sometimes it's as simple as, "Well, that color combination was a surprise and is fascinating. And I want to try it again, but like this." I think there is some other thing in my gut that feels that I'm okay with, and interested in, engaging with the work as its own evolutionary process alongside perhaps other educational or evolutionary processes that are going on strictly in my head. But I think there's a holistic approach. The body needs to move on works, in order for the mind to move; something like that.
Is there anything that you tend to listen to or watch while you're making work or is it a no-background-noise situation for you?
Turkish psychedelic rock and Turkish pop from the '70s. I think Turkish music from the '70s and '80s has been a big one the past couple of years.
How did you become familiar with that music? And do you have any standout artists or albums you listen to?
Just through Pandora and Spotify. It’s just the algorithms doing their work and then just being attracted to certain things. With the Turkish music – and there's also been some Ethiopian music I've been listening to – it energizes the body, but also opens the mind a bit. It's life-giving music. In terms of names, there’s Omar Khorshid, Erkin Koray. And I think those are probably the two most popular musicians out of Turkey from that time.
Outside of your art, what's something you're really passionate about?
I think I'm figuring out how things work on a basic level with physical infrastructure, architectural stuff, and that could even be things like clearing land and grading earth. I did that last weekend and when I was traveling to visit my father. We were clearing some land of his out in the country that he's going to build a house on. And I find that stuff very satisfying. I think farming would be fun, although I haven't done that. But I do habitually get involved with very low-key buildouts that are fun for me to design, understanding how things fit together because if you understand that, you can understand how to change something on a budget and make a room very interesting.
Do you frequently escape from the city when you can?
Yes. Nature is something that is really important to me. I grew up out in the country and I grew up backpacking taking long camping trips and things like that. And occasionally I go to Tennessee to get far out of the city. I love going upstate, but there are some New York driving habits that still exist, especially when it's time to get back to the city [laughs]. I do try to go to Tennessee as much as I can. I like the mountains. It's completely not New York, so I feel I can really be out there in a totally different environment. I go there to paint.
Is there anything that you've heard, read or seen recently that really stuck out to you or stuck with you?
I found about four different varieties of mushrooms growing in the cemetery near me. I take walks there often because it's a private park, not very many people frequent it. It's beautiful. They take really good care of the grounds. So it's a sculptured environment. There are beautiful, really picturesque trees there. Some of the trees remind me of Cezanne's trees actually. We had very intense flooding recently that was tragic for a lot of families. But after those heavy rains, I was walking around in the cemetery a few days later and this insane mushroom bloom happened that I'd never experienced. That stuck with me. It pushed me further into trying to research what these local varieties of mushrooms are.
That's super cool. Is there anything you’ve discovered in your research about those mushrooms that's surprising or that you find interesting?
I'm an extreme novice, but I started delving in a little bit, and what fascinates me about this type of life or type of plant life – I can only explain it through analogies or metaphors – there’s the mycelium that is the mushroom that's underground that we don't see, and it's almost like a tree perhaps. And the mushroom that we do see, that's the reproduction, and they call it the fruiting body. So that's the fruit, in a way. And so, I guess, we pick it and eat it and treat it like fruit. It's reproduction, although it's spore-based. And I find that almost mystical. It's another version of nature being a little bit magical because it's doing things you can't see inside our bodies, things are happening we can't see, but we're more familiar with it. The mycelium is something that is completely foreign to me, but it's ancient and it's been here long before we've been around and it probably will be here in a time when humans may not be anymore.
Last one: Is there anything you'd want to start over again?
It'd be fascinating to be able to start life over again, for sure. Let's just do the whole thing from start to finish. I’d like to experience it over again, pay a little bit more attention to certain things on the second go-round. Really bask in some aspects of things that we don't have anymore, like the gentleness of family or learn more in school. I think mainly to have to learn more and be affected more or to feel one has more agency. Plus, the sci-fi nature of starting everything over. That would be so great.