A Flood, a Boxcutter and a Son’s Pursuit to Keep His Father’s Legacy


    When a pipe burst in the warehouse that contained the artworks of the painter Nachume Miller, flooding the storage facility with pools of water and destroying hundreds of drawings and paintings, it was a wake-up call for Miller’s son, Danny Miller. He jolted into action.

    Miller, who died in 1998 of a brain tumor at the age of 49, was a prolific painter — for many years creating a painting a day — with an output rivaling that of artists whose careers were far longer. About 600 works were destroyed in the flood in January 2018 — a fraction of his left-behind artistry.

    Danny, the middle child of three sons, recovered as many soggy boxes as he could and stuck them in the trunk of his car. It wasn’t until more than two years later he would return to them.

    “When the pandemic hit it was like, OK, I actually have time,” Danny, 41, who runs a creative design agency, said in a recent interview. “There’s breathing room in my days,” he said. “I thought, this is a sign. It all happened very quickly.”

    Day after day during Covid lockdowns, boxcutter in hand, Danny went through crates of Nachume’s artworks and sketches. Now, 25 years after his father’s death — and after an intimate reunion with his work — Danny is exhibiting some of the bright, naturalistic paintings from the artist’s final years in “Nachume Miller: Suns & Illusions” at David Benrimon Gallery in Manhattan. The series, which revels in color, pays tribute to his vitality.

    Nachume, a German-born Israeli painter who moved to New York in 1974, was a painter, colorist, draftsman and family man. At 29 years old, he was one of the youngest artists to present in a 1978 group exhibition of up-and-coming talent at the Guggenheim. A decade later, he landed a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, with atmospheric pieces ranging from small pencil and oil sketches to mural-sized paintings.

    The show revealed Miller “as someone who finds common ground with both Turner and Pollock — with the former’s Romantic recreations of storms at sea and with the latter’s search for content in abstract gesture,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in his New York Times review of the MoMA show. (Most works from the MoMA exhibition are now in personal collections; the few pieces that were in the warehouse survived the flood).

    Cara McCarty, at the time an assistant curator in architecture and design at MoMA, wrote in her brochure essay that “Miller’s visions of chaos seem the result of pure intuition.” She added: “The ability to simultaneously provoke a sense of fascination and awe before the unknown gives this art its multidimensional character.”

    That awe became a throughline, one that took many forms during Nachume’s career — landscapes, abstractism, linework, encaustic wax, colorism.

    Nachume, whose parents were the sole Holocaust survivors of their families, gravitated toward dark themes and figures in his early work, including heavy use of the color black and imagery of dying children.

    “Since he was very young, he was attracted to disasters,” his sister, Sara Blacher, said. “I think painting is how he took out all of these subjects, all of his nightmares.”

    Nachume dreamed of moving to New York to become an international artist, but his career was put on hold when he was enlisted into the Israeli army upon graduating from high school. After his mandatory service, he was drafted again to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a haunting experience that imprinted in him a bitterness toward Israel, Danny said.

    Nachume’s ambition grew legs when he received a scholarship from the Israeli-American Cultural Foundation to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York, later joining its faculty. He married his girlfriend, Ruth, and moved to the U.S. in 1974.

    In New York, Nachume shifted his focus from figurative work to sublime landscapes, teaching sculpture, painting and drawing for 20 years at the S.V.A. and throwing himself into fatherhood. The three Miller sons grew up in the nerve center of Nachume’s life and work, on the 11th floor of a 12-story building in the Flatiron district; Nachume’s studio was just nine flights down. (The art collector Mera Rubell asked her husband, a doctor, to deliver Danny in exchange for one of Nachume’s paintings.)

    Growing up, Danny would knock on the door to his father’s studio after school. “I could tell he was there recently if the door smelled like turpentine,” he said. Sometimes Danny just sat and watched his father work. Other days, he painted at his own child-sized easel.

    “If I was struggling he would take the brush and show me, and it would be perfect,” Danny said. “It was like magic.”

    Throughout the ’80s Nachume was a frequent exhibitor at two Manhattan spaces: Exit Art and E.M. Donahue Gallery (now the Proposition Gallery). In an era when Neo-Geo, or new geometry, and avant-garde experimentation dominated the scene, the traditional draftsmanship behind Nachume’s abstract landscapes seemed almost bygone, Ronald Sosinski, a founder of Donahue, said.

    “At that point, it would almost have been considered old-fashioned to be doing anything related to landscape and nature,” he said. “He was exactly the opposite of what was the most popular at that time.”

    Sosinski, who exhibited Nachume’s work in five gallery shows, was drawn to Nachume’s later encaustic paintings (wax) and work as a “true colorist.”

    When illness struck, Nachume’s art tilted away from realism, sliding into visionary works. In 1999, Sosinski exhibited Nachume’s final “Suns and Illusions” series, which Sosinksi calls “the death paintings.”

    “He was desperately holding onto the brightness of the sun as a symbol of what life is,” he said. “He was seeing the light from the next world.”

    Before Nachume died, when Danny was 15, he entrusted him with the weight of preserving his legacy.

    So in March 2020, in the endless early days of the pandemic, Danny would rise at 6 a.m., make a cup of coffee and head outside to let the chickens out of their coop in his yard in Accord, N.Y. Then he’d descend to the basement and begin to slice open the recovered boxes, one by one.

    For three months, afraid to lose momentum, Danny flipped through remnants of life between the pages of sketches — business cards, Chinese takeout menus, to-do lists.

    He discovered spats between his parents and his father’s sentiments toward a changing art scene; he caught glimpses of Nachume’s preoccupations and his political leanings. The notes in the margins became a timestamp of one of the most fruitful periods of the artist’s career.

    “I felt like I was meeting him again a little bit,” Danny said.

    In 2021 he teamed up with the German publishing house Kerber to release a monograph, “Nachume Miller: Behind the Painting,” a compilation of sketchbook and diary entries from 1976 to 1998, and began to plant seeds for an exhibition showcasing Nachume’s final work.

    A quarter century since Nachume’s death, his name has faded into the background of a fickle art world, but to his son, the towering paintings from his final years, which explode with light, feel immortal.

    “There was an overwhelmingly positive feel to his last paintings,” Danny said. “I don’t know what to make of that. He wasn’t at peace with dying.”

    Nachume Miller: Suns & Illusions

    Through July 10 at the David Benrimon Gallery, Manhattan;

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