Robert Miller, the dapper art dealer who developed an eclectic taste for art’s outsiders, died aged 72 in Miami last Wednesday. A prominent art world figure for 25 years, he championed many gay and female greats. Louise Bourgeois, one of his most successful female artists, called Miller a “compulsive hunter.” In the vibrant 70s art scene he indeed captured New York’s rising stars including Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Lee Krasner and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Miller began his career as a painter, but his penchant for waspish suits rather than the cool beatnik threads of his fellow students signaled his transformation into an uptown gallery owner. He opened his first gallery in 1977 on Fifth Avenue after working for the André Emmerich Gallery. Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the first artists to join the gallery and Mapplethorpe’s closest friend and punk icon Patti Smith reflects today on him as her mentor.
“Everything looks easy,” Miller said in a New York magazine article from 1988, “but it’s like the ballerina who leaps but spent fifteen years practicing to do that move, there’s a lot of pain involved.” It was not only selling art that took over Miller’s life; he battled a series of illnesses that resulted in him undergoing brain surgery and having both hips replaced.
But illness never stopped him. In 1983 Miller chartered a plane to take his client, fashion mogul Calvin Klein, to a small New Mexican village to visit the studio of Georgia O’Keeffe, a painter Klein collected obsessively. The trip paid off and Klein returned with five key O’Keefe works purchased for approximately $3.3 million.
Miller nurtured two power dealers of recent years when Howard Read and John Cheim (of Cheim & Read) worked with him as directors, but in 2001 he moved the gallery to Chelsea before handing over its reins to his wife Betsy and son Robert Peter Miller Jr. the following year. He had become disillusioned with an art world increasingly more commercial than in his heyday.
“You cannot possess much of the great art in the world, but you can perceive it, particularly through reading,” he said. “People are reading less, and that opportunity to perceive is slipping away.”