Peter Miller is the forgotten woman of American modernism.
Born Henrietta Myers in Pennsylvania, her work combined the shadow of the Surrealists with a deep love of the spirituality of New Mexico’s pueblos.
Collected by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, Miller remains largely unknown, in part due to her gender. She changed her name to sidestep the sexism of the day. Financially independent, thanks to a wealthy family, she did not have to sell her work in order to eat, according to curator, art dealer and scholar Francis M. Naumann, the author of her upcoming biography.
“Peter Miller: Coming Home,” open at Santa Fe’s Peyton Wright Gallery through Nov. 15, addresses that neglect through an exhibition of 31 of the artist’s paintings. The show marks the first time Miller’s work has been seen in the state since a 1948 Santa Fe exhibition at the 418 Modern Art Gallery.
During Miller’s last year of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she traveled to Europe, where she met Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and, most importantly, Joan Miró, the great Spanish Surrealist painter whose work exerted a profound influence on the fledgling artist.
After her 1935 marriage to Earle C. Miller, whom she met in school, Miller bought an 85-acre ranch about 25 miles north of Santa Fe.
From that point onward, she considered New Mexico her spiritual home. The couple lived next to San Ildefonso Pueblo, whose crafts and Indigenous beliefs fascinated her.
“She not only lived with the San Ildefonso people; she was married by an elder and she left her considerable property here to the pueblo,” gallery director John Wright Schaefer said.
Miller maintained life-long relationships with the pueblo, including Tilano Montoya, who had officiated at her wedding. It was through him that she witnessed many of the ceremonial dances and spiritual rituals that would otherwise be closed to outsiders.
“Here’s a woman who painted well into her 70s,” Schaefer said. “There is a considerable body of work that is yet to be found. She rarely signed canvasses, which would have aligned with her Native American teachings.”
A sense of mystery envelopes Miller’s life; scholars don’t really know why she declined to promote her work.
“I wouldn’t say she was ambivalent (about marketing), but I wouldn’t say she was pro-active,” Schaefer said. “Because she lived a life with a gesture of ease, I think she experienced the creative process as her focus.”
With all the time she spent in New Mexico, Miller surely was aware of the Transcendental Painting Group, established in Albuquerque by the painters Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram, Naumann writes. She must have also encountered Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived in Abiquiú, just 25 miles from the Miller’s ranch. But O’Keeffe rarely interacted with other artists living in New Mexico.
Bristling with ferocity and bold color, “Toro Bravo,” (c. 1940) is an obvious nod to Picasso and his 1937 “Guernica” painting protesting the savagery of the Spanish Civil War.
Miró’s fluid and abstracted figures often float in organic shapes against an opaque, ethereal ground in Miller’s work, Naumann writes. That characteristic shone through two exhibitions at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery, known for showcasing the Surrealists, in 1944-45. A reviewer pointed out both Miró’s influence, as well as the imagery of Native American sand paintings. Another reviewer detected the childlike innocence of the Swiss painter Paul Klee.
“Five Ceremonial Dancers” (1940) features amorphic, Miró-esque figures fused to a distant landscape. The subject likely sprang from pueblo performances at San Ildefonso, as did “Three Spirits” (1940.)
Miller spent her life commuting between her Pennsylvania horse farm and New Mexico. She rarely exhibited her work toward the end of her life. She died at 83 at her Pennsylvania farm in 1996.