FEATURE ARTICLE: The Brilliant Artist That Chicago, and the World, Nearly Forgot: The Idiosyncratic Art of Edgar Miller by Zach Mortice in CityLab

The entry room in the Glasner Studio, Photo Credit by Alexander Vertikoff
Children playing on Miller’s animal sculptures at the Jane Addams Homes, public housing built by the Works Progress Administration, in 1938. Photo Credit: Peter Sekaer, United States Housing Authority / Library of Congress

These Edgar Miller sculptures are currently in storage and expected to be installed in the new National Public Housing Museum in Chicago.

The Brilliant Artist That Chicago, and the World, Nearly Forgot: The idiosyncratic art of Edgar Miller (1899-1993) has long been hidden behind closed doors. Finally, Chicagoans are getting more opportunities to see it.

By Zach Mortice
Excerpts from CityLab article published on June 18, 2018 and reprinted with permission

Edgar Miller was a virtuoso in any medium he chose: painting, sculpture, stained glass, architecture, interior design, printmaking, metalwork, cutlery, graphic design. He put those prodigious skills toward building a creative community on Chicago’s near-north side in the 1920s and beyond. Miller’s handful of architecture projects (a series of live-work lofts) stretched the boundaries of the city’s bohemian frontier, seeding a new hub for culture, art, and radical politics. This output never earned Miller a place in Chicago’s pantheon of culture. But now a non-profit, Edgar Miller Legacy, is celebrating his legacy and offering new ways for people to connect through Miller’s work.

Miller was a committed workaholic, churning out movie posters and children’s wallpaper. But he wasn’t just a commercial craftsman. He had philosophical aspirations for the role art should play in life. At the Art Institute, this caused him to mount a revolt with fellow students, including close friend Sol Kogen. Eventually, Miller dropped out. It wasn’t much of a detriment. He learned many new skills at the shop of artist, sculptor, and industrial designer Alfonso Iannelli. And Miller became closely aligned with some of the city’s premier architecture firms, such as Holabird & Root, contributing murals and installations to their projects.

Less lucrative, but more influential, was a wild idea that Kogen dreamed up. After spending down his stash of family money living in Paris, Kogen returned to Chicago in 1927 and proposed that he and Miller build a bohemian live-work artist complex like those he’d seen in Montmartre. Kogen, whose family owned a textile business, had just a portion of Miller’s raw artistic talent, but compensated with a voluble and magnetic personality—a Gatsby-esque bon vivant to the quieter, more thoughtful Miller. Together, they had the connections and talent to pull together a new kind of artistic community in Chicago.

Their proto-hipster set was already being priced out of the Tower Town neighborhood just north of the Loop (named for the 1869 Water Tower, one of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire), so they set their sights on the neighborhood that would become Old Town, then a working-class German and Armenian district. Zac Bleicher, executive director of Edgar Miller Legacy, calls the project “the brainchild of Sol Kogen, but with the artistic direction of Miller.”

For this first venture—the Carl Street Studios—Kogen purchased an old mansion and converted it slowly, scrapping and saving, paying piece by piece. (Miller maintained until his death that Carl Street was still a work in progress.) Kogen would often salvage building materials off the back of a truck, and this handmade sense of upcycling persists. Many of Miller’s stained-glass windows display scraps of glass with different patterns and textures, as if each had its own fingerprint. It’s a mode that has been taken up again in Chicago by Theaster Gates, the contemporary multimedia artist, who uses the broken and discarded to create places for community within art.

With the Carl Street Studios and later projects, Miller sought to create an environment of total art—and he, uniquely, had the skills to do this himself. He was decidedly a maximalist, painting antelopes on the plates you ate from, carving frolicking weasels into ceiling beams, and slicing Edenic figures out of metal silhouettes on windows. He wanted art to be an all-encompassing “social adventure.”
Around this time, avant-garde Modernists in Europe were paring back architecture to a utilitarian and egalitarian ideal. This meant unadorned buildings of raw, abstract geometry.

Miller, by contrast, craved representation his entire career. To him, a shared and definite understanding of the things around us was what bound people together. Miller’s highest expression of his ambitions was the Glasner Studio(part of the Kogen-Miller Complex), which now hosts Edgar Miller Legacy’s headquarters. For arts patron and manufacturing magnate Rudolph Glasner, Miller built an art refuge topped by a third-story “ballroom” that, with its graceful ceiling beams, is equal parts stick-built chapel and medieval mead hall. It’s hard to imagine a better place for a ripping good dinner party with fringy artists and outcasts.

Lots of artist-studio conversions popped up in Old Town in Miller’s wake, and a sense of countercultural community pervaded the entire neighborhood. It was a constant presence at the Glasner Studio, no matter how many clumsy renovations it suffered. Through the late 1960s, it was something of a lefty and revolutionary hangout, often at the behest of reformed socialite Lucy Hassell Montgomery, who used her second husband’s Post Cereals company fortune to fund the Civil Rights Movement. Fred Hampton hid from the police here two months before he was assassinated. George McGovern and Jane Fonda stopped by; free jazz explorers Sun Ra and the AACM played private shows.
From 1927 to 1937, Miller lived mostly at the Carl Street Studios. He remained in Chicago and supported himself by his art until the late 1960s, when he went into semi-retirement and moved to Florida to buy and operate a hotel. After his wife died, he moved to San Francisco to live with his children. He largely faded from view until several artists familiar with his work sought him out in California. They celebrated his eventual homecoming in 1986, when Miller came back to Chicago, moved into one of his old buildings, and started working again. He died in 1993. Edgar Miller Legacy was founded in 2014, after Bleicher’s uncle Mark Mamolen restored the Glasner Studio.

Miller’s low historical profile is a result of temperament, geography, and the ascendance of Modernism everywhere. Unlike the Chicago luminaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, Miller didn’t teach; he had no acolytes to perpetuate his legend. His few buildings are difficult-to-access private residences. The Glasner Studio “is his greatest work,” said Bleicher as we sat in it, “and we are [two] of thousands—two thousand, maybe—that have ever seen it.” Also, Miller never had access to the New York City public-relations machine that boosted the fortunes of many artists of his era. Edgar Miller Legacy does occasionally open up his buildings for tours. Miller’s Fisher Apartments are now a Chicago landmark, and the Carl Street Studios are part of The West Burton Place Historic District.

Read the full article at The Brilliant Artist That Chicago, and the World, Nearly Forgot: The idiosyncratic art of Edgar Miller (1899-1993) has long been hidden behind closed doors. Finally, Chicagoans are getting more opportunities to see it, Zach Mortice, CityLab, June 18, 2018 

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