Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

SAD NEWS: CHARLES MILLARD

December 26, 2017

Tags: Charles Millard

Well, in this holiday season I have sad news and glad news. The sad news is an obituary of Charles Millard, who according to a long & loving paid notice in the New York Times for December 17 died on December 11 at his home in Chapel Hill, NC. Millard was a gifted curator with an excellent eye and the force of his convictions to back it up. He was a good friend to me, but more importantly to many artists--among those mentioned in his obituary were Helen Frankenthaler, Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland & Jules Olitski, but I know there were others as well.

Born in Elizabeth NJ in 1932, he took his BA at Princeton in 1954, then after three years in the US Navy went on to receive his PhD from Harvard in 1971--the same place & general period when Kenworth Moffett, Michael Fried, Kermit Champa & Rosalind Krauss were also getting their graduate degrees in art history.

Millard's dissertation was on the sculpture of Edgar Degas, and it was subsequently published in book form. It's an elegant book, which I have employed in my own career, especially when teaching an introductory course on sculpture at Bethany College in the 1990s.

However, I had met Charlie earlier, in 1980, when I had a pre-doctoral Smithsonian fellowship that necessitated my moving to Washington DC for a year and a half. Clement Greenberg had given me an introduction to him and we lunched together on a number of occasions.

Charlie had been chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in DC since 1973 (following several years as curator of 19th century art at the Los Angeles County Museum).

When we were having our lunches together, he was in the process of organizing the Friedel Dzubas retrospective that would go on view in 1983.

He was trying very hard to get other museums to take this exhibition on a traveling basis but having no luck. It must have been a frustrating experience but he persevered.

Ultimately, the Hirshhorn had to stage this show by itself, but I will always be enormously grateful that it did.

Not only was it a beautiful show, and not only did the fine catalogue remain the only major publication on Dzubas during his lifetime, but on top of that the show became an important point of departure for myself: in the process of reviewing it for Arts Magazine I was inspired to introduce my theory of multireferential imagery in abstract painting to the reading public, so the finished article is both a review and a tract.

In 1986, Millard moved on to become director of The Ackland Art Museum of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and remained there until retiring in 1993.

Like all university museums, The Ackland is intended to be a teaching institution, providing art history students with samples of real art from all the periods and areas that they are normally getting only in reproductions in their textbooks or on the screen.

However, retiring didn't end his contribution toward it, as is recounted in the NY Times obituary notice.

Seems that while he was in Los Angeles, for $200 he had picked up a bust of a wildly-grimacing man, and for years used it as a front hall coat rack. I don't know who the seller thought had created it, but Millard recognized it as the handiwork of an 18th century German eccentric named Franz Xavier Messerschmidt.

In 2010, a similar bust was sold for millions, so Millard used his bust to create what he called the Tyche Foundation, named for the Roman goddess of good fortune and lucky finds.

"A year later," it says in the NY Times obit, "the one carved gargoyle had become eighty works -- in all forms and from most centuries." These 80 works of art had been cannily chosen to flesh out the Ackland's permanent collection, in all those areas where it most need fleshing...and the special exhibit of the donated works filled the entire museum. The name of the show: "Fortune Smiles."