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Tribeca Citizen | The Paintings of Max Miller

Tribecan Max Miller has been making art just about as long as he can remember. He was 13 when he started taking classes at The Art Students League and a few years later, went to RISD for college, Yale for graduate school in fine arts and then, arriving in New York City not long after, did what every New York artist does: got scrappy.

And it paid off. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1987 and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 1991 — there are others too — and the Metropolitan and several corporate collections own his work. It’s all spectacular: monumental, detailed, clever, colorful and a master class in craft (The apartment she shares with his wife, Carla Hoke-Miller, is also a work of art — but more on that later.)

His passion project of the past few years has been painting dogs, but these are not your average canine portraits. It all started with the couple’s Welsh Corgi LouLou, and now has grown to include commissions from all over the world. Scroll through to see more and hear Miller’s story. (His human portraits are beautiful too, so I have included a couple. It was hard to choose.)

How did you get started?
I was always making art. My dad was an architect so I just always loved doing it. I remember I was with my mom at MoMA and I saw abstract paintings and I thought, that’s so great – I’m going to go do that. And my parents were very supportive.

From New Haven I came to New York, to an apartment at 38th and Ninth. I was painting houses and working at a showroom steaming clothes – different odds and ends. But that place was amazing. It was 300 square feet, bathtub in the kitchen, upstairs from Esposito’s Pork Shop. Esposito’s cut off the means of egress for the building next door for their storefront, so I gave them $100 cash a month to use a totally empty one bedroom next door to my place. They thought I went over the roof to get in, but I knocked through the firewall and built a sliding bookshelf on one side and a hinged painting on one side to hide the door I could crawl through to my studio, which was so big I was making 7-foot paintings in there. Someone said, “This is so cool – it’s like James Bond,” and I said no, it’s like Anne Frank.

How did you end up in Tribeca?
After 38th, I moved to a studio on 36th Street — there I built a wall that was a foot wide and the bed slid in behind the wall telephone. We weren’t supposed to be living there and when we first lived here we weren’t supposed to live here either. It was 1994 and I found this listed in the New York Times advertised as a commercial space. The landlord didn’t want a painter to live here so I told him I was an illustrator. [Miller was doing illustrations for The New Yorker at the time.] [The space was eventually converted via the Loft Law.]

What are you working on now?
The dog thing started when I met Carla. LouLou [their first dog] was the first dog painting. So after the trade center came down we went to Miami Beach for seven years and I stared doing commissions down there. Painting dogs is really fun. When Elton John got married, there was a picture of him and his husband and their dogs — they were his best men. I did a commission of the dogs. It’s really been my best job. I have also done a series of twin paintings, and in all these I love that I get to meet people and dogs.

Recently I painted Carla’s dress for the Tony Awards. [Carla is the executive director of Theatre and Performing Arts Partnerships at NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.] I started painting clothes this year and that will be a joint project for us going forward, since Carla collects clothes. We call it Hoke Miller.

What is the most satisfying part of your work?
What happens in the art world if you’re famous and you do many different things then you’re a genius. And if you’re not famous, people say you should do one thing. If I could do one thing my life would be much easier but that’s not the way my brain works. [In the mid-’80s, Miller was hit by a car on 23rd and Park and had a traumatic brain injury that required years of recovery. It affects his memory to this day.] I had to learn how to do everything all over again. And now I’m really open to things coming in in all different ways. Everything affects the paintings, and that’s ok.

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