Francine Koslow Miller
I was shocked and saddened when Francine Koslow Miller, the great art and cultural critic, writer, and constant presence in the Boston artworld, passed last week. She was a good friend and confidante, and wrote a number of catalogue essays regarding my work.
I first met Francine when looking for an essayist for a gallery show catalogue. My friend Andrew Witkin suggested her name, and I looked into her writing – I was looking for someone with more than just a fleeting knowledge of contemporary jargon, and someone who could connect contemporary practice with a historical reach. That writer, at the time in Boston, seemed hard to find. But Francine’s writing, I saw, had depth and scope, a unique way of joining the immediacy of current practice with the weight of history.
We spoke on the phone. She knew my work and immediately mentioned a few touch points that gave me some comfort in her approach. But there was something else: Francine was immediately personal, intimate, connected in/to our conversation; she was present and alive, listening and offering thoughts, open and receptive, permeable and pointed – generous. It was a dialogue, a real dialogue.
When she came to the studio for the first time, I saw this personal quality take on new life, in her direct encounter with the works. I had become used to a different type of encounter with my work from art critics and professionals, a relation staged from a distance, filtered through a set of a priori ideas about what the work was about, what art was about, what the encounter was supposed to be about. By contrast, Francine opened herself to a real, authentic encounter with the work: associations and ideas and theory and historical touch points were all there, but all folded in to the immediate unfolding of the encounter – the language of the encounter. It seemed she never lost contact with the work as she looked and considered. There was respect and allowance and growth, instead of an easy superimposition of received knowledge. It seemed she considered each work, not as a dead object to be dissected, but as a living, breathing entity, fully engaged itself in the encounter, and the discovery, and the writing. This open and generous approach greatly influenced how I think about and approach my work, and how I think and write about others’ work as well.
And it was fun. I looked forward with pleasure to her visits, knowing that, through her uncanny ability to contact the work so intimately, she would reveal aspects and facets of the work I hadn’t yet contacted. These surprises were fun, but more so was the manner in which they were delivered, with a rare combination of directness and joy: challenging a supposition in the work with an eager smile that suggested curiosity – critique twinned with a desire for truth, instead of a need to be right. I could laugh at the misses as much as the hits.
When it came time to write, she was patient and kind with me, a sometime writer myself with my own set of prejudices about, and goals for, an exegesis. Honoring my ideas and writing, she would let me rework sections of her essay, and, before they got restored (which they always did), she would patiently explain her direction and focus, accepting my input graciously, and often including what worked – but firmly and rejecting what didn’t. It was always a collaboration, a joining of ideas, but she never lost sight of or relinquished the depth of her knowledge or perspective. Today when I read the essays she wrote, I can easily see how right she was always was from the get-go, and how much her vision of my work exceeded my limited perspective on it. These essays continue to unfold for me.
But when I think of her today, I don’t think so much of the studio visits and essay writing, I think of the family visits, her constant talk of and care for her husband Marc and daughter Rebecca, as well as her dogs and cat; her big generous smile, and the eagerness with which she held and soothed my newborn daughters. She was caring and gentle and funny and easy, with a huge heart.
Once when she came for a studio visit to our place in Cambridge, she found me with a newborn and an 18-month old, my wife sick in bed. She took hold of tiny Lili and we went upstairs to the makeshift studio on the third floor, where we played with Coco and Lili while we looked at and talked about some new paintings. Life could be played on life’s terms, with joy and acceptance – and truth: I recall she was pretty hard on some of the paintings that day, pushing me to reach deeper into the well. She demonstrated always how to strike that balance between life’s and art’s demands, and how to be easy about it. She turned what I saw as a dilemma into an opportunity with an easy laugh, undercutting my seriousness with her lightness about life and her clarity about what we are here to do: to her, it seemed, we are here to love, first, and to do our thing in the world, second. She taught me how to do that for real, and that I think was her finest gift.
Francine, I miss you and love you dearly. That essay we talked about writing, the one about the broad scope of the work, will have to wait until the next lifetime, because no one can fill your shoes in this one.