Katherine Slusher outside the “Lee
Miller: Picasso En Privat” exhibition which she curated, in
Lee Miller (USA, 1907—United Kingdom, 1977)
took over a thousand photographs of Picasso during the thirty-six
years of their friendship. The Lee Miller: Picasso in Private”
exhibition shows a selection of more than one hundred of these pictures
and also offers a taste of the production of Lee Miller as documentary
and advertising photographer, as well as war correspondent.
Featured artist of the month: Katherine
From high desert solitude
Artists attuned to the magical, fantastic, revolutionary
aspects of creation—that element of surprise and enchantment—feel
an elemental tug to the European Surrealist movement of the 1930s
and ‘40s. Growing up in the desert tableau of Placitas, wrapped
in the enchantment of her mother’s private world of art, culture,
and high fashion, Katherine Slusher found a natural muse in the
Surrealist Lee Miller. The 1930s-era photographer, artist, and free
spirit who was close to Man Ray and Pablo Picasso has become a natural
forebear to the girl from Placitas herself.
Slusher, an independent curator schooled at Barnard College, University
of New Mexico, and Syracuse University, just wrapped up a three-month
exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, where she now lives.
“Lee Miller: Picasso in Private,” along with Slusher’s
2007 biography, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose: The Green Memories
of Desire, are helping to revive interest in a woman whose influence
was long overshadowed by her famous contemporaries.
Just like Slusher’s glamorous mother, Elaine—who still
teaches painting in Placitas—Lee Miller began her career as
a high-fashion model on the cover of Vogue. That’s how she
came to meet Man Ray in 1929, who fell instantly and perilously
in love, eventually training her in the art of photography.
Lee Miller’s life had multiple phases, as Slusher writes
in the catalog to the exhibition. From surrealistic photographs
of Paris under the tutelage of Man Ray, to commercial work in New
York, where she opened her own studio in the mid-1930s, to haunting
photos of the desert in Egypt, where she moved with her first husband,
Miller embodies the Surrealist ethos of embracing the irrational,
accidental, and unseen, of peering behind the fabric of the ordered
world to tease out forces of the subconscious.
Miller lived an adventurous life according to her own principles,
embracing her freedom long before it became a cultural norm, Slusher
writes. She socialized with the likes of Andre Breton, Max Ernst,
and Paul Eluard—a mostly male group known for treating their
women “like poodles,” as Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend
Lee Krasner remarked of the European Surrealists—but Miller
“was no poodle,” Slusher writes.
Miller’s best-known work was as a photojournalist for Vogue
in the 1940s, documenting the effects of the war and liberation.
But it is as a confidante and portraitist of Picasso that Slusher
has brought Miller’s work to public attention. Thousands of
photographs taken over thirty-six years testify to the intense triangular
relationship between Miller, Picasso, and the British artist Roland
Penrose, with whom she had a love affair and marriage that spanned
from 1937 until she died in 1977.
It is here that Slusher’s own life meets art, for she “discovered”
her subject initially through a chance encounter with Anthony Penrose,
the son and biographer of Roland Penrose. Having written his parents’
story as players in the Surrealist movement, Anthony encouraged
Katherine to tell the story of his parents’ symbiotic relationship
blooming in the strange creative soil made up of Man Ray, Marx Ernst
and Leonora Carrington, Paul and Nusch Eluard, Picasso and Dora
“What is a mystery in most people’s minds is how an
American girl from Poughkeepsie ended up on the cover of Vogue representing
the quintessential look and style of 1920s New York,” Slusher
writes in the biography, “[and] moved on to take her place
at the center of the Surrealist effervescence in Europe, then returned
to New York City to open her own successful photographic studio,
all before she was twenty-five-years old.”
One might ask the same of the girl from Placitas, who, her mother
says, went from UNM to Quito, Ecuador, traveled around South America
and ended up in Spain. An interview with the artist Jesus Vilallonga
for a school paper eventually led to marriage, and Katherine Slusher
found herself ensconced in the European art world. After earning
a degree in museum studies from Syracuse, she became a curator,
and thereby met Anthony Penrose.
Their collaborative relationship as curators and biographers has
sparked a four-year (so far) investigation into the lives of Miller,
Picasso, and the Surrealists that may yet lead Slusher to author
studies of Man Ray and Max Ernst. Chance encounter—that darling
instrument of the Surrealists—bore fruit for the adventurous
curator raised in desert solitude with a sophisticated sense of
Her mother Elaine takes credit for the latter. “Katherine
used to thank me for teaching her good taste,” she winks,
“so she knew what to buy” on her travels. Waving off
her own accomplishments, Elaine Slusher says she enjoys being active
with the New Mexico Watercolor Society, painting retablos and teaching
painting, and visiting with Katherine, who comes back to her hometown
of Placitas once or twice a year.