New York

Milton Avery

The relevance of Milton Avery’s work stems not only from the fact that he contributed personally to the Abstract Expressionist generation through his long-standing friendships with Gottlieb and Rothko, but that the simplicity, dignity, and tact of a vision which made use of large areas of soft flat color, firmly but modestly organized into nearly abstract compositions, is still pertinent to much contemporary painting. These were the constant and basic materials with which Avery had worked for his entire career, spanning almost forty years (he died in 1965). The Brooklyn show was not hung chronologically, but this is justified by the consistency of Avery’s motifs, themes, and manner, which are united by a timeless quality that seems to obviate the need for a stricter art-historical order. The unfortunate crowding of the installation, however, did a disservice to many of the finest, more contemplative works which could have used breathing space.

Avery’s affinities with his European predecessors, and with other Americans of his generation who first battled for the cause of abstraction from nature (Dove, Hartley; Marin, O’Keeffe), come across more directly than his frequently cited relationships (especially in his figure pieces) to Matisse and the Fauves. Throughout his production Avery concentrated on three categories of painting: 1) portraits of other artists or of his family, satirical self-portraits, and figures; 2) still-life studies of gulls, roosters, baskets of fish or the more humorous “genre” pictures; 3) most importantly, landscapes, including the seascapes, beaches, dunes, rock jetties and mountains which were the basis for his most broadly monumental compositions. Like Matisse’s art, Avery’s work exudes happiness with the conditions of his life and surroundings, but Avery was above all an outdoor painter, a distinction from the more formalized studio methods which Matisse practiced with an Old Master’s regimen. The airy, soft focus of Avery’s vision is nevertheless intruded upon by a deliberate awkwardness in his draftsmanship—a rudimentary, angular quality of drawing which relates him to the passionate intensities and primitive urges which Dove, Hartley, and O’Keeffe sought to express in their paintings as well. Somehow this almost naive essentialness of contour and form does not obtrude upon the fluidity or ripeness of his images; it is one of the subtlest factors of Avery’s art, one which serves to maintain its singularity and its originality in ways which are often quite mysterious. Perhaps the more delicate, sweet aspects of his art that are especially evident in the domestic portraits strike a more alien note sentimentally for current sensibility, than do his landscapes. But the warmth and affection that is sensed even in his most abstract pictures originate in the very profound involvement of his personal life with his art. In his 1962 catalog of Avery’s work, Hilton Kramer makes some observations which illuminate Avery’s relationship to French art in this regard, and which also point to the feelings that are so crucial to the temperament of the man and his work. Kramer, remarking on Avery’s insight into French art, notes that “the intimism and hedonism of the Fauves,” constituted an “expression of an existential affinity and esthetic. commitment,” so that “a conception of style” was not separable from “the realization of feeling” for him. His domestic and emotional life were thoroughly encompassed within the realm of his formal esthetic intelligence. French art (with the exception of Cubism) “provided him with a syntax for his own mode of feeling.”

To my eye, Avery is most assertive and animated in his studies of female nudes, in works like the 1960 Meditation, the White and Grey Nude of 1950, the reclining White Nude of 1954, or the standing Robed Nude of 1960—the latter a mastery of harmonic tones with its white body wrapped in an ivory. robe on a beige ground sparsely furnished with accents of terra-cotta and brown. But the power of his work is finally achieved most forcefully and sensuously in his landscapes of the fifties and sixties, which seem to synthesize all the haunting, though gentle penetration of some of his earlier portraits (Eilshemius, Hartley) and the tranquil well-being of the domestic studies. His pictorial transformations of beaches, hills, and clouds—always his most poetic and most profound inspiration—into foggy translucencies and dense, sometimes scrubbed masses—still glow with a quiet authority which catches up with you after you think you have forgotten or glossed over them.

The Spring Orchard (1959) exemplifies the more confectionery side of Avery’s color sense with its streak of lavender sky over mauve mountains, a pink field, and a crescent of fluffy raspberry-hued trees. Yet at the same time he could produce the more sober reductive works displaying the absolutely simple geometry of Sand, Sea and Sky with its tangent diagonal and horizontal divisions of cream (beach), lavender-grey (sky) and dark plum (water), or Black Sea, in which a ragged crest of white foam rises between a black wave and a dominant tan swathe of land. These few pared-down shapes are still, however, the components of a very personalized vocabulary of color and form which are never abstracted to a degree that loses contact with the sense of the artist’s particular esthetic and temperament. Avery often uses less fixed and explicit shapes, and the craggy promontories are softened, gaining fullness through the workings of (sometimes bizarre combinations of) color.

In a number of earlier seascapes like White Sea (1947), Sunset (1952), or Sunset on a Quiet Sea (1958), apricots, purple-pinks, and intense red-oranges touched with turquoise blue predominate. In rarer cases the authority flags when masses are fractured into smaller, fussier details (Waterfall of 1954 or Seine of 1953) and the shapes do not congeal with that easy coherence you almost begin to take for granted in his work. In such paintings color also tends to lose its hold on definition and lacks the light or resonance of the more broadly composed later paintings, such as the exquisite Mountain and Meadow, a billowy atmospheric blending of grey, pinkish-beige, and soft cool hues which certainly indicates one of the sources of Rothko’s luminous clouds.

Avery never studied in France (he didn’t even visit there until 1952), and although he certainly absorbed the influences of its modern movements, he remained fundamentally a loner throughout his career. His affectionate involvement with his subject matter parallels the spiritual joys of Matisse’s art, and he shared an intensely personal commitment to his environment and to nature with Hartley (who may have been touched by Avery’s style in his own late works), Dove, Marin, and O’Keeffe among others. The small scale, the quiet, even retiring colors of most of his work, and the unobtrusive humor are all factors which might lose these pictures to the modern eye, attuned as it is to brash images, colossal dimensions and blazing color geometries. The lesson of Avery’s work is above all a human one, and its requisites are the time, love, and intimacy which inspired his life and work.

Emily Wasserman