Los Angeles

Milton Avery

U.C. Irvine

This small exhibition of the late paintings of Milton Avery has been organized by John Coplans for the University of California, Irvine. Of the twenty-two works in the exhibition most were executed in the years 1958–1960 (Avery died in 1965).

One’s first impression of the exhibition is its unpretentiousness. By contemporary standards the paintings are small and profoundly simple. Almost clumsy at times, Avery’s paintings are always “something,” a kernel of subject matter which is always available in even the most abstract works. In Avery’s earlier paintings there were sometimes clashes between his figurative involvement and his simplified painting style, but in his late paintings this conflict is radically reduced, as are the figures themselves. Illusionism is eliminated. Nudes and figures on the beach become flat color washes, retaining their identity while becoming a portion of the color structure of the whole.

I sense a minimum of physical energy within these works which combines with a high degree of symbolic sensibility. Avery is able to deal with something—with subject matter—in such a way that the subject slips in and out of recognition, yet is never completely lost, teetering precariously on the edge of interpretation. One work, Speedboat’s Wake shows a curiously naive boat, drawn almost in profile, weaving a crooked course along the water. The water, however, is black, touched with flickering dashes of white across the flat black surface. The boat is rather hard to see and one’s first response is to that of a nonrepresentational color painting to which a curious, primal calligraphic stroke, the speedboat’s wake, has been added. The discovery of the boat changes this perception but the flatness remains, with the subtlety and finesse being found much more in Avery’s concept and vision than in his style.

The Cubist considerations of Abstract Expressionism were largely ignored by Avery, who was moving much more directly toward action painting’s open brushwork. This is very evident in Onrushing Wave of 1958. The composition is as schematized and petrified as an Egyptian relief, and is painted with what appears to be a minimum of effort and energy, yet is extraordinarily rich. The work is composed of three horizontal registers. The “sea floor” at the bottom is composed of small dabs of thin paint twisted into the canvas by the end of a brush. The wave itself is painted white on a white ground, and above the “sky” are brushy, scrubbed color patches, rectangular squares of blue color wash, each applied with a couple of swipes of the brush.

It all looks so easy and yet is so good. Avery is not nearly so clever a designer as Matisse to whom he is sometimes compared, but what he lacks in finesse is more than adequately compensated for in his directness and compositional daring.

Thomas H. Garver