New York

Milton Avery

From its beginning, Milton Avery’s development was an attempt to assimilate Modernist planarity to an essentially naturalist interest—an attempt to reconcile purity of means with respect for the idiosyncratic individuality of nature’s appearances. This is a typical American interest, going back to Albert Pinkham Ryder; it is instructive to compare Avery to Clyfford Still, who had the same ideal. In Still’s work Modernism wins out; rugged nature is replaced by a potentially explosive nonobjective edge, which still echoes it. In Avery, Modernism and American naturalism seem to balance each other. This is true even at the end of his career, when nature (gull, breaking wave, etc.) is reduced to an abstract logo, a symbolic semblance of itself; Avery never reaches nonobjectivity, never even seems to understand it.

Avery is in vogue, however, because of the revived interest in figuration and to a lesser extent in landscape, and a new interest in what might be called the ecology of artistic appearances—i.e., the extent to which those appearances can be regarded as a “natural” response to an environment. I think the vogue is just, but I do not think Avery is as important an artist as Still. He remains too American-homely in his naturalism, too derivative in his view of the sources of art’s autonomy and the risks it must take to achieve it. Internationally considered, he really takes few risks; he is too close to Matisse, as has often been noted (even down to the detail of the buttocks in Nude Combing Hair—a 1954 work using a shape from Matisse sculpture of this century’s first decade). He is part of that flattening-out of advanced style that was America’s contribution to its spread (but not advance) between the wars: the reduction of it to a shell, a look, a glorious surface—a cosmetic freshening of naturalism. However, Avery’s naturalism is authentic (except, I think, in the watercolors and prints, where it becomes cute and lovely—cheaply beautiful, lacking the coarse American infinite which is otherwise central to his work).

I sense in Avery a conflict between the landscape and the human figure. He’s really not relaxed with the latter, for all his allegiance to it. In such early works as Sitters by the Sea, 1933, and Barbershop, 1936, we see it as vulgarly class specific (as far as Avery goes to the then-dominant social realism?). Abstraction—reduction of detail, radical simplification of outline, heightened (but not really bold) contrast—blots out this profane realism, which, however, remains vestigial in the insistent intimacy of Avery’s figure, nonchalantly present as if inviting us into its private world. This aura, eventually buttressed by primitivist forms, gives his figuration its greatest force. It is psychologically as well as formally Japanist. Clement Greenberg’s complaint against Matisse’s figure as intrusive upon his purist tendencies is more appropriate for Avery, where the figure is clung to as a source of mood and energy as it is not in Matisse. Avery’s field would be limp without it, a barren last frontier.

Yet with landscape Avery is able to achieve the instantaneousness that Gauguin demanded of the plane, and give it something more—a mystical immediacy which does not quite make up for its failed nonobjectivity but is so buoyant as to be more than compensatory. From the moment when he found himself at home on the Gaspé peninsula (in the late ’30s) through his mid-’40s works in the Far West—works almost fierce with a sense of the resistant density of natural reality—to his climactic works of the late ’50s and into the ’60s, Avery is able to concentrate the open space and spontaneous power of nature in a single, uncluttered image. He is most successful when he starts with something naturally moving—a bird, a wave—and captures it, as it were: confines it in the cage of his picture, where it still warily moves, not yet tamed. The figure is really too tame for Avery; he is at his best as a pure landscapist, where he offers us “shapescapes” in which viscerality is conquered by a delicate control of natural appearance which brings out its near-gestalt unity.

In certain last works Avery does achieve those “combinations of the abstract with the objective,” in Wassily Kandinsky’s words, that are “the inner desire of the artist.” But these always seem limited by his sense of the niceness of nature, even when it is aroused and expansive. He never signals that he cannot encompass its space (as such 19th-century American landscapists as Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt did), or that he finds it unfeeling. He never allow its indifference to come through; he thinks his perception of it makes it responsive to him. Sometimes I think his waves and birds are performers, knowing they’re on stage, or else characters in search of a play that will give them a personal identity. Avery clung to the figure because he wanted secret narrative to buttress what he at times seems to have experienced, in his uncertainty about its proper use and full effect, as an enfeebling abstraction; in his landscapes too he is often in search of a hidden message from nature, as if to keep it from fading entirely into the esthetic. But I don’t think he discovered its Buddha character, as some critics believe. His final pictures never quite work like Zen koans, for they remain bound to a descriptive urgency, eager to experience nature as a dramatic plot. Avery was a brilliant painter who struggled to the border of a promised land—entered by Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman—he could not begin to understand.

Donald Kuspit