Editor's note: The following essay, written in 1982, is printed with permission of the author, Don Gray. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:
Milton Avery: Elemental or Simplistic?
by Don Gray
Milton Avery, whose paintings are at the Whitney Museum through December 5th, is a sensitive colorist and designer of two-dimensional patterns in the tradition of Matisse, particularly, though infrequently reminding of Braque and Picasso without the latter's intensity. It is doubtful, however, whether Avery, in terms of content, is saying enough with his color beyond revealing the sophistication of his tastes in dealing with beauty on an abstract basis.
While there is a certain mood in much of the work that might be described as withdrawal, loneliness or alienation, the artist seems not to have been able to summon the creative and aesthetic force or concentration necessary to make of this wistful mood a profound comment on his condition or that of modern man. Thus Avery seems essentially a very skillful decorator in his use of color and pattern, the semi-figurative equivalent of Robert Motherwell's exquisite decorative sensibilities in both these areas.
There is a certain dignity in some of the figure compositions, particularly in the family groups or figures in interiors, "Feeding," "Seated Girl with Dog," "Studious Sketcher," for example. Most of the faces and figures are in silhouette, of course, a two-dimensional color area amidst other areas of color. And one begins to ask how could (and can) artists so long be satisfied with such simplistic solutions not only to the human head but to the world as a whole. The gripping discoveries of major artists looking hauntingly over our shoulders from the walls of museums are critical reminders of artistic and intellectual richness and complexity apparently beyond the grasp of our superficial, easily satisfied time.
Great art has always striven for the essential, whether it be shape, form, compositional construction or truth of content, feeling and meaning, eliminating over-elaboration, the non-essential. In this sense, Michelangelo's richly developed figures are as "simple," as elemental, as the less detailed figures of Piero della Francesca; the detailed physical accuracy and complexity of surface of a Rembrandt as "simple" and to-the-point as a more broadly painted Cezanne.
In our time, the simplistic has mistakenly been substituted for the simple, for the essential. Less has been more for some time now; an attempted "purity" through elimination. Artists have abandoned the world, taking it away from the rest of us, because of an over-zealousness, even fanaticism, closely related to the harshest Puritanism, a strongly reactionary position in opposition to the excesses and horrors of the 20th Century. "Thou shalt not enjoy (or even recognize the existence of) the world," cry prophets from Mondrian to the present. Few artists who love the things of the world...few Rembrandts or Michelangelos...are possible in such a sterile environment.
Avery doesn't go this far. He gives us color and elegant expanse of shape relating to nature, but he denies us the telling detail that humanizes the universal statement. And strangely, in doing so, he loses both universality and the particular.
The simplistic, evolving from the effective simplifications of Van Gogh, Gauguin and others, reflects a desire for the primitive, a basic, solid, dependable statement as alternative to growing complexity, uncertainty and confusion in the process of living in an increasingly difficult world.
This is not to say that Avery, in a painting like "Mother and Child," 1944, doesn't create an extremely effective note in the burning vermilion face shape of the baby in a picture otherwise composed of relative neutrals and whites. And, in an unusual painting for the artist, "Seated Blonde," 1946, the large, white figure in profile in the foreground is drawn with much more sensitivity and responsiveness to the knobby, irregular contours of the human body.
Avery's landscapes, like his figures, are generally effective decorations of the picture surface in terms of flat, often interlocking shapes of attractive color. But their basically decorative nature is revealed if one thinks of an American painter with a similar desire for directly stated pattern...Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Ryder's art, while having less color and a more complexly painted surface, also has greater depth of emotional and spiritual expressiveness. Looking at Ryder, we feel in touch with the very deepest, elemental aspects of human creativity and the never-changing mystery of human destiny and the universe. The depth of Ryder as an artist and human being allows us to sense the profound meaning in life underlying our often over-involvement in mundane matters of routine and convention.
Milton Avery offers us little of this depth and significance. The closest he comes to creating symbols expressive of the forces of life are works like "The White Wave," 1956, with its spout of irregular white silhouetting against a charcoal black sea and sky, or "Black Sea," 1959, a thin, serrated line of white waves like shark teeth diagonally across the top of the picture, the sea and most of the canvas black below. But the images are lacking in elemental force, both aesthetic and life force.
Winslow Homer's studies of pounding sea and rock have more depth and expressive power as symbols of the struggle of life, the confrontation of opposites. Avery appears not to have the strength of creativity, personality or physical energy to bring off major work.
While there certainly are exceptions, Avery's late work, approximately 1958 into the early sixties (he died in 1965), seems to lose what intensity it had, to slacken, becoming more broadly simplistic with fewer, larger and less developed shapes suggesting the work of Mark Rothko...such works as "Dunes and Sea II," "Moon Path," "Tangerine Moon and Wine Dark Sea" and a seagull painting or two. However, "Hills by the Sea," with its dark green silhouettes of trees and even darker sea, create a bold, effective pattern against a narrow strip of tan-pink sky, large curving, pink hill and light green fields.
"Sea, Sand and Sky," 1960, has a stark simplicity of two triangles (sand and sea) and a clipped rectangle (sky) that approaches the elemental...and the minimal...in composition. "Sea, Moon and Stars," 1960, is interesting in its sprinkling of a moon and five round-ended, essentially five point stars in a thinly, roughly brushed grey-black sky, and two layers of curving blue-grey teardrop wave shapes against a darker sea. It is expressive...and iritating...because it is trickily attractive, and should be more profound in content and technique. A comparison with Van Gogh's more famous version of the night sky leaves Avery's looking harmlessly cartoony.
Avery's 1941 "Self-Portrait" is an effective statement of color and design. The artist stands facing the viewer, sketching on the left side of the canvas, his bathroom, complete with sink and mirror, a darker blue vertical shape at right. There is more devotion to the development of facial features: bright orange-red ears and the most telling accent in the picture, an irregular line defining the jaw like a pitch-black gash from ear to ear. The painting is a wonderful harmony of blues, whites and ochres, with a subtle green-striped red shirt.
Avery's self-portraits generally, as exhibited at the Whitney, project a very strange personality indeed. There is something manic about them, something dramatic, belligerent, even bizarre; a kind of cartoon burlesque assertiveness, an oddness of personality and execution that seems most closely related to the self-portraits of James Ensor.
In some of the self-portraits, he employs a kind of lime-green for the flesh which seems the perfect color to express his strange, livid personality. It's as if he lived in a kind of never-never land, a place where dragon-fighting knights are commonplace...somewhere under a stone, down a hole, through a hidden tunnel to where frogs, newts and salamanders dwell...the world of the unconscious.
What may be the strangest aspect of all is the contrast between his explicitly stated, eccentric, frazzled personality and the rather placid body of his work. Were his paintings in general a vehicle to assuage inner quirks and tensions (a process not uncommon in artists)? If so, did he go to such extremes to ease his own doubts and peculiarities that he overcompensated, creating an art that is too lacking in creative power and specificity? Surely, with the prickly, electric personality exhibited in his self-portraits, Avery should have been able to produce work of greater power.
Also, the abstracted, featureless figures in his other paintings contrast oddly with his interest in the details of his own physiognomy. Perhaps Avery was unable to share his feelings with others, only when alone with his image in a mirror. Was he deprived, as an artist, of the generative force of emotional connectedness with people and the world in the creation of an art of strength and expressiveness?
In the end, one must take Avery on his own terms or not take him at all. While his work is pleasing and attractive for the qualities previously mentioned, for this viewer it is too repetitive, aims too low, is satisfied with too little and can hardly begin to fill the void in the contemporary soul created by the failure of modern society and its offspring, contemporary art.
Copyright by Don Gray
About the author
Don Gray is a painter who writes. In addition to being an
artist, critic and poet, he was a university professor of studio art and
art history, as well as producer/moderator of cable television programs
on art. He received a B.A. degree in Art from Arizona State University
and an M.A. degree in Art from the University of Iowa. Now living
in Arizona, he resided in New York for twenty-five years. He
has long been a supporter of significant realist art.
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
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