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Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art
October 8, 2005 - January 15, 2006
(above: Milton Avery, Clover Leaf Park, 1942, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches. Neuberger Museum of Art. Gift of Roy R. Neuberger)
The Vero Beach Museum of Art is presenting two significant exhibitions in its Holmes Gallery, featuring artists Milton Avery and Henri Matisse, continuing through January 15, 2006.
The first exhibition Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art features 27 paintings that document Avery's artistic developments from 1929 1961. The works illustrate the artist's progression towards simplified subject matter, flat, contoured shapes, and a tenacious focus on color.
The second exhibition The Graphic Art of Henri Matisse: Selections from the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, UCLA features 32 prints and drawings which illustrate Matisse's exploration of this medium and his desire to portray the essential qualities of his subject.
(above: Milton Avery, Walker by the Sea, 1961, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches. Neuberger Museum of Art)
Through a career that spans five decades, American painter Milton Avery (1885-1965) became known for his rich fields of color, figures, and broad contoured shapes. He is considered a key figure in bridging the distance between realism and modernism, and an important influence on succeeding generations of artists.
The paintings by Avery include both figural and landscape subjects that document his artistic development and span the years 1937-1961. At the beginning of his career, Avery lived in Connecticut and was, however, very much influenced by the American Impressionist movement. Upon moving to New York City in 1925, he was exposed to a wider variety of modern art, specifically Picasso and Matisse.
Known as the "American Matisse," Avery's work became more abstract, though always representational until his very late works. Avery's mature style, developed by the mid-1940s, is characterized by a reduction of elements to their essential forms, elimination of detail, and flattened shapes filled with arbitrary color in the manner of Matisse. With his play of color and pattern and a positive, joyous response to the world around him, Milton Avery was a dedicated practitioner of his art, working constantly through his life and producing a large body of work.
This exhibition was organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, Purchase and is made possible by Presenting Sponsors: Mr. and Mrs. Richard G. Post. Supporting Sponsors for the exhibitions are Mr. and Mrs. Henry G. Stifel.
(above: Milton Avery, Three Friends, 1944, oil on canvas, 36 x 42 inches. Neuberger Museum of Art. Gift of Roy R. Neuberger)
Milton Avery : The Metaphysics of Color
by Barbara Haskell
Milton Avery ranks among America's great color-poets. He considered art as a vehicle neither of polemic nor of narrative, but of poetic reverie. In his pursuit of an aesthetic vocabulary that would embody his own gentle and quiet relationship with the world, he invented chromatic sonorities that had never been experienced before. With contentment and harmony as his guide, he created a color poetry of gripping beauty and lyricism a poetry free of clamor and aggressive force but possessing, nonetheless, an unequivocal strength and certainty. The pictorial world he created was one of stillness and subdued emotions. Subject matter was of less concern to him than the creation of mood, which he achieved through a deft combination of luminous color and structural monumentality. With a vocabulary of simplified forms and radiant color harmonies he created pictorial reassurance in the essential harmony and tranquility of the world.
The modernity of Avery's achievements is all the more impressive given the aesthetic climate in which he developed. Born in 1885 in upstate New York, Avery came of age as an artist in the 1920s, when the country's experiments with non-objective form and color had been largely abandoned in favor of a more representational pictorial engagement with everyday life. This was as true in New York City, to which Avery moved in 1925, as it was in Hartford, Connecticut, where he had trained as an artist. Following the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression, the country's aesthetic conservatism became even more pronounced as artists felt increasingly obliged to address the country's devastating social conditions.
By 1929, Avery had already established himself as an artist committed to the formal values of painting. In an art world dominated by social and political art, he seemed a solitary figure. Although color as a vehicle of emotional and spatial effects had become an accepted pictorial strategy in Europe, it has yet to fine a secure foothold in America. Avery's exploitation of it served as a beacon for artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb who were struggling to forge an aesthetic apart from social realism. For them, as for others, Avery's willingness to exploit non-associative colors in the service of emotional expression reflected courage and singularity of purpose. As Alfred Jensen noted when citing Avery as one of the five most important 20th century American artists, "Avery brought color to America.
Yet unlike the young artists who extended their color experiments into abstract realms, Avery never abandoned his loyalty to observed reality. His art remained a celebration of the world around him. His arguments against modeling and photographic depth placed him in the forefront of his generation's formalist vanguard as did the degree to which he pushed the structural component of his paintings to the edge of abstraction by flattening his color shapes and minimizing their number. Nevertheless, he retained the principle of never inventing imagery. He pushed the boundaries of representation while simultaneously affirming the realist's mission to "capture and translate the excitement and emotion aroused in me by the impact with the original idea. 
Avery's first mature paintings date from 1929, four years after his move to New York City. In such works as Sunday Riders, he tentatively began to dispense with illusionistically rounded volumes and modeled forms in favor of simplified, interlocking shapes of homogenous color. Still linked by inclination and friendship to the American academic community, however, he only sporadically forayed into the non-realistic color palette that would ultimately distinguish his work from that of his realist contemporaries. By the mid-thirties, color had become a substantial ally. So singular was Avery's willingness to engage in non-representational color harmonies that, in 1935, his art elicited the praise of the distinguished critic, Henry McBride and the attention of art dealer Valentine Dudensing, who asked Avery to join his gallery. Alliance with Dudensing had a major impact on Avery's career. Not only did Dudensing's support give him a larger measure of financial security than he had known previously, it also placed in him in frequent contact with the work of European artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso whom Valentine also exhibited. Encouraged by their example, Avery extended his experiments with saturated color and simplified form. His color became much bolder as he accentuated the mood of a situation by discarding the constraints of naturalistic hues and favoring a high-key, non-naturalistic palette. The importance he placed on color and formal simplicity inevitably elicited comparisons with the work of Matisse comparisons which incited Avery's annoyance and denials of influence. While the two artists unequivocally shared an aesthetic vision, they did, in fact, differ greatly. The reserved quietude and stillness engendered by Avery's soft, lyrical hues contrasted markedly with the voluptuous hedonism of Matisse's more saturated palette and arabesque detailing.
The year 1944 saw a change in Avery's aesthetic a change which owed, in part, to a new gallery alliance with Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg had fled to New York from Europe in 1940, bringing with him an inventory of paintings by the most renowned members of the European avant-garde. Eschewing the American system of commissions, he agreed to buy twenty-five of Avery's paintings twice a year. Freed from the strain of financial uncertainty, Avery quickened the pace of his work. Always prolific, in 1944 he produced the largest number of paintings of any year in his career. More importantly, Rosenberg's proclivity for taut structure and architectonic solidity encouraged Avery to emphasize these aspects of his work. He replaced the brush paint application and graphic detailing that had informed his previous efforts with denser, more evenly modulated areas of flattened color contained within crisply delineated forms. The result, as in Three Friends, was a more abstract interlocking of shapes and a shallower pictorial space than he had previously employed. Avery retained color as the primary vehicle of feeling and expression but achieved a greater degree of abstraction by increasing the parity between recognizable forms and abstract shapes.
As the forties advanced, Avery's concentration on color and the simplification of shapes became increasingly intense. His sharp reduction in the number of elements in his compositions, gave shape equal importance to color. As before, color set the emotional tone, but now Avery's choice of colors and their combination became more striking and daring. Discarding extreme value contrasts in favor of closely allied color harmonies, he blended multiple layers of thin paint into evenly toned areas. The result was an inner luminosity as if colored light was emanating from within the canvas.
The formal economy and emotional depth of Avery's compositions accelerated following a heart attack in January, 1949 that left him physically fragile for the remainder of his life. Although he had simplified shape and reduced detail as early as 1944, he now seemed to see such parting down as a means to express more universal qualities of experience. By broadly generalizing contours and minimizing shapes and graphic details, he transcended the particular factual accidents of his subjects and captured more generalized relationships. He perfected the technique of applying thin washes of paint one over another to create veiled, slightly mottled fields of color. Boundaries, too, assumed a new importance as Avery developed means of creating soft hazy delineations between color shapes so that they appeared more like slivers of radiant color than like abutted color areas.
Despite the aesthetic success of works such as Waterfall and Sun Over Southern Lake, Avery's critical and financial fortunes in the fifties were at a nadir. As Abstract Expressionism came to dominate critical debate, Avery's retention of recognizable imagery and his proclivity against metaphysical rhetoric set him apart from the era's most revered artists. Dropped from the Rosenberg Gallery, he nevertheless persevered in his vision that a poignant and powerful art could be fashioned out of every day subject matter.
In the summer of 1957, Avery's unique union of vanguard color and structure with quotidian subjects took another major shift. While summering that year in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he enlarged the scale of his work a development which allowed for the grater impact of color. Along with his expansion of scale came a further reduction of compositional elements and more closely allied color harmonies. The homogenous color areas of previous work now yielded to shimmering, mottled tonalities produced by modulating multiple layers of turpentine-thinned paint with rags. Avery's creation of a situation in which light could reflect from a base color up through darker hues allowed for an extra-ordinary degree of luminosity and radiance.
The lyrical elegance and poetic grandeur of these canvases catapulted Avery to a new level of critical acclaim. Clement Greenberg's 1957 laudatory article on Avery was followed by other favorable write-ups and a 1960 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But just as Avery's achievement began to be finally acknowledged, his physical condition, which had deteriorated steadily throughout the fifties, became serious. In October 1962, he suffered his second heart attack. Although he lived for four more years, he remained frail and rarely moved far from the oxygen tanks that he needed to get him through the night. On January 3, 1965 he died in his sleep after ten months in intensive care, virtually unconscious. As an artist he left a legacy of poetic beauty and subtlety. Convinced that metaphysical lessons were to be as readily found in quotidian subject matter as in heroic abstractions, he has used the specifics of every day experience to create canvases of gentle and subdued grandeur. Through the tools of art, he had transformed the lyricism and tranquility of the world around him into a sublime and resonant poetry.
1 Alfred Jenson to Edward Downe; quoted by Barbara Haskell in Milton Avery, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982, np.
2 Quoted in Contemporary American Painting, exh. cat., (Urbana, Ill: College of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Illinois, 1951), p. 159.
This text for the exhibition brochure was originally printed in 1994 by the Neuberger Museum of Art for the catalogue: Milton Avery: Paintings from the Neuberger Museum of Art with essay written by Barbara Haskell, Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The text has been reprinted with permission from the Neuberger Museum of Art.
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