Milton Avery & the End of Modernism
January 22, 2011 - May 8, 2011
Text of Exhibition Catalogue
& THE END OF MODERNISM
by Karl Emil Willers
NASSAU COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART
Roslyn Harbor, New York
January 22 - May 8, 2011
SAMUEL DORSKY MUSEUM OF ART
State University of New York at New Paltz
New Paltz, New York
There are, of course, many to be thanked for helping to bring this publication and accompanying exhibition to fruition. Foremost among those to be recognized are the generous lenders to the exhibition. This publication illustrates the Milton Avery holdings of the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York, and many thanks to all who assisted with the details of making those works available to the Nassau County Museum of Art. Special thanks go to Helaine Posner, Chief Curator and Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs, who helped to guide inquiries and requests during a period of transition at the Neuberger Museum. Much kind assistance was offered by others at the Neuberger Museum, including the Registrar Patricia Magnani, Assistant Registrar Alison Lowey, and most especially Jacqueline Shilkoff, the Associate Curator for New Media and the Digital Museum.
This selection of paintings from the Neuberger Museum has been generously augmented by works from the Estate of Sally Michel Avery and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Very special thanks go to March Avery Cavanaugh and Sean Cavanaugh at the Sally and Milton Avery Arts Foundation and Milton Avery Trust for making many works on canvas and paper available for exhibition. Their insightful help in selecting the works of art on view and their valuable recommendations on the catalogue essay are greatly appreciated. Colleagues at the Whitney Museum were very helpful in supporting the loan of several key works. Much appreciated is the assistance of Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director, and other members of the Whitney Museum's staff, including Barbi Spieler, Senior Registrar of the Permanent Collection, Dana Miller, Curator of the Permanent Collection, and Christy Putnam, Associate Director of Operations and Exhibitions Management.
Much of the writing on Avery within this catalogue was inspired by the scholarship of Barbara Haskell, Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. My interest and researches into Milton Avery's art began in late 1979 while an intern to Barbara Haskell, a period in which she was organizing a major retrospective of Milton Avery's work for the Whitney Museum. Her encouragement not only inspired my further exploration of Avery's life and art as my thesis at the College of Wooster in Ohio, but also helped guide my early career in museum work. The advice of professors Arne Lewis and Thalia Gouma-Peterson was also very instrumental in guiding my researches and fostering my understanding of Avery's work. Under their tutelage, these writings came to present an overview of critical opinion and theoretical commentary on Avery's art during his lifetime and over the following decade.
I had the great pleasure of working as Curator at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York when works by Avery from the Neuberger Museum were on view at that institution, giving me an opportunity to revisit and focus my researches on Avery. The essay as published here was largely reworked as a lecture presented at the State University of New York at New Paltz to accompany that 2004 exhibition. Amy Pickering, the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Dorsky Museum, meticulously edited the text of that lecture, and Art Collections Manger Wayne Lempka provided much organizational support. It is due to the welcome enthusiasm of Sara J. Pasti, the Neil C. Trager Director at the Dorsky Museum, that this catalogue is now being published and distributed by the State University of New York Press. Many thanks to Mary Kastner, Director of Design, Print and Mail Services at SUNY New Paltz, who helped coordinate preparations for this volume's publication. The graphic design work of Jan Harrison, formerly of the Department of Publications at SUNY New Paltz, gave this catalogue much of its sense of style.
Special thanks go to the Board of Trustees and Staff of the Nassau County Museum of Art who made the realization of this publication and accompanying exhibition possible. The Museum's Exhibitions and Collections Committee, astutely guided by Board Member Arthur S. Levine, was extraordinarily enthusiastic about this project moving forward. The assistance of Fernanda Bennett, Deputy Director and Chief Registrar, and Rhianna Lee Ellis, Assistant Registrar and Publications Coordinator, contributed significantly to the realization of this exhibition at the Nassau County Museum of Art. The valued expertise of Jean Henning, the Museum's Senior Educator, was enlisted to help proofread the final version of this essay. The Museum's Education Department -- including Laura Lynch Groskinsky, Noemi Fletcher, and Rebecca Hirschwerk -- helped plan for this exhibition and its accompanying public programs. During the summer of 2010, interns Brett Garde, Meaghan Steele and Lyell Funk worked diligently to move this project forward in countless ways. The work of the entire staff as well as the many extraordinarily dedicated docents and volunteers at the Nassau County Museum of Art make projects such as this possible, and this publication is dedicated to them and their always-generous service to the institution.
Funding for this exhibition's presentation at the Nassau County Museum of Art is in part supported by the generous donations of the Board of Trustees, Museum Council, Corporate Members, and others, including visitors like you. Your support is greatly appreciated. Thank you.
- Karl Emil Willers
What is it that makes Milton Avery's art appear so much more "modern" when compared to canvases by his contemporaries, whether they be figurative or abstract artists? This effect occurs often upon viewing Avery's work exhibited alongside the achievements of other American painters of his generation. Numerous reasons for such encounters are surveyed in the following pages, including the personal domesticity of his subjects, the singular simplification of his forms, the individual quirkiness of his outlines, and the unique intensity of his color. However, Avery holds an especially significant place within a very particular discourse on the development and progress of modernism. Commencing with the critical writings of Baudelaire and certainly continuing through the theoretical propositions of Clement Greenberg, the story of modern painting has been admirably narrated as the "aesthetics of the sketch." This conflict between preliminary study and finished work was at the heart of antagonisms between Romanticism and Classicism during the first half of the nineteenth century. The collapse of this antithesis, that is the acceptance of the sketch as a complete and self-sufficient work of art, was furthered by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the later nineteenth century.
With modernism, the search for immediacy, for quickness, for vitality -- the pursuit of effects intrinsic to the sketch - became the ends rather than the means of artistic achievement. No longer relegated to a stage within the production of a finished work of art, characteristics of drawings and studies became increasingly appreciated for their ability to convey a world of change, speed, and novelty synonymous with all that was "modern" in people's lives and daily experiences. Avery's practice takes this modernist transformation in taste to a level that is neither as prevalent in any predecessor nor as refined in any successor. It is for this reason that Avery and his art are described as being at the end of modernism in this title of this publication. Ironically, it is Avery's rather conventional working process -- his conservative method of preparing for works on a canvas by making a series of drawings and studies on paper -- that allows this description. Avery's genius can be seen in the way that he looked discerningly at the effects he was able to achieve in his rapid jottings and spontaneous scribbles. He meticulously works out ways to translate the notations and outlines captured in his works on paper into his oils on canvas.
This is to say that Avery's great works successfully capture the intimacy, immediacy, and casualness found in the execution of his drawings and sketches. In this way, Avery's art is a crowning gesture within a particular narrative of the progress of modernism. Avery's art both influenced and was influenced by the increasing dominance of overall, gestural, and action painting during the 1950s. With the rise of the generation of Abstract Expressionists, the very concept of sketching out a composition became anathema. However, the concept of recording the artist's performance on the surface of a canvas ventures beyond this modernist tradition, extending toward the realm of what is commonly referred to as a post-modernist direction. It is in this sense that Avery culminates and embodies a long tradition in modernist painting.
Milton Avery, the son of Russell Eugene and Esther March Avery, was born in Altmar, New York, a small town near Oswego, on March 7, 1885. When Avery was eight years old, his family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, his home for the next twenty-four years. Upon graduating from high school he took a low-paying job at a local typewriter factory, but in hopes of finding more lucrative employment as a commercial artist he applied for a course in lettering at the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford. Unable to gain admittance to the over-crowded lettering class, he opted for a drawing course at the League taught by Charles Noel Flagg and Albertus Jones. This single semester of drawing in charcoal was Avery's only formal art training in a painting career that would span more than fifty years.
Avery began painting directly from nature in the rural area around Hartford known as the East Meadows, and also began his lifelong practice of sketching the human figure. He began working a night shift at the United States Tire and Rubber Company in order to free his daylight hours for painting. Avery spent the next twelve years of his life working and painting in almost complete obscurity. He would always modestly refer to the activity of painting as a "favorite pastime." 
In the summer of 1925, Avery, now 40, traveled to the artists' colony in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he met Sally Michel, a young artist and illustrator from Brooklyn. That fall he moved to New York to be with Sally, and in the spring of 1926 they were married. Sally financially supported the family for the next 25 years by illustrating the children's page of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, allowing Avery to devote his days to art. Sally "used to tease him and say that his greatest patron was the Times."  Sally's economic support also relieved Avery from having to compete within the New York art market, and this freedom from cutthroat financial competition contributed to Avery's ability to remain largely detached from the stylistic trends and artistic movements in American art during the first half of the twentieth century.
During Sally and Milton's early years together, they often spent Saturdays visiting the New York galleries. Through this and his discussions with other artists Avery became well-acquainted with the various modernist movements and avant-garde concepts being imported from Europe that were taking root in America. However, it is difficult to speak of other artists as directly influencing Avery and his work: Avery was quick to internalize the knowledge of modernist concerns, and this knowledge then re-emerged within his own art as a unique statement of style and temperament.
In 1928, Avery entered a competitive exhibition at the Opportunity Gallery in New York City, a small space established to provide young New York artists an initial opportunity to exhibit their work. Avery won and, as a result, was selected by Max Weber to receive his first solo show at the gallery. Here Avery met many other aspiring young painters, including Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. These three attended an artists' group that met weekly in each others' homes and studios to sketch and discuss art. During the 1930s, Avery also knew and associated with the artists Louis Eilshemius and Marsden Hartley, two artists whose stark compositions and intense color influenced Avery's art. Years later, at the end of Avery's life, the critic Ben Wolf aptly expressed the unique quality of Avery's camaraderie with other artists throughout his long career:
Before considering the stylistic characteristics of Avery's oeuvre, it should be noted that Avery's art reveals few if any dramatic thematic changes or inconsistent stylistic developments. Avery seems never to have participated in what Barbara Rose refers to as "the breakthrough mentality characteristic of American artists."  Rose elaborates and clarifies this concept of a "breakthrough" mentality by describing American artists as seeming "to share the same driving force, the same competitive instinct, and the same desire for constant innovation that leave their mark on every phase of this country's social and economic life."  In the words of Avery's wife, he was never one to "seize the fad of the instant and work like mad to make the most of it."  Avery may best be characterized as an experimental artist -- he once revealingly commented that, "In order to paint one has to go by the way one does not know. Art is like turning corners: one never knows what is around the corner until one has made the turn."  Hilton Kramer commented on the consistency of Avery's artistic vision when he said,
Avery's career shows a process of consistent development and refinement, intimately connected to his creative method and reflective of his personal life. However, Avery's earliest works of the 1920s and early 1930s possess few similarities to his mature work of the 1940s and 1950s. In Sunday Riders of 1929 (see fig. 1), the predominantly dark tones create an overall somberness and severity of mood. This early painting also reveals a concern with the details of facial features and garments that is foreign to Avery's later, more mature style. In a review of an exhibition at the Morton Gallery in 1930, Carlyle Burroughs, critic for the New York Tribune, describes Avery's color as "generally very drab" and refers to Avery himself as "rather depressing in his outlook upon life."  Malcolm Vaughn of the New York American affirms Burroughs's critical judgments, saying that the paintings' "dark forbidding color indicates that the artist is passing through a melancholy experience from which his art now suffers."  However, such early works as Country Brook of 1938 (see fig. 3) reveal a freedom of paint application and a jagged, violent brushstroke that will later re-emerge in Avery's paintings of the 1950s. There exists in these early works a simplification of form that separates Avery from nineteenth-century academic concerns with precise illusionism -- the elimination of detail that points toward a painting style embracing the modernist credo "less is more." As early as 1928, a reviewer from a local Hartford newspaper, referring to paintings created during two summers on the Cape Anne shore, commented that, "An artist but recently returned from Paris remarked that there, of all places, these pictures would be classed as modern." 
Although Avery was always to maintain a representational element within his work, he increasingly developed a concern for the formal aspects of his compositions. Ashley St. James commented in 1971 that in his later work,
By the fall of 1931, Avery had developed a painting style of simplified flat areas of more brilliant, but more closely valued color. Malcolm Vaughn refers to this change in style as a "transition of spirit-from melancholy to vivacity."  Vaughn further elaborates upon Avery's stylistic developments with the comment that, "Youth is so variable-one moment sad and gloomy, a moment later bright and frolicsomeWho would have dreamed, a year ago, that Milton Avery was to abandon his melancholy landscapes and become today, a painter of subject pieces of sparkling wit."  In 1936, Emily Genauer also recognized transformations in Avery's work, saying he,
...has mellowed since his last exhibition. The truculent, grotesque, violent side of his painting has given way to a rather poetic quality -- to a gentle romantic outlook on landscape, expressed in a loose, light technique which is amazingly effective. Color has become less monotonous and infinitely more subtle. 
During the late twenties and early thirties, many of Avery's paintings depict scenes of circus performers or vaudeville actors. The use of such patently humorous subjects is largely uncharacteristic of Avery's art after 1940. An overall brightening of Avery's painting -- in color, atmosphere, and mood -- is evident during this period. More than one critic has claimed that an exposure to the bold and abstract use of color by the French Fauves-whose works could be viewed in several galleries and exhibitions in New York throughout the 1930s -- greatly influenced Avery's development. However, the slow, progressive transformation into Avery's mature style was more likely the result of a gradual absorption of modernist aesthetics, the development of a consistent method of artistic production, and an overall coordination of formal expression with personal experience.
A MATURE STYLE
As early as 1933, Avery produced the painting Sitters by the Sea (Private Collection), a work that clearly embodies all the elements of a style that he would further refine and experiment with, but never really depart from, for the remainder of his career. The painting depicts people sitting, and one child standing, upon a beach contemplatively surveying the broad expanse of sea and sky which extends before them. Illusionistic detail has been removed from the scene. The landscape setting is reduced to three simple horizontal bands representing sand, sea and sky; while the figures are rendered by a few large color shapes. The deep contrast of light and dark, characteristic of Avery's early work, has been replaced by more closely-valued hues. The palette is considerably lighter and covers a wider range of the spectrum, giving the space represented the sense of being filled with light. There emerges a direct, almost naïve presentation of the commonplace -- and a contemplative stillness-of-moment characteristic of Avery's late works. Avery himself expressed the concerns and goals of his mature style:
The large, flat color areas that Avery renders reveal a modernist concern for asserting the flatness of the painting's canvas support. The reduction of all areas of the canvas to simple color shapes -- regardless of whether they refer to figures, objects, or settings -- results in the assignment of equal aesthetic value, and similar visual weight to all areas of the painting surface. Throughout his life, Avery was a painter concerned with meticulously refining his palette and carefully balancing his compositions. Sally Michel said that he "was not interested in the superficial aspect of appearance or in literary content. His preoccupation was with the relationship of form and color...."  Harvey Shipley Miller discusses this aspect of Avery's art when he writes,
In Sitters by the Sea there are no hard edges or sharp lines dividing one color area from another. There is instead a scumbling of the borders dividing color shapes, causing them to merge and bleed into one another. These muted edges, combined with the studied use of closely valued hues, result in a mingling of objects with the space surrounding them. Thus, Avery's painting comes to express the continuity between material objects and the light and space in which they exist.
Aesthetic concerns for the self-referential quality of a work of art -- the flatness of the picture plane, the importance of the entire painted surface, and the relation of objects to the space they inhabit -- were apparent in the art of Cézanne, and further developed in Cubist theory and ideology (and later codified in the 1940s by Clement Greenberg in his seminal articles on modernism). However, it would be difficult to assert that Avery was directly influenced by Cubism. Unlike many American artists active during the 1920s, Avery never adopted the acute angles and fractured planes characteristic of the Cubist style. Writing on Avery's landscapes, Stephanie Terenzio noted,
Avery's emphasis upon flatness, the integrity of the picture plane, and a severe reduction of illusionistic detail has prompted several critics to look to Eastern sources for his work -- the spare flatness of Japanese prints, for example, might be seen as a source for many aspects of Avery's painting. However, Avery never studied Asian art and attempts to establish these direct links with his work are difficult to substantiate. "I've never been particularly interested in Oriental art," Avery once observed, "even though some people say I'm the original Zen without knowing it."  Another time, asked if there was any reason for an apparent Eastern aesthetic in his work, Avery replied with his usual brevity and wit saying, "Yes...I used to paint in East Hartford."[ 21] Oriental and Eastern art undoubtedly had a great influence upon many Western artists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- the flat color of Japanese prints was particularly influential in creating a modern interest in expressing the planarity of the picture surface. In his own work, Avery adopts and addresses many of the modernist concerns originally derived from East Asian aesthetics, but to assert more concrete or direct influence upon Avery's work is unwarranted.
Considering the flatness and elimination of detail characteristic of Avery's style after the early 1930s, his ability to give figures and objects a sense of mass and volume is quite remarkable. By simplifying his figures into flat color shapes in such works as Sitters by the Sea, Avery has abandoned the traditional western chiaroscuro technique of modeling volumes and three-dimensional forms in light and shade. When shadow is depicted in Avery's paintings it is never rendered in subtle gradations, but in clearly differentiated areas of a slightly darker color (as in, for example, March With Green Hat of 1948, see fig. 25). Despite Avery's rejection of conventional modeling in chiaroscuro, his figures retain an unmistakable sculptural quality -- they possess a definite weight, mass, volume, monumentality, and ability to occupy the space in which they are placed. In his book Art and Culture, Clement Greenberg recognizes the three-dimensional quality of Avery's figures, yet remarks:
However, it is Avery's precision of outline and silhouette that defines the volume, proportions, and poses of his figures. Thus, those "factual accidents of the silhouette" are obviously not accidents at all. On the contrary they are precisely what is "all important to this kind of painting."
Avery also frequently gives his figures an exaggerated, almost awkward perspective as is clearly evident in Three Friends of 1944 (see fig. 17). This exaggerated perspective -- produced through a proficiency in drawing, never through mathematical or theoretical calculations -- endows his figures with a sense of solidly occupying a pictorial space that often recedes dramatically into depth. Paintings like Sitters by the Sea and Three Friends have led many critics to remark on Avery's juxtaposition of volumetric figures and objects against backgrounds of extreme flatness. In 1961, for example, George Morris pointed out that,
Almost a decade later, Charlotte Lichtblau would make a similar observation,
Although such generalizations about the relationships between figures and settings in Avery's work may be applicable to specific paintings, it would be difficult to decide whether the figures or background are more suggestive of the picture plane in paintings such as Card Players of 1945 (Collection of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz).
Avery's ability to represent depth is never dependent upon his ability to suggest figurative volume. This is evident in such non-figural landscape and seascape paintings as Gaspé -- Pink Sky of 1940 (Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Samuel H. Lindenbaum, New York) and White Sea of 1947 (Collection of Benta Borgenech Kerr). In these paintings, a few color shapes-defined by a minimal use of diagonal, undulating, and zigzagging lines -- create an impressive sense of spatial recession. Avery is also able to suggest great depth through a rapid reduction of the size of figures and objects as they recede further into the distanc -- an effect clearly evident in the treatment of figures in Clover Leaf Park of 1942 (see fig. 8). The critic Thomas Albright commented in 1968 that,
With the elimination of unnecessary illusionistic detail and simplification of forms into a few flat shapes, color naturally became a dominant element with Avery's art. Avery has always been recognized as a colorist of the highest quality and most inventive means. It has already been mentioned that during the thirties Avery's color gradually began to lighten in tone and range over the entire spectrum. Significantly, his use of more close-valued hues served to further emphasize the painting's canvas support. All of these characteristics are almost poetically described by Edwin Mullins in what is undoubtedly among the most frequently quoted commentary on Avery's art:
These are very flattering words and, with the exception of Mullin's final assertion, largely correct. Avery, as previously stated, clearly expresses and is greatly concerned with the density and volume of objects. Furthermore, he is able to utilize color itself as a means of suggesting and emphasizing mass, weight, and three-dimensional form in his paintings. Likely it was this aspect of Avery's art that Hans Hoffman was referring to when he said that Avery, "was one of the first to understand color as a creative means. He knew how to relate color in a plastic way."  The light, close-valued quality of Avery's color emphasizes the interrelationships between the physical objects represented in the paintings and the light or space which surrounds them. Carter Ratcliff attempts to elaborate upon this elusive quality with the words:
Avery's color is original, expressive and largely intuitively rendered, that is to say that it was never based on mechanical color theories or dogmatic aesthetic prescriptions. As Stephanie Terenzio suggests, his "color could not be controlled by logic. It was neither an arbitrary nor a compartmentalized device. As a plastic element, integral to the structuring of form, color was evoked from sensations produced by specific properties of the subject." 
A final aspect of Avery's formal style that must be not be overlooked is the artist's textural application of paint. Throughout his life, Avery thinned his paints with turpentine and applied them with a fairly dry brush. Such practices guaranteed that Avery's brushwork would be clearly evident in the paintings. The brush strokes forming Avery's flat color shapes are more obvious and exaggerated at different moments throughout his career, but in almost every painting the means of paint application is clearly discernible. In his usual humorous mode, Avery once joked, "I paint so thinly, that a tube of paint lasts a long time. A paint salesman used to come around to me every month, and I was embarrassed because I never needed any paint."  Frank Getlein has commented extensively and sensitively upon the importance of this textural element saying,
And again, a year later,
The painting Vermont Hills of 1936 (Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts), as compared to Sitters by the Sea painted only three years earlier (Private Collection), provides some idea of the range of both the freedom and control with which Avery wielded his brush during the 1930s.
A VISUAL HUMOR
Avery's jovial wit and sense of humor, mentioned in almost every description of his personality and apparent in many of his recorded statements, is also clearly evident within his art. Edward Mullins has commented that, "Laughter is as fundamental in an Avery, as angst is in a Kirchner, fear in a Munch, pomposity in a Reynolds, and sex in a Modigliani."  Avery's humor is never cynical -- it is never used as a means of social criticism or psychological analysis as was common during the 1930s with the rise of American social realism. Avery's humor is the opposite of that developed by an artist such as Reginald Marsh whose prints are a biting parody of degenerating social conditions and reprobate urban behavior. In contrast to Avery, Marsh evolved an analytic humor that emerges from mocking caricatures and a burlesque narrative. But Avery, by the early 1940s, had largely eliminated the situationally comic subjects derived from the vaudeville theater and circus performance found in his early painting.
Throughout the remainder of his career, Avery's art exhibits a whimsical, witty quality, one achieved almost entirely through form rather than content. Avery possessed a wide vocabulary of squiggly lines, calligraphic brush strokes, and scratched or scraped designs evident in such works as Little Fox River of 1942-43 (see fig. 12). The rapid staccato brush strokes found in a work on paper such as Hills and Mountains of 1944 (see fig. 21) seem to play and frolic across the surface. Canvases like Rooster's Domain of 1948 (see fig. 26) inspire a robust sense of rambunctious amusement with eccentric outlines and interlocking forms. James R. Mellow perceptively observed:
In Oyster Catcher of 1944 (see fig. 18), the gawkily portrayed sea bird whimsically racing along the shore masterfully exhibits Avery's ability to create an extremely witty dialogue through minimal design. James Mellow, who often commented upon the humor in Avery's art, remarked,
Avery's skill in conveying the comic through formal elements is rare in twentieth-century art, and can possibly only be compared to the genius of Paul Klee, whose work Avery greatly admired.
Avery's simplification of composition into a few basic color shapes and his repertory of humorous formal devices often led critics to comment on the innocent childlike nature of his work. As a particularly insightful commentator on Avery's art, James Mellow once wrote that,
Avery himself apparently had a strong admiration for the directness of expression and elimination of detail characteristic of children's art, however, there is no evidence that he ever seriously studied works of art produced by children. Upon seeing an exhibition at The New School of Art done by children of the Greenwich House art class, Avery remarked, "We would all go more often to the galleries if such work was to be seen. These children express a spontaneity and joyousness in their painting, which all works of art should have for us. These paintings are an explosion of color arrangement. It is this color which particularly appeals to me rather than any literary content, which is, and should be, secondary." 
However, if such works as the sumptuous Blue Trees of 1945 (see fig. 22) can be praised as childlike, they could never be derided as childish: Avery's simplification of form, his use of color, his cohesive composition, and his pictorial wit and humor are the result of a concentrated process of creation. This fact was partly recognized by Adelyn D. Breeskin in the catalogue accompanying the 1969 exhibition of Avery's art at the Smithsonian Institution: "He preserved a certain innocence, which was maintained in spite of experience which brought with it a rare kind of sophistication....His understanding of method, of techniques, of color was thoroughly pervasive."  However, it must be acknowledged that what Breeskin refers to as Avery's "certain innocence" was developed and maintained as a result of -- rather than in spite of -- his many years of experience.
It is difficult to classify Avery's art in the usual genres. While his works duly fall under the categories of landscapes, seascapes, figures, portraits, self-portraits, and still lifes, Avery's oeuvre includes, for example, a number of categorical combinations such as the figure in the landscape, the figural composition that can also be identified as a portrait, and so on, that render the categories themselves meaningless. What is important in Avery's subjects is that they are derived from his personal observation of the natural world and his experience of the simple realities of domestic life among family and friends. Florence Berkman commented that Avery's "Subject matter...came from the unspectacular and the familiar -- domestic scenes, vignettes of city life and summer vacation spots. One writer noted that he was like the Oriental philosopher who saw the secret of the universe in a blade of grass."
The inspiration for Avery's pictorial content was almost anything that he encountered in the course of everyday life, thus a still life by Avery is never a conglomeration of artificially gathered objects, self-consciously arranged to create a preconceived composition worthy of being recorded on canvas. Such paintings as Still Life with Bananas of 1941 (see fig. 7), Still Life with Derby of 1944 (see fig. 19), or WAtkins 9-2236 of 1948 (see fig. 24) depict common objects as they were encountered at home. Furthermore, those paintings that can be classified as portraits are almost always of immediate family or close friends who were a part of Avery's personal life (see Portrait of Rothko of 1933, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, and Marsden Hartley of 1943, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
"The East Hartford meadows were my teacher," Avery once said; he recognized the early role careful observation of nature in the countryside surrounding Hartford, Connecticut played in the production and development of his art. During the early years of his career, Avery painted in oils on canvas immediately from nature, only later beginning to paint from sketches (that were themselves made directly before his subjects).
After they married, Avery and Sally established a pattern of spending the winter months in New York, then travelling over the summer, gaining inspiration from the coastal shore, the rural countryside, and the wilderness of the American continent. Their summers were spent in locales from Vermont to California to the Gaspé Peninsula, from Mexico to the Canadian Northwest, Maine, Provincetown and Woodstock. Much time was spent travelling from one locale to another, for once Avery felt he had absorbed and recorded the visual possibilities of any one site, there was no need to stay. James Mellow perceptively recognized that "There is testimony to Avery's fidelity to observation in the fact that he tended to move on once he felt the pictorial possibilities of a given locale were near exhaustion." 
All of Avery's art can be said to have emerged from an initial confrontation with visual reality. Even a work such as Tangerine Moon and Wine Dark Sea of 1959 (Collection of Sidney and Madeline Forbes) that exhibits a severe simplification of composition, remarkable elimination of extraneous detail, and extraordinarily vivid color were inspired by observation of the natural world, as is evident from Avery's own words:
Avery also consistently sketched directly from the human figure throughout his career. As mentioned before, during the thirties, he and a group of artists met informally in each others' homes and studios to sketch each other or friends and relatives who would pose. Beginning in the forties, Avery attended weekly sketching classes with live models at the Art Students' League. He was to attend these sessions almost religiously until illness prohibited his continuing in the summer of 1960. It is indicative of Avery's loyalty to direct observation that he would often record not only the posed model, but also the other artists gathered in the room, busily sketching away.
In his book Art and Culture, Clement Greenberg states that, "Avery's is the opposite of what is supposed to be a typical American attitude in that he approaches nature as a subject rather than as an object."  I disagree with Greenberg's assessment that Avery views, "nature as a thing of surface alone, not of masses or volumes, and as accessible solely through eyes that refrained from making tactile associations."  As previously stated, I find Avery to be very concerned with expressing qualities of mass and volume in his paintings. However, taken out of context, I have found the comment that Avery approaches nature, or his subject matter in general, as a subject rather than as an object, extremely enlightening. The act of "depicting as an object" implies viewing the world as exterior to one's self, as a separate part of reality that one approaches and understands from a distinct place. This objective sense is foreign to Avery's art, to the intimacy of experience and identification with content that is paramount within his work. The act of "depicting as a subject" implies viewing one's self as part of the world, of approaching and understanding the world as a unity integrated with one's own being and experience. Although Avery worked with a wide and diversified range of subjects during his lifetime, there emerges from this variety a cohesiveness and unity of content in that it expresses this integrated experience -- a pleasure in calm domesticity and affinity for the natural environment.
Reacting against the establishment of a rigid dichotomy between Avery's expansive landscapes (or seascapes) and his intimate interiors, Frank Getlein argued,
However, not only are Avery's subjects unified by his subjective vision, but his personal life and career as an artist are unified by his subject matter. Avery's art emerges directly out of his experience of life -- with Avery, the two can never be separated.
This unity of Avery's life and art is possibly what Marsden Hartley was referring to when he said:
Avery worked almost exclusively with subjects derived from personal experience. The observations that provided Avery with his subjects influenced his use of color and form as well as the development of his individual style. This choice of subject, rather than adherence to artistic movements and aesthetic ideologies, had a paramount influence on Avery's formal means. Hilton Kramer asserted that,
Avery was one of the few American painters of his generation who escaped this alienation of style from personal sensibilities. Stuart Davis is possibly the only other contemporary American painter to have produced such a consistent harmony between form and content. However, unlike Avery, Davis' stylistic means emerged directly out of Cubist developments in European art. Davis produced a unique version of American cubism influenced by the rhythms and syncopations of jazz, but the cubist tradition of Braque and Picasso also provided a vocabulary with which he expressed aspects of American life. In contrast to Davis, Avery possessed no direct stylistic ancestors or instructors. It has been asserted that Avery's accomplishments have been overlooked largely because they do not fit neatly into art historical theories concerning the evolution and trajectory of modern art during the first half of the twentieth century.
Avery's close observation of visual reality is clearly evident in his ability to retain the specific identity of his subjects. While working in a style characterized by minimalization of illusionistic detail, and the transformation of areas of the canvas into simple color shapes, Avery preserves the sense of individuality and singularity of his subjects. This frequently praised characteristic of Avery's art unquestionably results from his dependence on personal experience, and his method of drawing directly before his subjects. In 1973, Judy Marle referred to Avery's use of immediate visual surroundings as the point of departure for his work, saying, "although forms are schematized they are never generalized. It's always a particular place or incident that seems to have triggered off the painting." Lawrence Campbell also speaks of Avery's fidelity to the visual reality of his experience when in 1961, he said, that Avery,
Clement Greenberg refers to Avery's ability to retain the specific identity of his subjects as a peculiarly American tendency, saying,
Avery's subject matter was inspired by his observation of the natural world and everyday experiences of domestic life. A subject could not be dreamed or imagined: only through direct observation could the unique and specific qualities of the common experience be captured in a sketch or drawing. It was this particular quality of place, or individual, or light, or space, or silhouette, or color that interested Avery. Though he simplified his compositions and reduced his subjects to a few color shapes, he always retained that subtle sense of specificity.
Avery's ability to suggest spatial depth and sculptural volume through precise linear drawing contributes to his ability to capture the unique identity of his subjects. This is particularly evident in Avery's figure compositions where characteristic poses, features, and proportions are revealed almost completely through outline and silhouette.
This lack of idealized content and his concern for specific conditions of light reveal the way in which Avery captures the individuality of his subjects. Evidence of this is particularly clear in a work such as The Group (After Dinner Coffee) of 1939 (see fig. 5) in which the intimate experience of domestic relations and everyday life is captured, but not romanticized. I agree with James Mellow's evaluation that the, "quality which one encounters often in Avery's paintings is notromantic expressiveness. It is dry, matter-of-fact observation. Given the nature of his subjects, Avery is surprisingly unsentimental."  Except for self-portraits and portrayals of artist-friends, almost all of the figures in Avery's art are women -- real, individual, living women, seldom conforming to a preconceived ideal of feminine beauty. They are truthfully depicted with their bony or bulging physiques, their slumped or sprawling poses (as is evident in Four Bathers of 1942, see fig. 9). In Avery's many portraits of his daughter March, there frequently emerges a realistic sense of the frustration, uncertainty, and awkwardness experienced by maturing children and adolescents. Avery's eyes are seldom blinded by the mythical, romanticized notions of childhood as a time of untroubled play or undisturbed joy. However, Avery's subjects do possess a certain dignity and significance that emerges not from their idealization, but from their unadorned and unaffected nature. Avery possesses a rare talent of seeing the beautiful and the elegant in the ordinary and commonplace-of capturing the realities of everyday life and idiosyncrasies of physical appearance. Through this art, we are able to see a significance and beauty in the common occurrences that we seldom take time to notice.
Avery's art also reveals the subtlety of fields and pastures, untouched rolling hills, obscure mountain pools, undulating sand dunes, and wide ocean expanses. Referring to Avery's landscapes and seascapes, Phillip Isaacson claimed in 1978 that,
LIGHT AND SERENITY
Much of Avery's ability to retain the singular identity of time and place clearly emerges from his concern for depicting the specific quality of light that illuminates his painted scenes. Avery produces light-filled landscapes and seascapes through a direct use of close-valued color, seldom rendering the shadows produced by objects to convey the existence of a light source. The expression of particular conditions of light emerged as the primary focus in his extremely simplified compositions of the late 1950s. The radiant glow of a moonbeam on the surface of a churning ocean is the subject of the work Moon Path of 1958 (Collection of Gifford Phillips, Los Angeles). With a few brush strokes, Sun over Southern Lake of 1951 (see fig. 27) captures the visual impression of an evening sun across the surface of calm waters. The dim, shady light of a forest interior is arrested in Waterfall of 1954 (see fig. 28). Stars and Sea of 1960 portrays the clear luminosity of starlight and its shimmering reflection on large expanses of rippling water. Dawn, midday sun, dusk, twilight, moonshine, starlight, the variety of nature's luminous effects is the focus of Avery's oeuvre. Even Avery's interior scenes possess a specific sense of light, ranging from the sunlit room of Two Figures at a Desk of 1944 (see fig. 20) to the warm glow of artificial illumination found in Three Friends, also of 1944 (see fig. 17).
The French Impressionists of the late 19th century were largely interested in expressing the transitory nature of our visual impressions in a world of constant atmospheric motion and continuously changing light. Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral's facade, for example, record the effects of light at different times of the day, in different seasons of the year; the fleeting and transitory characteristics of natural light transform the visual character of the ornate architectural structure. In contrast, Avery's light appears less transient, more imbued with a permanency and fixedness. There is an unchanging luminosity in much of his work that creates a subtle, but unmistakable, sense of quietude and stillness. This was Hilton Kramer's insightful judgment:
This quality of serene quietude in Avery's work was recognized as early as 1936 by the critic Henry McBride, who detected "a certain somberness in the outlook (suggesting an)...attitude of rebellion against the transitoriness of life."  Avery's subjects frequently embody or possess an inherent condition of tranquility or silence. His figures are typically depicted in repose -- lounging as in Seated Figure in a Deck Chair of 1942 (see fig. 10), or quietly studying nature as in Sketchers on the Rock of 1943 (see fig. 14). In such works as Clover Leaf Park of 1942 (see fig. 8) and Sun Over Southern Lake of 1951 (see fig. 27) the figures sit in motionless contemplation of the placid world that surrounds them. Avery's seascapes in particular convey a tranquility with their seemingly infinite expanses of distant horizons. Even when painting such subjects as the dramatic movement of ocean waves or sea birds in rapid flight, a sense of momentary stillness -- the instant of visual inspiration -- is captured (see, for example, White Wave of 1954, Milton Avery Trust, New York, and Plunging Gull of 1960, Collection of Margo Cohen, Courtesy Donald Morris Gallery, Birmingham, Michigan). While occasionally lessened by turbulent brushwork or quickened perspective, this pervading serenity is never completely absent from Avery's art.
While there is a certain stillness or calmness to almost every canvas by Avery, this tranquility seldom degenerates into a static rigidity or cumbersome immobility. Despite their monumentality and repose, Avery's figures never appear incapable of movement. Helen Haggie once commented on this lack of rigidity, saying that Avery "relied on dexterous use of color, thin layers of paint, and large forms to produce quietude as well as movement."  Avery's figures might best be described as completely at ease but not inert, sculptural though never statue-like. Avery's rolling surfs and running streams seldom appear frozen or stagnant; his birds in flight seldom look incapable of soaring or gliding the breeze. Through his art Avery exhibits that rare moment of placid tranquility, frequently lost amidst the rapid changes and tumultuous upheavals commonly associated with modernist aesthetics and twentieth-century life.
Avery's art emerges directly out of his methods of production. Therefore to gain a more thorough understanding of Avery's art, we need to examine Avery's creative process.
Avery began to paint from previously executed works on paper only after many years of painting directly from nature. When he first changed his working method, he began with sketches and drawings, then moving to larger works on paper in a variety of media, and finally progressing to oils on canvas. This experience undoubtedly contributed greatly to his artistic development, particularly to his penchant for capturing the specific identity of his subjects.
As other painters had done for centuries, Avery only later in his development made sketches and drawings directly before his subjects, to capture -- and later call back to memory -- an initial visual experience. However, the multiplicity of miscellaneous detail is never re-imposed upon the image when it is translated from a small sketch into a larger work. In fact, perhaps, just the opposite: in the execution of the interim works on paper, Avery further simplified his compositions, eliminating illusionistic detail, and refining his color values.
It is difficult to precisely date when Avery began to base his oils on canvas on previously executed works on paper. After a personal interview with Avery in 1943, an anonymous reporter paraphrased that Avery,
From this quote it seems clear that by 1943 Avery had completely developed his disciplined process of creation and been working with it for several years. Without the refinement of such a systematic working method, it seems unlikely that Avery could have formulated -- much less advanced -- his characteristic simplification of composition and elimination of detail. There can be little doubt that such a gradually progressive and consistent process of creation was particularly conducive to the enrichment of Avery's mature style.
WORKING ON PAPER
Avery's skill and proficiency as a draftsman has frequently been mentioned. With a minimum of line, he records and exaggerates just those forms which make the unique identity, and specific character of a subject clearly evident. Avery exhibits a variety of drawing techniques in his initial sketches. In many of Avery's more rapid sketches done in "flobrush" or "magic marker", the image is immediately reduced to nothing more than silhouette. However, Avery's drawings and sketches are, on the whole, among the most illusionistically precise and detailed of Avery's works. In the catalogue for an exhibition of Avery's drawings, Burt Chernow wrote "His drawings, despite expressive distortion, remain completely loyal to his first vision and represent a direct confrontation with the subject at hand." 
It would be in error to consider Avery's works on paper in watercolor, crayon, oil gouache, inks, and various other media as mere by-products in a process directed toward the production of oils on canvas. Although many of Avery's works on paper were developed into large scale oils, they are not merely preliminary studies, but works of art in their own right. These works on paper often reveal a high quality of execution, a freedom of form and technique, and an innovative spirit that make them among the most original and interesting creations of Avery's oeuvre. Hilton Kramer clearly affirms this assessment when he comments that,
That Avery's works on paper have consistently been considered an important part of his oeuvre is demonstrated by the frequency with which they have been exhibited, beginning as early as 1928 at the Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery in New York.
Avery's ability as a watercolorist has been likened to that of such American masters of the medium as Winslow Homer, Maurice Prendergast, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Charles Burchfield, and Edward Hopper. Hilton Kramer, again making a point about the high quality of Avery's compositions on paper, says of his watercolors in particular that,
Avery's experimentation with various media and with different techniques on paper -- and particularly his proficiency with watercolor -- clearly had a great influence on the way he used and applied oil paint onto a canvas surface. Noel Frackman refers not only to the strength of Avery's watercolors, but also to his similar handling of watercolor and oil paint when he says that,
By diluting his oils to a very thin consistency with turpentine, Avery was able to use oils on canvas with a fluidity and transparency more associated with the application of watercolors on paper. The transparent, watercolor-like effects Avery achieved with thinned oil paint is clearly evident in such canvases as Spring Orchard of 1959 (National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.).
Throughout his career, Avery experimented in his works on paper with a variety of new, little used, and largely ignored media and techniques. For example, when the flobrush, or felt-tipped pen, was first introduced around 1946 Avery immediately began to experiment with the new device. For the rest of his career, he would frequently use the flobrush to draw and sketch as in Sketch Class of 1947. In an essay on Avery's drawings, Burt Chernow commented that,
The use of "unacceptable" methods and materials such as using children's crayons, and mixing various media in a single composition, is common in Avery's drawings on paper. Such experimentations with material and combinations of technique make the works on paper among Avery's most innovative and progressive productions. Avery's works on paper are vital contributions to the development in twentieth century American art. They mark an increase in experimentation with a variety of drawing media and a breakdown of the valuation of works on canvas as inherently more prestigious than works on paper.
Avery's monotypes also indicate an experimentation with largely ignored techniques and methods of artistic production.
Although Avery made a great majority of his monotypes in Florida during the winters of 1949-50 and 1950-51, Lawrence Campbell recalls that, "He continued to make them in the summer of 1951 which he spent in Woodstock....After the summer of 1951 Avery made only a few monotypes, but some of them turned radically experimental."
Monotype production is a very simple, almost primitive form of printing in which paint or ink is applied to glass, a smooth stone, or other flat surface. Paper is then pressed over that surface transferring some of the paint onto the paper and making a print. Since only one or two images can be made from any single application of paint, each monotype produced has a uniqueness and individuality antithetical to conventional notions of printing. After printing a monotype, Avery sometimes went back and touched up the image with pencil, crayon, gouache, or all three. The wide variety of experimental techniques employed by Avery in this process are expressed in detail by Lawrence Campbell:
WORKING ON CANVAS
The time involved in the procedure of moving from sketch or drawing, to works on paper in various media, to oil on canvas varies considerably. Avery frequently spent the winter months in New York developing the sketches he had made over the previous summer into oils on canvas. The practice of working principally on paper during the summer months was largely determined by a need for very portable materials when moving from location to location. When summer retreats involved less travel, works on canvas as well as works on paper were common. During the four summers spent between 1957 and 1960 in Provincetown, Avery worked on paper for the first half of the summer and then painted oils on canvas for the remainder of the season. Sally Michel recalls that the great majority of his forty extremely large oils produced in the late 1950s were painted during those summers at Provincetown.
Two versions of Sea Grasses and Blue Sea (Museum of Modern Art, New York), both dated 1958, are superb examples of a progression from compositions on paper to canvas within a single summer. Tangerine Moon and Wine Dark Sea of 1959 (Collection of Sidney and Madeline Forbes), done during Avery's third Provincetown summer, was painted only a week after the artist's observance of the atmospheric phenomena that inspired the work. It is also evident, however, that Avery frequently based his canvases upon works on paper done many years earlier. Such is the case with the watercolor on paper called Lone Rock and Surf of 1945 which, eight years later in 1953, was used as the model for the oil on canvas Advancing Sea (Milton Avery Trust, New York). Similarly the mixed-media monoprint Sea and Stars of 1951 was only translated into the oil on canvas and entitled Stars and Sea in 1960 -- a span of nine years between. Avery frequently reworked much earlier compositions, a practice that accounts for the overall coherency and consistency of his art.
Avery always painted on primed canvas. In the early years of his career he bought unsized cotton duck, stretched it himself, and primed the surface with white lead. Later, when he could afford it, he either bought pre-prepared stretchers or had his supports made for him. Avery chose never to work on linen, preferring a rough surface that would absorb his thinned paints.
Regardless of the amount of time between the execution of the works on paper and translation to canvas, Avery's oils were always painted with great speed. In 1970, a reporter for Time wrote of Avery, with little exaggeration: "By the time he approached his easel, his imagination was so disciplined by incessant drawing that on a good day he could finish off three paintings by evening."  Avery's ability to rapidly execute canvases is clearly due to his previous refinement of the composition through experimentation on paper and in a variety of media. Through these works on paper Avery was able to formulate what he wanted a finished canvas to look like, and how he could technically achieve the desired results. Sally remarked that, "In Milton, the art and the person were one. He was all of one piece, and he always said he knew what the painting would look like before he touched a brush to the canvas."  Hilton Kramer comments perceptively upon Avery's working on paper when executing a canvas, saying:
However, Avery's rapid execution of his oils should not be construed as merely a process of recopying a final work on paper; there is a great deal of conceptualization and thought accompanying each stage of the artist's creative process. Sally Michel said of her husband's mental formulation and theoretical organization, "The actual physical work was minor; the real painting was done in the head."  Adelyn Breeskin's description of Avery working on a canvas emphasizes this point. She writes,
There is a progressive simplification of composition, elimination of detail, refinement of color values, and "formalization" of the image in Avery's systematic creative process.
That Avery was able to execute his oils on canvas swiftly and self-confidently is clearly apparent in the great facility and expressiveness of the artist's brush strokes. Judy Marle remarks that, "The basic elements of each work are fixed before the canvas has been touched and are laid down with the minimum of second thoughts or shifting around....The lack of fuss is apparent...."  There is an undeniable sense of freshness and spontaneity to Avery's gestural touch that harmonizes with the easy humor, childlike simplification, and untroubling content of his art. Avery's rapid painting greatly contributes to the results that, in the words of Charlotte Litchblau, "....none of Avery's good paintings appear worked on; yet all of them are the distilled essence ofserious and consistent work."  The various paint techniques visible in Avery's canvases are intimately linked with and clearly expressive of the materials and processes explored on the pages from which they emerge. A progressive simplification of composition combined with a refinement of color are clearly evident, and finally, after clarifying the composition and color through works on paper, Avery was able to execute his oils on canvas with speed and confidence, with a sense of spontaneity and ease.
THE LATE WORKS
Throughout the 1940s Avery increasingly simplified his compositions into fewer and fewer color shapes -- a development obvious in a work such as Card Players of 1944 (Collection of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz); the divisions between color shapes are more sharply defined than they had been or would be again. In addition, brush strokes in Avery's art became significantly less pronounced. He would frequently diffuse the forcefulness of his brushwork by rubbing over his painted surfaces with a rag, giving the color areas a smoother, more even quality and his canvases a greater flatness. Furthermore, the color of Avery's palette becomes increasingly lighter and more varied. At times, in a work such as Mother and Child of 1944 (Private Collection), the color approaches vibrant strength that exceeds his usual tendencies toward more subtle, close-valued hues.
Avery's continuous and progressive elimination of detail and simplification of composition reaches a climax with Maternity of 1950 (Milton Avery Trust, New York). The flat oval forms of a mother holding a child in her lap are juxtaposed against three quadrilateral areas representing the floor and background space. In this work, Avery reduces the image to a level of abstract simplicity that would not appear again until his production of the large landscapes and seascapes during the late 1950s. Although an image of great warmth and tenderness, the characteristic individuality of his figures is lost in the rigid geometric forms of Maternity. Avery would seldom again resort to such a high degree of abstract simplification in his figural works.
PAINTINGS OF THE 1940s
The emergence of Avery's mature style of simple close-valued color areas was not an overnight development. Although the fundamental characteristics of this style can be discerned in a work such as Sitters by the Sea of 1933 (Private Collection), it was clearly not until 1940 that Avery consistently produced paintings in his signature style. The 1930s were for Avery a period of gradual artistic growth and continuous formal experimentation. Works such as Country Brook of 1938 (see fig. 3), and Little Fox River of 1942-43 (see fig. 12) reveal a forceful and erratic brushwork that somewhat counteracts the organization of the canvas into distinct color areas. These landscapes from the late thirties and early forties possess idiosyncratic detail, boldness of spatial organization, playful application of paint, and a quirky sense of drawing that clearly separates them from the calm simplicity of his later style. With works such as Card Players (Collection of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz), Two Figures at a Desk (see fig. 20), and Three Friends (see fig. 17) all of 1944, Avery's brushwork becomes less aggressive and more contained within a few, clearly delineated color areas.
The hard edges, color areas, and intense hues of Avery's paintings of the mid-1940s, caused critics to consistently emphasize Matisse's influence on Avery's artistic development. Edward Alden Jewell commented in 1945, for example, that, "Avery changes, as time marches on, yet somehow retains his fundamental kinship with Matisse and remains a metamorphosed Fauve. His forms grow larger, simpler, more sharply edged. His color grows brighter...."  Frank Getlein countered, "The name of Matisse used to be mentioned as the model of Avery's art, but in truth there are profound differences between the two. The similarities were apparent only in a period when both stood completely apart from the dominant manners of their countries." There is certainly no basis for Irving Sandler's 1963 reference to Avery as "an early follower of Matisse in America"  -- though such comments are not uncommon albeit, in my opinion, misrepresentative of Avery's accomplishments and concerns as an artist.
It is not particularly revealing to embark upon comparative study of the art of Avery and Matisse, but a few key contrasts between the two artists help to clarify the different styles, contents, and concerns of these artists. In contrast to with the art of Matisse, the adamantly anti-spectacular nature of Avery's subject matter and the overall sense of serenity in his work becomes clearly highlighted. The calm, almost puritanical quality of Avery's art is clearly recognized by John D. Longaker when he wrote,
In keeping with Longaker, I find Avery's subtle coloring, the common, unspectacular nature of his subject matter, and the overall sense of stillness and quietude achieved in Avery's best works less evident in the art of Matisse. In isolated works-such as Mother and Child of 1944 (Private Collection) -- Avery exhibits a tendency toward a free-flowing, curvilinear outline associated with the art of Matisse. However, more typical figural works by Avery -- such as Walker by the Sea of 1961 (see fig. 29) -- clearly support James Mellow's assertion that, "Avery...never tries for that suavity of line which is one of the glories of Matisse... Avery's silhouettes develop empirically out of what he observes. He puts down what he sees -- irrational and awkward as it might be -- rather than blending the form to that expression of linear grace that characterizes Matisse." 
In addition, Avery generally does not rely on the vibrant color so basic to Matisse's art. On the whole, Avery's color is lighter, more subdued, and almost always concerned with expressing the aspect of the light. James Mellow also noted that, "In the matter of colorAvery is distinguished from Matisse. Avery concentrates more on light, and the quality of light, than on sumptuousness."  Judy Marle refers to the lighter, more closely-valued, and un-Matisse-like quality of Avery's color, saying,
Aware that the individuality of his style was frequently questioned through assertions of Matisse's influence, Avery responded, "Some critics like to pin Matisse on mebut I don't think he has influenced my work."  Although certainly familiar with Matisse's work, Avery never studied or emulated the stylistic characteristics or qualities of his art. In terms of the nature of their subject matter, their use of color, and the quality of their drawing, Avery and Matisse express fundamentally different aesthetic concerns.
PAINTINGS OF THE 1950s
In the fall of 1949, Avery had a heart attack. Sally was told that her husband would live for only a year at best. Although he would create some of his best work over the next decade and would live for more than fifteen years, Sally recalled that Avery never regained his earlier health after this first heart attack.  He suffered greatly from angina, a painful constriction in the chest that develops when blood is not adequately supplied to the heart. Despite illness and pain, Avery's oils of the 1950s carry his characteristic simplification of pictorial elements to a new, abstract level. Avery dramatically reduced the number of separate color areas within a composition and the larger canvases exhibit less and less extraneous idiosyncratic detail. These developments place greater emphasis upon the role of color in his work; the slightest inflections of hue or tone convey an exceedingly significant amount of pictorial information. As Avery increasingly minimizes the means he has to produce his art, the success of a painting depends more upon extremely subtle color relationships and carefully balanced compositions. Clement Greenberg clearly expressed this new level of refinement when he said,
From the beginning of the fifties, Avery experimented with various means of applying paint. His marked tendency during the 1940s to rub out any distracting textural effects became less prevalent in the following decade, as is evident in such works as Sun Over Southern Lake of 1951 (see fig. 27) and Waterfall of 1954 (see fig. 28). Avery's later works incorporated agitated passages of brushwork and violent strokes of paint. This trend culminated in a series of powerful works from 1958 including Dark Forest (Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Donald Morris, Huntington Woods, Michigan), Dunes and Sea I (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh), and Sea Grasses and Blue Sea (Museum of Modern Art, New York). In these paintings, dramatic brushstrokes -- contrasting sharply with the lighter background on which they are painted -- cover almost the entire canvas surface. In these paintings, Avery returns to violently applying paint onto his canvases, a practice that he had suppressed since his work of the twenties and thirties. There is however, a fundamental departure from the way vigorous strokes of paint were used in the earlier work. Due to the larger size of the later works, individual brushstrokes created an overall pattern of turbulent paint slashes and fields of sinuous squiggles.
In the later works, Avery's ability to handle the brush with an experimental freedom and expressive fluency is clearly evident. The broadness, length, and direction of the strokes usually remain the same within a defined area of the canvas, but dramatic changes often occur between fields. The turbulent and swirling swatches of paint serve to more clearly demarcate the distinct, simplified color shapes of the composition, rather than blur them. In addition, the power of Avery's later brush strokes often extend over the entire canvas surface, conveying a sense of the animated gestural motion the artist used to create them. This effect clearly links Avery with the so-called "action painters" of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Despite the tumultuous, painterly quality of Avery's late works, their clearly defined and greatly simplified composition hold even the most dramatic gestural flourishes in check.
Throughout his career Avery carefully balances and juxtaposes value, hue, and intensity of color within his compositions. In many canvases, he also began to use textural effects to juxtapose and balance the simple shapes that populate his canvases. In Little Fox River of 1942-43 (see fig. 12), the calligraphic squiggles of paint representing trees on a nearby hill in the painting's foreground are precisely weighted against the thin wash and the striated brushwork of the more distant sea. Similar contrasting textural effects appear in many of Avery's later works. In 1962 Avery did a series of seventeen black and white oils on paper with such titles as Dark Trees, Pale Mountain and Dark Mountain, Light Mountain (Albright Knox Art Gallery,Buffalo and Richard Grey Gallery,Chicago). These works on paper clearly exemplify Avery's skillful use of a diverse means of paint application-rather than luscious color-to define an image and construct a balanced composition.
Another primary development in Avery's art of the 1950s was dramatic augmentation of canvas size. During the 1940s the average size of Avery's canvas was estimated to be thirty by forty inches -- a size clearly placing him within the long tradition of western easel painting. During the early fifties, Avery gradually began painting larger and larger canvases and composing his paintings with even fewer and more simplified areas of color and texture. This expansion of scale culminated in the series of very large oils executed during the summer months of 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Some of the largest of these paintings -- Tangerine Moon and Wine Dark Sea of 1959 (Collection of Sidney and Madeline Forbes), Dunes and Sea II of 1960 (The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 50th Anniversary Gift of Sally Avery) and Sand, Sea, and Sky of 1959 (Collection of Paul Larviene, Montreal) -- reach dimensions nearly four times the surface area of works from the previous decade.
Within these large canvases, Avery's process of reducing his subjects into colored and textured forms reaches an extreme-and approaches the purely abstract. In 1971, Thomas Garver was speaking of Avery's late work when he said, "Avery is able to deal 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."  In Sand, Sea, and Sky, a right triangle in the lower left of the canvas suggests the sand, another triangle above this suggests the sea, while a horizontal band on the upper edge of the painting suggests the sky. Three horizontal bands with two differently colored geometrical shapes placed in the lowest band are enough to represent two towels on a sandy beach in Beach Blankets of 1960 (Wichita Art Museum). This horizontal division of the canvas -- emphasized by horizontal rather than vertical brush strokes -- becomes increasingly pronounced in many late works. This has led some critics to draw similarities between Avery's paintings of the late fifties, and the floating, horizontally oriented rectangles in the work of Mark Rothko.
While Avery's art can never be described as completely nonobjective or purely abstract, it progresses toward an abstract quality through a process of radical simplification and severe reduction of the visual array. Charlotte Lichtblau once commented that, "All of Avery's paintings are abstract but none of them are abstractions."  Based in the process of drawing and sketching before his subject, the point of departure and source of inspiration for Avery's art always remains the physical, material world of visual experience. Although they can hardly be said to be illusionistic, Avery's paintings are always to some degree representational. Harvey Miller once commented upon Avery's rejection of abstraction when he wrote, "It is in these (late) paintings, in which the identity of the locale is still recognizable and the painting is saved from pure color-field abstraction by an identifying object or shape, that Avery is working very close to the edge of abstraction and at the same time defining his rejection of it all the more meaningfully."  Avery's later canvases remain rooted in physical observation, and the best of them succeed in capturing that element of abstraction that always exists in reality. If one concentrates upon the abstract quality of Avery's late art, the degree to which his imagery remains representational -- that is the degree to which Avery remains concerned with expressing the particular identity of his immediate subjects and the visual reality of his initial observations -- is clearly apparent. However, concentration upon the representational qualities of Avery's late canvases makes their abstract nature-their concern with inventive application of paint and the boldness of forms all the more evident.
When working in such a minimal formal vocabulary bordering on abstraction, there is a danger that the composition will become too simplistic and lose its ability to hold the viewer's interest. The areas of color can become too generic and monotonous, making the painting appear vacuous or vapid as it loses its ability to refer to a unique visual observation. Furthermore, if the color and textural relationships do not reach a degree of exactness, that vital sense of light-filled space can quickly vanish or dissipate. It is Avery's recourse to his drawings and sketches -- not only for a simplification of form but also for a range of painting effects -- that maintains the crucial balance between abstraction and representation, between the non-objectivity and realism.
AVERY AND ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM
The relationship between Avery's art and the Abstract Expressionist movement that emerged in New York during the late forties and gained prominence throughout the fifties has been a subject of ongoing focus. Reviewing the 1978 exhibition "Milton Avery and His Friends" at Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Peter Frank wrote, "Avery's relevance to Abstract Expressionism is well known, but when his paintings are hung in conjunction with Mark Rothko's, Adolph Gottleib's, William Baziotes', and Barnett Newman's, the correspondences continue to be surprisingly striking."  There are striking similarities between Avery and the Abstract Expressionists: Rothko's compositions of horizontally oriented rectangles and Newman's vertically aligned "zips" possess obvious similarities to Avery's lateral division of his large canvasses of the 1950s. Many of the abstract painters of the New York School reduced their compositions to simplified zones of color, often using methods of paint application such as staining to diffuse the edges between areas.
Avery knew and frequently associated with both Rothko and Gottlieb as early as the late 1920s. Sally Michel wrote that Rothko, "dropped in almost every day to see what Milton was painting. We spent summers together on Cape Anne where everyday we met at the beach for swimming and every evening we looked over the day's work. Adolph Gottlieb was there too and Barnett Newman joined us. Milton did a number of watercolors using these friends as models."  Sally also revealed, "Milton never formally taught anybody in his life....But Rothko and Gottlieb would come around and study his paintings and just absorb them by osmosis. One summer in Gloucester, Milton refused to show them what he was doing, because he felt they were becoming too dependent upon him." 
Avery's early simplification of his compositions into relatively large areas of close-valued color, his use of gestural brushwork, his application of paint in thin stain-like washes, his diffusion and scumbling of edges of one color area into another, clearly had a strong influence upon the development of many members of the New York School. Andrew Hudson writes that,
Avery's camaraderie and exchange may explain why he increased the size of his canvases in his final years and pushed his compositions to near abstractions. Andrew Hudson's final comment is quite valid, for Avery was without doubt intimately aware of the emergence and development of Abstract Expressionism and ultimately influenced by some of its tendencies and directions. In turn, the influence of Abstract Expressionism can be seen through Avery's augmentation of scale and more gesturally expressive brushwork during the mid to late fifties. From the early thirties, Avery's career shows a progressive reduction of compositional elements to fewer and fewer forms; therefore, any further simplification of composition can also be viewed as a development emerging largely out of Avery's own stylistic tendencies and processes. Thus, I agree with Frank Getlein when he objects that,
The ongoing consistency and gradual emergence of Avery's stylistic and thematic development cannot be denied. There are numerous prototypes for Avery's late, large canvases among his earlier works -- Sitters by the Sea of 1933 (Private Collection), Gaspé -- Pink Sky of 1940 (Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Samuel H. Lindenbaum, New York), and White Sea of 1947 (Collection of Benta Borgenech Kerr) are examples of Avery's early tendency to focus on the distant horizon in landscapes and seascapes, thus dividing the overall canvas surface into separate horizontal zones. Rothko did not begin to produce his floating, horizontally elongated rectangles on a consistent basis until the late 1940s.
Questions about the degree and direction of influence artists have upon their colleagues remain to some extent unanswerable. There is little doubt however that the work of Rothko and the other Abstract Expressionists has had a great effect upon the framework with which we approach, view, and evaluate many aspects of Avery's art. John Canaday commented in 1963 that,
Many aspects of Abstract Expressionist painting clearly illuminate certain formal or stylistic qualities of Avery's early work. Paul Richard wrote in 1972,
Avery's health began to deteriorate rapidly in the early 1960s. Unable to continue large-scale paintings after a second heart attack, his work decreased in size and changed in style. In Avery's last works dating from 1963, such as White Nude No. 2 (Collection of Lynn and Austin Turner, Chicago), there is an abrupt, jagged quality to the brushstroke. The rough, angular outlining reveals Avery's physical inability to paint with the sweeping gestural motion so evident in the works of a few years earlier. The color has become less brilliant and exhibits a much greater contrast of lights and darks. After an extended period of hospitalization, Avery died on January 3, 1965, at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. A memorial service attended by over 600 artists and friends was held in his honor at the Ethical Cultural Society in New York City. On this occasion, Mark Rothko expressed his great admiration for Avery and his art:
Works in the Exhibition
Dimensions are in inches, height proceeds depth. Works from the Collection of the
Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York are illustrated.