Many of the works on display have never been exhibited outside of the US.
One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, and a pivotal figure linking American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Milton Avery is celebrated for his luminous paintings of landscapes, figures and still lifes, which balance distillation of form with free, vigorous brushwork and lyrical colour. Drawn from across his career, the exhibition foregrounds Avery’s singularity of vision, in particular his sensitivity to his environment and his achievements as a subtle and inventive colourist.
A focus of the exhibition is provided by important paintings created as a result of Avery’s sole trip to Europe in 1952, when he visited London, Paris and the South of France. Avery’s only painting of London, Excursion on the Thames, 1953, is derived from a sketch made by the artist on the steps of the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) at Millbank. Completed on his return to New York, the oil and an associated work on paper (Excursion on the Thames, 1952), reveal Avery’s increasing tendency to simplify and condense, and also to lighten experience, finding fitting subject matter in a scene of urban recreation: a passing pleasure boat moving through the dark ribbon of the Thames. The work anticipates the formal and chromatic distinctions of Avery’s final paintings, its arrangement of horizontal bands – those of the river and its embankments echoed in the schematised boat itself – and contrasts of colour revealing the “gripping lyricism” so admired by Mark Rothko, for whom Avery was a decisive influence and a guiding light.
French Landscape, 1953, a scheme of trees and interlocking rocks in blues, lavender-mauves, greys and browns grounded by a crescent of light gold-green, reveals a singular treatment of landscape – its hilly outcrops appearing simultaneously vast and somehow also intimate and accessible, a feat achieved through close colour harmony as much as Avery’s distinct foreshortening of space. We know from one of Avery’s sketchbooks, also on display, that the view is based on Les Baux-de-Provence, located in the foothills of the Alpilles mountains in Provence. In Seven White Cows, 1953, another of Avery’s European works, the artist corrals his subject matter within a scheme of broadly horizontal bands that denote rolling countryside. The painting is a sophisticatedorchestration of positive and negative space, with the depicted herd appearing as bright negatives, and the groups of trees, their trunks and foliage rendered as a series of scraffito-like marks (perhaps made with the end of a paint brush) to reveal lighter hues beneath the final, glowing earth tones.
Avery’s lifelong commitment to painting the people and places he loved can be seen in Young Couple (Husband and Wife), 1963, a painting of the artist’s daughter, March, and her husband Philip G. Cavanaugh. One of Avery’s last large-scale canvases, the painting is imbued with harmony and intimacy – Philip reading aloud to March at the Averys’ Central Park West home and studio. Wader, completed in the same year, and painted following a visit to the Catskill Mountains the preceding summer, reveals how Avery continued to push forward with an increasingly radical and loose painterliness in his late work. The palette is poignantly vivid, its complementary hues evoking a haze of summer heat. By this stage of his life, Avery was in a fragile state of health and the work has the air of a warm recollection.
Avery sketched directly from the human figure throughout his career, and the monumental Grey Nude, 1943-44, was likely developed from one of the informal sketch classes attended by Avery and his artist-friends, including Adolph Gottlieb and Rothko, which began in the 1930s. As Gottlieb recalled, “Avery was a wonderful draughtsman. It was realism of a sort, with distortion accentuating what was characteristic in the model or giving play to the humour that was characteristic of Avery. Heads grew small; figures were elongated, thighs swelled.”
Still life, too, was a considerable part of Avery’s practice from the 1920s onwards. It was a genre he approached seriously but often also with tenderness and humour. While many of his still lifes are formally, even traditionally, posed, it was not unique for Avery to depict a disembodied object, floating ambiguously against the merest hint of a window or tabletop. Vine, 1955, is almost musical in the dance of its leaf forms. Avery marries rhythmic form and chromatic harmony, the play of blue against grey creating a sense of movement on the surface of the painting that is further enhanced by the repeated leaf forms. Simplification – a reduction of form and palette – in Avery’s art of the 1950s has been attributed in part to his deteriorating health. Avery suffered a major heart attack in 1949. When he was able to return to painting, his wife Sally Michel Avery recalled: “Life became much more important because he had almost lost it. I think the very simple things he did were the result of having experienced such a dramatic event in his life. It scared him. It quickened the direction of his work – the colours became more sparse, his forms were more simplified.”
A view of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the highly abstracted Morning Sky, 1962, reveals the rich, ongoing dialogue between Avery and artists such as Rothko and Gottlieb. From the 1930s, Avery spent numerous summers in the company of these younger artists and, during the summers of 1957 to 1961, when Avery, Rothko and Gottlieb vacationed together in the popular artists’ colony of Provincetown, on Cape Cod, there was a significant coda to their reciprocal artistic dialogue, with Avery pushing his images towards the very edges
of abstraction. However, while seeking to express an idea in its simplest form, Avery never sought pure abstraction for himself. Above all, he is an artist who resists categorisation. “I never have any rules to follow,” he stated in 1952, “I follow myself.”