The colourist

Milton Avery was truly a one-off artist, as John Evans discovers

Thursday, 4th August — By John Evans

Husband and Wife

Husband and Wife, 1945, oil on canvas, 85.7 x 111.8cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Mr and Mrs Roy R Neuberger. All images © Milton Avery Trust/ artists rights society (ars), New York and dacs, London 2022

A NEW Royal Academy show explores the career of a prolific American artist important in influencing the development of Abstract Expressionism but also his own journey from an individual brand of plein-air impressionism, through portraiture, to “increasingly abstracted” compositions.

This is the first solo European show in a public institution of paintings by Milton Avery (1885-1965).

Its title describes him simply as “American Colourist” and what is presented are some 70 paintings arranged in sections: Early Work, 1910 to late 1930s; Portraits, formal examples of which ended in the early 1940s; Innovation in Colour and Form, from that time, when he flattened the nature of his paintings into abstract tonal planes, thinning his paints; and finally Late Work, from the 1950s to early 1960s, where detail of the subject has all but gone in favour of abstraction. So what is on offer is a startling career progression of an artist not associated with any particular movement.

A delicate 1910 oil, Spindly Trees, is a faithful depiction of just that; but Setting Sun, another small oil from eight years later, already displays a more sophisticated use of colour.

Self-portrait, 1941, oil on canvas, 137.2 x 86.4cm. Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. Gift from the Estate of Roy R Neuberger

Landscapes from the 1930s use bold outlines of rolling hills to provide a moody backdrop for sketchier trees. There are colourful still lifes too.

Born in New York state and brought up in Hartford, Connecticut, Avery steadfastly painted only from what he had witnessed.

Recurring themes are domestic scenes, and friends and loved ones, including his artist wife Sally Michel and daughter March. Avery would regularly summer away, sketching and noting, then return home to work up the oils.

So there are animals and outbuildings in Gaspé Village, Quebec, and an ox and cart there. There are views of Fox River Village near Lake Michigan and coastal, beach, and sea paintings from Cape Cod to California and more.

A willingness to experiment, whether with shape or colour, shines through but individuality remains. And there’s a joy and playfulness in many of the works where people do feature, whether a bright beach scene or caricature figures in darker locations, ranging from an auction house to a sleazy theatre.

A 1941 self-portrait uses a bathroom setting but by 1958 another has the artist with brushes and palette but with black background and no facial details.

Boathouse by the Sea, 1959, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 152.4cm Milton Avery Trust

Seated Girl with Dog (daughter March) from 1944 also did away with the face and in the haunting Husband and Wife from the same period we are only given a hint of their expressions, or rather lack of them.

The show and an accompanying publication, written by curator Edith Devaney with Erin Monroe and Maria Price, explores the undoubted influence Avery had on younger artists he befriended, Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974).

Sally and Avery had moved to New York City after their marriage and it was in 1928 that his work was chosen for a group exhibition which also included that of Rothko.

Avery’s debt to and regard for Henri Matisse (1869-1954), is also examined. And Edith Devaney notes: “Avery became a link between the old world and the new, from European modernism to American modern art”.

Late works are simplified and highlights include Boathouse by the Sea and Black Sea, both moody and contemplative.

He wrote that he tried to convey “the ecstasy of the moment” in his work, to which end he would “eliminate and simplify, leaving nothing but color and pattern”.

Milton Avery: American Colourist at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, runs until October 16.

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