22 September 2009


Milton Avery was an American painter and printmaker from Connecticut (b 1893). He grew up supporting his family, taking on multiple jobs and often sacrificing his own potential for success. For some time he worked night shifts at a tire and rubber company so that he could paint during the daytime. He gained financial footing upon his marriage to Sally Michel, an illustrator, in 1926. Due to Michel's personal success and affluence, Avery was able to focus his efforts on painting in New York. He had his first solo exhibition in 1935 at the Valentine Gallery, and developed friendships with some of the major abstract expressionists of the time, namely Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. The Phillips Collection of DC was the first to purchase one of his paintings.
Often likened to Matisse, Milton Avery painted with a minimal palette, preferring to depict simple forms. His paintings are rather flat, with some repetition of pattern and "large areas of glowing colour," as described by the Tate. He began by producing landscapes, using a thick application of paint via palette knife as well as a fair balance of simplification and detail (think Matisse's ability to use detail while maintaining simplification- very similar). 

"Harbor at Night," 1932

His work transitioned out of detail to strong abstraction circa 1944, adopting "crisply delineated forms." In 1949 he had a heart attack, and on after produced a great amount of monotype prints and muted, thinly washed paintings. This transition can be seen below.

"Portrait of Marsden Hartley," 1943
(I always find it fascinating to see an artist's depiction of another artist. Here's Avery's portrait of Marsden Hartley, another great painter of the time. )

"Bird and Breaking Wave," 1944

"Green Sea," 1958

"Sea Grasses and Blue Sea," 1958

MoMA, in reference to the above:
"That black is paradoxical: as Matisse remarked of the black in one of his own paintings, it is used as "a color of light and not as a color of darkness." In various ways, in fact, Avery is closer to Henri Matisse than to the styles that prevailed in America during his lifetime-in his love of clarified form and flat color, for example, and in the sense of rich serenity that permeates his art."

"Yellow Sky," 1958

"Sally with Beret," 1960

Avery died in 1965 at the age of 72 in New York, leaving a lasting impact on the abstract expressionists of the 50s. His work has been acquired by many major art museums worldwide, and is the namesake of Bard's Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts. The most interesting discovery I made while researching Avery is that his wife preserved many of his interviews, letters to him, and other relics. She submitted them to the National Archives, where they can be viewed in person or online. A couple images of his gallery invitations held in that collection are shown below.

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