Milton Avery: Fifty Paintings/Fifty Years
On ViewYares Art
April 30 – July 30, 2022
Milton Avery is an artist who, considering his long career, can’t be pinned to any one salient American style; yet it can be said that he midwifed many. Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko were early supported by the older artist and traces of his color sense and touch can still be discerned in the mature works of both. And how could the formal inventions of Alex Katz and Wolf Kahn be understood without Avery’s influence? The current work of Katherine Bradford has adopted aspects of Avery’s brush and aquatic themes. The artist’s pictorial and painterly spirit animates these rooms along with a kindred crowd.
Despite his seemingly facile, almost childlike style, Avery is among the most sophisticated of painters in formal terms. Hence the direct figurative charm of his jigsaw-taut compositions is stridently “locked in” via surprisingly bold and sweetly subtle chromatic and tonal counterpoint. Pool Player (1960) demonstrates how seamlessly the artist was able to combine intimate instance with compositional and chromatic universality. The player’s sharply angled posture parallel to the picture plane is echoed by the extreme diagonal and tilted plane that the pool table itself creates. Avery manages to combine Cycladic simplicity with Cubist complexity in the most direct fashion, in addition to organizing his dominant hues in broad, painterly swaths of umber and green. A triangle of primary red, blue and yellow balls in the lower right of the picture rights this teetering space reassuringly. Grey Rocks, Black Sea (1956) is a coastal landscape that is viewed from an even more exaggerated tilt, emphasizing the flatness of the artist’s broad gestures, ranked from left to right in taupe, raw umber, white and black. Here one can appreciate Avery’s succinct quotation of both Winslow Homer and Marsden Hartley’s similarly concrete wave crests in rocky climax. This historic consciousness of generic content executed with a formal tour-de-force informs almost all of Avery’s work. It’s what makes him significantly more than just a purveyor of elegant whimsy. Painted at the apogee of the Abstract Expressionist groundswell, comparisons to the elemental verticality of Clyfford Still’s bark-like accretions and Barnett Newman’s brushy “zips” are also called forth. The artist’s ability to contain all such influences with such breathtaking brevity in this work is frankly staggering. Another painting from 1956, Dancing Trees, is an almost completely abstract evocation of a copse of black trees against an undersaturated red and green field. The effect of the tar-like brushwork animating these “trees” is simultaneously crude and elegant. Avery mastered a “wet over dry” technique by drastically alternating the viscosity of his paints so that subtly brushed “dry” grounds are then contoured with “wet” staccato gestures. Sunset Sea (1958) offers a great example of this technique. Its horizon is delineated by the harmonic contrast of a pink with a pink-overpainted blue sea. Stretched across both the sea and sky are short and long isolated brushstrokes in fiery red. The combined effect emits a tenebrous heat.
A later work, Blue Bay and Dunes (1961) is similarly constructed but with cooler blues and greens, evoking the sea in early morning. This exhibition includes a few figure studies in Avery’s characteristic approach to the subject which lands stylistically somewhere between Modigliani’s mannerist elongations and Matisse’s flattened-out volumes, of which Robed Nude (1960) is exemplary. A bleached white, half-clothed female figure is made monumental via the exaggerated perspective of a child’s-eye view. The artist’s model is set between a three-legged stool and an unconvincingly robust potted plant, both painted in varying tints of burnt sienna. All is arranged against a buff wall meeting a raw sienna floor in a sharp diagonal. The indeterminate, discreet gesture of the model gathering her robe about her neck is the sweet focal point of this gentle depiction. The artist’s closely-valued hue contrasts subtly influence this enchanting encounter, seemingly unencumbered by any discernible power dynamic between artist and model.
An interesting selection of the artist’s graphic works complements the exhibit, echoing the painter’s familiar themes in pencil, ink and watercolor. Twisted Tree Sketch (circa 1952) is executed in graphite on paper and reprises the Dancing Trees theme with a very active shorthand of light zig zagging gestures supported by four darker, upright tree arabesques. This same subject is taken up in two small woodcuts Trees By The Sea (black and white) and Trees By The Sea (brown and black) (both 1953). These prints on Japan paper express the neo-primitivist feel of Gauguin or Nolde’s woodcuts. The earliest work in the show (circa the 1920’s) is the remarkable watercolor oddly entitled Library Lion/ Untitled, (Distant Water View). It’s remarkable in that elements of Avery’s lifelong color and compositional structures show up so early and almost perfectly realized. His familiar three-point perspective (sometimes called a worm’s eye view) is here radiating from a stark silhouette of one of the famous “library lions” that crouch astride New York City’s main branch library at 42nd and Fifth Avenue. Dabs of red, white and blue seemingly representing patriotic pennants stream up the sides of looming skyscrapers. These are slightly suggested yet solidly massed in undersaturated washes of yellow, blue and violet. Both Avery’s typical perspectival exaggeration and quiet fields punctuated by raucous gesture are evident, indicating that his career ends (from the very beginning) have been made up of a series of improvised applications of such basic formal means. In his case such a consistency was anything but foolish.