Nude Bathers was executed in 1946, during the most critical period Milton Avery's career. Indeed, Avery arrived at his mature style in the mid-1940's and his works from this point forward share the distinctive style that one hopes to see in his paintings. In addition to their broad popular appeal, Avery's bold abstractions from the 1940s and 50s exerted a highly important influence on Post-War American painting and have been seen as critical forerunners to the works of Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, among others.
Many scholars attribute the important developments in Avery's style that occurred at this time to his new professional affiliation with Paul Rosenberg's gallery. Avery's 1944 contract with Rosenberg guaranteed sales of fifty works a year, allowing financial security that freed the artist to focus solely on painting. Even more influential was Avery's exposure through the gallery to modern European artists and their abstract ideals. Rosenberg arrived in America in 1940, bringing with him a cache of great works by important European artists that provided Avery with a new understanding of abstract representation.
In discussing this transformation in Avery's style, Barbara Haskell writes: "Rosenberg's proclivity for taut structure and architectonic solidity encouraged Avery to emphasize these aspects of his work. He replaced the brushy paint application and graphic detailing that had informed his previous efforts with denser more evenly modulated areas of flattened color contained within crisply delineated forms. The result was a more abstract interlocking of shapes and a shallower pictorial space than he had previously employed. Avery retained color as the primary vehicle of feeling and expression, but achieved a greater degree of abstraction by increasing the parity between recognizable forms and abstract shapes." ("Milton Avery: The Metaphysics of Color," Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, 1994, pp. 8-9)
The highly saturated palette of yellows, rusts, pinks and blues seen in Nude Bathers is typical of Avery's works from this period, as is his placement of the silhouette-like figures against the richly colored background. Here, Avery uses blocks of color both as expression and as a way to modulate space, as he suggests recession through the planes of color and their arrangement on the two-dimensional surface. Though Avery discounted the influence of Henri Matisse on his work, it seems undeniable that he was inspired by Matisse's use of broad shapes to create depth, his preference for flat color over blended shades and his love of decorative patterning. In describing his working technique, Avery stated:
"Today I design a canvas very carefully before I begin to paint it. The two-dimensional design is important, but not so important as the design in depth. I do not use linear perspective, but achieve depth by color--the function of one color with another. I strip the design to the essentials: the facts do not interest me as much as the essence of nature." (as quoted in D. Ashton, "Milton Avery," Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and after, Houston Texas, 1981, p. 16)
In Nude Bathers, Avery succeeds in rendering expressive figures through a strict, plastic two-dimensional design. While he simplifies the figures and objects to the broadest possible forms, he invigorates these forms through his sophisticated use of highly saturated colors. Avery creates tension and balance through his selection and deposition of color. "There are hazards in this approach to the figure, but Avery has somehow side-stepped the greatest of these, namely, a sense of fixity that would deprive his figures of animation. The characteristic attitude of Avery's figures is one of relaxation and repose. His women--most of his figures are female--read, carry on conversation, talk on the telephone, lie on the beach, or sit around daydreaming. They project a presence that, however disinterested, is far removed from the pictorial stasis that the artist's method might seem to hold in store for them. The reason, of course, is that Avery's color imparts an emotional drama, a weight of emphasis and nuance, that recapitulates on the level of retinal sensation whatever graphic complexities have eliminated in the process." (H.Kramer, Milton Avery: Paintings 1920-1960, New York, 1962, pp. 17-19)
This work will be included in Dr. Marla Price's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Milton Avery.