The success of Milton Avery's art lies in his ability to modernize a familiar domestic scene by transforming it into a carefully orchestrated arrangement of color and pattern. He translates his subjects, whether objects or people into a unique lexicon of shapes and forms that fit together into a cohesive composition. Using this basic format, Avery produced oils and watercolors for over three decades. "Throughout the thirty-five years of Avery's mature career--from 1930 to 1965--his work was largely divided between quiet, contemplative scenes of the natural world and depictions of family and friends playing games, making music, painting, reading, and relaxing at the beach. Regarding Avery's consistent focus on these familiar subjects, Hilton Kramer wrote: 'His wit preserves their freshness, while his elegance confers on them a kind of lyric beauty one normally expects to find in a subject encountered for the first time.'" (B.L. Grad, Milton Avery, Royal Oak, Michigan, 1981, p. 1)
Painted in 1945, Sketching by the Sea was executed during the most critical period of Milton Avery's career. Indeed, Avery's work from the mid-40s has the distinctive character of simplified forms and blocks of color that we have come to associate with the artist's most notable works. In addition to their broad popular appeal, Avery's bold abstractions 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 characteristics of Avery's style to his professional affiliation with the gallery of Paul Rosenberg who exposed him to modern European artists and their abstract ideals. When Rosenberg arrived in America in 1940, he brought a cache of great works by important European artists, many of whom provided Avery with a new understanding of abstract representation. Barbara Haskell discusses these influences, noting that "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 with 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)
As typical of Avery's style, in Sketching by the Sea, the artist creates tension and balance through his selection of complimentary and contrasting colors and shapes. While he simplifies the scene to the broadest possible forms, he invigorates these shapes through his sophisticated use of variegated hues. Avery sets the highly saturated palette of orange, red, pink, yellow and blue against the muted tones of the rocks and crashing waves. 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. In 1952, Avery discussed his use of color, "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 R. Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 51) The shapes of color in the painting are balanced by the hard lines of the jagged rocks juxtaposed with the smooth, curving lines of the figures as well as the rounded waves with the horizon line. The artist has also used his technique of scratching the surface of the paint and building impasto for texture, pairing the smoothness of the water and sky with the thick working of the waves.
Though Avery discounted the influence of Henri Matisse on his work, it seems undeniable that he was inspired by the French artist's use of broad, interlocking shapes to create depth and his preference for flat color over blended shades. Matisse described an approach to painting which could equally serve to define Avery's own technique: "Fit your parts into one another and build up your figures as a carpenter does a house. Everything must be constructed--built up of parts that make a unit..." Matisse further states, "The mechanics of construction is the establishment of the oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions." (as quoted in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, pp. 50, 53) In Sketching by the Sea, it seems Avery has assembled his composition according to this method.
Sketching by the Sea includes all of the hallmarks that are distinctive of the artist's works from the period. "I like to seize the one sharp instant in Nature," wrote Avery, "to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving apparently nothing but color and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea--expressed in its simplest form." (as quoted in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, p. 53)
Two years after the present work was painted, Avery painted a portrait of the present owner's mother, Sophie Sampliner.