The renowned German artist and teacher Hans Hofmann said Avery ‘was one of the first to understand colour as a creative means. He was one of the first to relate colours in a plastic way.’ The American painter Mark Rothko, who built on Avery’s work to reach full abstraction, once declared to the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art Alfred Barr that Avery was America’s greatest painter.
Avery was born to a working-class family in New York in 1885. He grew up in Connecticut, leaving school at 16 to work a string of menial jobs. In 1905, he enrolled in night classes to study commercial lettering, before switching to life drawing.
Avery’s earliest works were small, plein air pictures indebted to Impressionism. However, after moving to New York with his wife, the artist Sally Michel, his work was transformed by Modern art. His brushstrokes became thick and sweeping, his colours turned bright and shimmering and his perspectives flattened to shadowless planes. He became known as the ‘American Fauve’ for comparisons drawn with Matisse’s work of 1904 to 1908.
Success came not long after. In 1927, Avery was included in his first group show, The 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The following year he held his first solo show at Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery. The celebrated American violinist Louis Kaufman purchased Still Life with Bananas and a Bottle for $25, becoming the first collector to acquire one of Avery’s works.
During the 1940s, Avery received critical success. He sold 35 canvases to the financier and patron Roy Neuberger and mounted his first one-man museum show at the Phillips Memorial Gallery. He also began to exhibit with the leading modern art dealers Paul Rosenberg and Paul Durand-Ruel.
By the 1950s, however, he was becoming eclipsed by the Abstract Expressionists. The following decade, wider attention turned to Pop Art, and his success waned further. It was only after his death in 1965 that Avery’s popularity would return.
In 2022, a retrospective of Avery’s work toured The Modern in Texas, Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. His works feature in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Tate Modern in London.
At auction, Avery’s record stands at over $6 million, paid for The Letter, which depicts a solemn figure before a beach.