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Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Property from an Important Private American Collection
Milton Avery (1885-1965)

White Moon

Details
Milton Avery (1885-1965)
White Moon
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1957' (lower right)
oil on canvas
50 x 38 in. (127 x 96.5 cm.)
Painted in 1957.
Provenance
Milton Avery Trust, New York
Riva Yares Gallery, Scottsdale
Private collection, California, 1999
Riva Yares Gallery, Scottsdale
Private collection, Illinois, 2003
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago and New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2009
Literature
M. Swenson, "Milton Avery," Arts Yearbook, no. 3, 1959, p. 112.
R. M. Coates, "The Art Galleries: Milton Avery and Lee Gatch," New Yorker, New York, 20 February 1960.
F. Getlein, "Art: Impressive Exhibit of Milton Avery’s Work," Washington Sunday Star, 3 April 1966.
B. L. Grad and O. J. Rothrock, Milton Avery Monotypes, Princeton, 1977, p. 10.
B. L. Grad and S. M. Avery, Milton Avery, Royal Oak, 1981, p. 18.
Milton Avery, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982, pp. 21 and 24, no. 9 (illustrated).
R. Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York, 1990, pp. 10, 204 and 209 (illustrated in color).
Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, 2001, pp. 11, 77 and 104, pl. 32 (illustrated in color).
Milton Avery Nudes, 1930-1963, exh. cat., Boca Raton Museum of Art, 2005.
W. C. Agee, et al., Milton Avery: Early Works on Paper and Late Paintings, New York, 2018, pp. 15, 19 and 33 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Milton Avery, February-March 1960, p. 26, no. 26 (illustrated). This exhibition traveled to the following venues: Bennington College; Bradford Junior College; Huntington, Heckscher Museum; Scranton, Everhart Museum; New Bedford, Swain School of Design; Brunswick, Bowdoin College; New London, Lyman Allyn Museum; Indiana, Pennsylvania State College; Baltimore Museum of Art; Lexington, University of Kentucky; Minneapolis, University of Minnesota; Champaign, Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois; Flint Institute of Arts; Carbondale, Southern Illinois University; Madison, University of Wisconsin; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Art Center; Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Woodstock Artists Association, Milton Avery Memorial Exhibition, September 1965, no. 6.
Washington, D.C., Esther Stuttman Gallery, Milton Avery, April-May 1966.
Birmingham Museum of Art, Milton Avery, October-November 1968, no. 6 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, National Collection of Fine Arts; New York, Brooklyn Museum; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Milton Avery, December 1969-May 1970, no. 87 (illustrated).
Keene, Louise E. Thorne Memorial Art Gallery, Keene State College; Manchester, Currier Gallery of Art; Williamstown, Williams College Museum of Art, The Sea by Milton Avery, September-October 1971, no. 20.
Boca Raton Center for the Arts, Milton Avery: Major Works, January 1982.
Corpus Christi, Firebird Gallery, Avery at the Sea, June-July 1983.
New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Inc., Milton Avery: Seascapes, January 1987, n.p. (illustrated).
Miami, Center for the Fine Arts, Milton Avery: A Singular Vision, February-April 1988, pp. 12 and 41, no. 26 (illustrated in color).
New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Inc., Milton Avery: Sun and Moon Paintings, January-February 1992.
New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Milton Avery: Pictures Never Shown, March-April 1996.
Scottsdale and Sante Fe, Riva Yares Gallery, Milton Avery: Major Paintings 1929-1962, March-July 1999, p. 32 (illustrated).
Milwaukee Art Museum; West Palm Beach, Norton Museum of Art, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, November 2001-May 2002, pp. 11, 77 and 104, pl. 32 (illustrated in color).
Amagansett, Karma, Before Midnight, August 2016.
Sale Room Notice
Please note the additional exhibition history for this lot on www.christies.com.

Brought to you by

Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

One of the greatest American modernists, whose color harmonies rival that of Matisse, Milton Avery’s impact on postwar art remains a vital force, one that continues to be rediscovered and appraised in the years since his passing in 1965. He has been described as America’s greatest colorist, or simply put, the “American Fauve,” and throughout his life, Avery continually simplified, reduced and pared down his still lifes, landscapes and portraits, greatly influencing the Abstract Expressionists and setting the stage for the Color Field painters and their non-objective paintings. This is perhaps best expressed by Mark Rothko, who, in delivering his important and heart-felt remarks at Avery’s memorial service in 1965, said, “Avery is first a great poet. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty... This alone took courage in a generation which felt that it could be heard only through clamor, force and a show of power...There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the work around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrates every pore of the canvas to the very last tip of the brush. For Avery was a great poet inventor who invented sonorities never seen nor heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come” (M. Rothko, quoted in 1965, reprinted in R. Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, 2001, p. 9).

Painted during the summer of 1957 while Avery vacationed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, White Moon is a major example of his acclaimed late work, veering closer to pure abstraction than ever before. In White Moon, the artist creates pure visual poetry capturing the rising moon over Provincetown Bay. The celestial body is reduced to a glowing, luminous orb that is suspended within a flattened plane of pure color, and its shimmering reflection in the dark ocean waters below transcends the realm of representation to become an independent abstract design. Obvious parallels to Adolph Gottlieb’s Bursts and Mark Rothko’s sumptuous bands of hovering color come readily to mind when viewing White Moon, and indeed, the summer of 1957 found these three artists reunited together in Provincetown. Having been friends since the 1930s, they each experienced a turning point that summer; Gottlieb’s Bursts emerged around this time and Rothko’s palette deepened, veering toward the wine-soaked coloration of the Harvard murals. The mutual admiration they had for each other is apparent. In Gottlieb’s words, Avery, the “American Fauve,” was “one of the few great painters of our time” (A. Gottlieb, quoted in R. Hobbs, op. cit., 2001, p. 9).

Avery’s paintings had long displayed a lasting and persistent trend toward abstraction, but the serendipitous environment of the summer of 1957 allowed the artist’s flair for abstraction to reach new heights. “There are certain seascapes Avery painted in Provincetown in the summers of 1957 and 1958 that I would expect to stand out in Paris, or Rome, or London,” the art critic Clement Greenberg declared (C. Greenberg, quoted in R. Hobbs, ibid., p. 85). Painted that summer, White Moon exemplifies the radically simplified arrangement of abstract forms that marks the apotheosis of Avery’s work in this crucial era.

In White Moon, Avery has transformed the effect of moonlight on a summer night into its essence, where the exquisite balance of the lingering, pale moon as it rises over the darkened, shimmering waters of the Provincetown bay is simplified, schematized and re-born. This stunning, large-scale arrangement is boldly incandescent despite its depiction of a midnight scene. Reduced to a simple white orb, the moon hangs in suspension within a darkened night sky, where brushy, gestural passages of bright blue enliven and add depth to the darker blue background. Below that, the glimmering reflection of the moon as it dances and wriggles along the murky black waters is captured to stunning effect, as the moon’s reflection becomes an abstract form in its own right. One can’t help but associate Gottlieb’s Bursts, with their iconic depiction of order and chaos, in the arrangement of Avery’s White Moon. So, too, does the painting perfectly embody the feeling of nighttime on the ocean, especially “how the halo looks around the moon, and what moonlight does to objects, and how a wave turns over” as the art historian Robert Hobbs described White Moon in his seminal book on Avery’s Late Paintings (R. Hobbs, quoted in Ibid., p. 18). The mesmerizing moonlit atmosphere of Peter Doig’s canoe paintings, too, come readily to mind.

The summer of 1957 marked a turning point for Avery, in which his canvases began to shake off the remnants of representational form in favor of sheer abstraction, where his consummate blend of complementary and contradictory colors is allowed to shine to their utmost. Avery had originally met Gottlieb and Rothko at the end of the 1920s, when those young artists were in their mid-twenties. Both Gottlieb and Rothko had found a natural kinship in the older Avery, who served as both mentor and friend. During the summer of 1957, the three converged in Provincetown, Massachusetts for what would be the last time. Having met as younger, unestablished artists, that summer in Provincetown found them all to be equally successful working artists, and each would have their own museum retrospectives in the coming years- Gottlieb at the Jewish Museum in the fall of 1957, Rothko at the Phillips Collection in 1960 and Avery at the Whitney Museum of American Art also in 1960. In reconstructing those crucial few months, the impact each artist asserted on the other is profound: “Provincetown in 1957...encouraged a congenial social atmosphere in which to pursue what is essentially a solitary task. Not only did Milton begin to paint larger that summer, he began to paint in oils, which was quite unusual for him during summer months” (P. Cavenaugh, “The Provincetown Summers,” in Coming to Light: Avery, Gottlieb, Rothko, exh. cat., Knoedler & Company, New York, 2002, p. 14). Indeed, the scale of Avery’s work drastically increased, and he began painting directly onto canvas rather than make preparatory sketches that were later finished in the studio. Nathan Halper, owner of the Provincetown art gallery HCE Gallery, remembered Avery as saying he wanted to paint larger works “like the abstract boys” (N. Halper, quoted in op. cit., 2001, p. 100).

That summer Avery also received a visit from the influential art critic Clement Greenberg, who was in town over the Labor Day weekend visiting the artist Hans Hofmann. Greenberg was greatly impacted by what he saw in Avery’s paintings and dedicated a lengthy article in Arts magazine later that year. For Greenberg, Avery’s work presaged the chromatic harmonies of the Color Field painters of the 1960s. As Robert Hobbs reminds us, it should be noted that Avery was painting in a color field style long before Clement Greenberg “discovered” Helen Frankenthaler in 1953, “painting in luminous, transparent washes that reinforced the flatness of the canvas” (R. Hobbs, quoted in op. cit., 2001, p. 15), and during that summer in Provincetown, his paintings became even more abstracted, in dialogue with Rothko and Gottlieb.

Avery was an artist who constantly influenced and evolved through the decades. White Moon embodies the culmination of his decades long artistic journey and his powerful legacy. In the opening lines of his eulogy, Rothko astutely and directly said of Avery, “I would like to say a few words about the greatness of Milton Avery. This conviction of greatness, the feeling that one was in the presence of great events, was immediate on encountering his work. It was true for many of us who were younger, questioning and looking for an anchor. This conviction has never faltered. It has persisted, and has been reinforced through the passing decades and the passing fashions” (M. Rothko, quoted in 1965, reprinted in R. Hobbs, op. cit., 2001, p. 9).

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