10 things to know about Milton Avery

The artist’s commitment to combining representation and abstraction has left an indelible mark on generations of Post-War American painters


Portrait of American painter Milton Avery 6 January, 1961 in New York City. (Photo by Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images)

His path through the modernist art world was atypical

Born in 1885 to a tanner in a working-class family from Upstate New York, Avery began factory work at the age of 16 and studied evening courses at the Connecticut League of Art Students. He was only able to dedicate himself full time to art after marrying the artist Sally Michel, who supported him with her income as an illustrator in New York. Avery was by then in his forties. The couple painted together at home nearly every day until his death in 1965.

In 1943, he enjoyed his first one-man museum show at what is now the Phillips Collection, and then a major centre for modern art. Two years later, leading dealers in modern French art in New York, Paul Rosenberg and Paul Durand-Ruel, exhibited his work.

But by the 1950s, eclipsed by Abstract Expressionists and dropped by Rosenberg, Avery’s success was waning. One year, he earned only $50. He was then close to 70. At the time of a major Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective in 1960, the world was looking to pop art. It was not until after Avery’s death in 1965 that his work would resurge in popularity.

New York opened his eyes to European art

Avery’s bold colours and flat shapes emerged following his first encounters with modern art after his move to New York City.

It was there that he was introduced to European art for the first time, which undoubtedly precipitated his move towards abstraction. This exposure can largely be attributed to the artist’s working relationship with gallerist Paul Rosenberg, who brought a cache of great works by important European artists to America when he arrived in 1940.

He was one of America’s greatest colourists

Known as the ‘American Fauve,’ Milton Avery was inspired by French modernists, such as Matisse and Cezanne, who prioritised colour in their compositions. ‘I do not use linear perspective’, said Avery, as quoted in Robert Hobbs’s Milton Avery: The Late Paintings (2001), ‘but achieve depth by colour.’

Milton Avery (1885-1965), Woman on the Rocks, 1948. Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper. 22⅜ x 30⅜ in (56.8 x 77 cm). Estimate: $80,000-120,000. Offered in American Art on 18 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

According to early Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, as quoted in Hobbs’s Milton Avery (1990), Avery’s ‘colour actually achieves a life of its own — sometimes lovely and gentle, at other times startlingly tart, yet always subtle and eloquent.’

He paved the way for Colour Field painters

The Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman were devotees of Avery, and his late washes of luminous paint were a clear precursor to Colour Field painting.

‘His is the poetry of sheer loveliness’, Rothko said in his 1965 eulogy to Avery. He continued: ‘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.’

Later artists, including Alex Katz and Alice Neel, owe a debt to his subtle but potent approach to representation.

Milton Avery (1885-1965), Sleeping Nude, 1950. Oil on canvas. 26 x 42 in (66 x 106.7 cm). Estimate: $300,000-500,000. Offered in American Art on 18 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Nature was a muse

From 1920 onwards, Avery spent summers in New England creating art that depicted the natural world. His landscapes and beachscapes demonstrated the modernist flattening and minimising of form, striking use of colour and calligraphic mark-making for which he became celebrated.

The symbiosis between Avery and his Abstract Expressionist peers is overt in later canvases, such as Boathouse by the Sea, 1959, which features four near-horizontal bands of colour. In its lyricism, Avery’s work also conveys the emotion linked to place.

Milton Avery (1885-1965), Bucolic Landscape, 1963. Oil on canvasboard. 14¾ x 30 in (37.5 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $60,000-80,000. Offered in American Art on 18 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

The summer of 1957 was a turning point

Avery became a mentor and friend to younger artists Gottlieb and Rothko in the late 1920s. In 1957, the three spent a summer together in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which sparked important changes in all of their works.

That summer, a crucial visit from critic Clement Greenberg gave Avery a powerful new champion, while his work saw a further shift towards abstraction. He dropped preparatory sketching in favour of directly painting on the canvas. Local gallerist Nathan Halper remembers Avery remarking he wanted to paint larger works ‘like the Abstract boys,’ per Hobbs’s Milton Avery: The Late Paintings (2001).

Milton Avery (1885-1965), Startled Goats, 1957. Oil on canvas. 27¾ x 43¾ in (70.5 x 111.1 cm). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. Offered in American Art on 18 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

This cross-pollination led critic Hilton Kramer to write in The New York Times that Avery’s paintings ‘represent a more impressive achievement than Rothko’s, for they encompass a far greater range of experience and bring to it a subtler and more varied pictorial vocabulary.’

Family was important, but his art transcended the domestic

Avery always painted in his home, never in a separate studio, and his subjects were those people and scenes close at hand.

As Rothko commented at Avery’s memorial: ‘What was [his] repertoire? His living room, Central Park, his wife Sally, his daughter… his friends and whatever world strayed through his studio; a domestic, unheroic cast. But from these there have been fashioned great canvases, that...have always a gripping lyricism, and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt.’

He was not keen on ‘isms’

‘I never have any rules to follow’, Avery stated to Art Digest, ‘I follow myself.’ Not only did he not adhere to any of the prevailing movements sweeping America, he was also, personally and artistically, a very private figure, in opposition to many of the Abstract Expressionists.

Avery’s disinclination to follow fads, to come down on either side of abstract or representational tendencies, has given his work a remarkable longevity and popularity among artists in the decades since his death.

Milton Avery (1885-1965), Untitled (reader), 1953. Oil on canvasboard. 16 x 20 in (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in American Art on 18 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Monotypes helped him to paint again

In 1949, he suffered a major heart attack from which he never fully recovered. During a recuperation period in Florida when he was too weak to paint, he began to experiment with monotype printing, a fluid process by which images are quickly executed in thinned pigment on a glass surface, then printed ‘wet.’

This directness and simplicity of approach can be seen in the ambitious works he made once he was able to paint again in the late 1950s.

He had a good sense of humour

Said to have regularly joked (when asked to make a statement about his art, he famously would respond ‘Why talk when you can paint?’), there is also a lightness to Avery’s work that recalls the whimsicality of Paul Klee, an artist he admired.

As the critic James Mellow wrote in Art International: ‘humour is an essential element of Avery’s painting… It concentrates upon the odd quality of a shape, the quirkiness and the delightfully awkward surprises of an outline.’

Milton Avery (1885-1965), Artist at Work, c. 1940. Gouache on paper. 31 x 22⅜ in (78.7 x 56.8 cm). Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Offered in American Art on 18 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Mellow continued: ‘Persuasive humor of this kind — which makes a gentle mockery of Old Master conventions in drawing, substituting instead the direct, economic vision of a child — is rare in the usually solemn precincts of modern art. For that reason, it ought to be all the more properly cherished.’

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