Milton Avery (1885-1965)
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1946' (lower left)--signed and dated again and inscribed with title (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
32 x 44 in. (81.3 x 111.8 cm.)
Milton Avery Trust, New York.
[With]Knoedler & Company, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1999.
Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and After, exhibition catalogue, Houston, Texas, 1981, n.p., illustrated. Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Milton Avery: Mexico, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1983, n.p., illustrated.
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Milton Avery's Mexico, exhibition catalogue, Memphis, Tennessee, pp. 13, 32, no. 17, illustrated.
R. Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York, 1990, pp. 147, 151, illustrated.
Houston, Texas, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, and elsewhere, Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and After, August 28-October 4, 1981.
New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Milton Avery: Mexico, February 5-March 3, 1983.
Memphis, Tennessee, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, and elsewhere, Milton Avery's Mexico, June 30-August 5, 1984, no. 17.

Lot Essay

Cactus belongs to a small group of works Milton Avery painted based on summer trips to Mexico and is considered to be one of his best from the period. Mexico was enjoying a definitive pride of place in the United States in the 1940s, due in large part to the popularity of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros and a seminal exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York titled Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. The exhibition highlighted the Mexican folk art tradition which had drawn earlier American artists, perhaps most notably Stieglitz circle artist and Avery's friend, Marsden Hartley, to explore the region. The exhibition was also ostensibly designed to inspire American artists to build their own artistic legacy. Robert Hobbs writes, "The implicit aim of this show was to encourage artists in the United States to follow the example of their neighbors south of the border by innovating a distinctly original American style. When [Avery] went to Mexico six years later and used the country's local color and folk art as a basis for a group of works, Avery may have been responding to MoMA's challenge by showing that he could handle Mexican subjects and intense local colors without compromising the urban modernist folk-art style for which he was becoming known." (Milton Avery, Manchester, Vermont, 1990, p. 146)

Avery, as most New York City artists, made a point of leaving the hot, crowded streets of Manhattan every summer in search of more temperate climates and new inspiration for his varied body of work. While most of the artist's trips consisted of cooler locales along the Northeast Coast and Canada, Avery, his wife Sally and daughter March traveled to Mexico in the summer of 1946. They intended to explore Mexico City but were soon drawn to San Miguel de Allende, a small town in the far eastern part of the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico, based on the recommendation of an American couple they met in the capital. In San Miguel de Allende, which Avery found so profoundly colorful it was "impossible to translate," the artist made a series of sketches that would later be realized as important works back in his New York studio. As the artist Hans Hofmann noted, "Avery was one of the first to understand color as a creative means..." (as quoted in Milton Avery, p. 1) and indeed, Avery's work in Mexico seems to have elucidated this strength, highlighting his interest in color as a means of expression. The present work, Cactus, boldly juxtaposes cool and warm tones with the earth and sky depicted in hues that almost radiate its heat. The shapes of the cacti echo forms found in Henri Matisse's late work, with which Avery was familiar, and appear to sway and dance across the landscape, their rhythm amplified by the undulating outlines of the mountain as it meets the horizon.

Cactus is widely cited as being among the finest paintings Avery produced based on this short summer sojourn to Mexico. Robert Hobbs notes, "Among his major works of Mexico is Cactus (1946), which joins orange sky and brown and reddish earth with green, blue and pink cacti to create an engaging, high-keyed picture whose color choices appear logical and inevitable..." (Milton Avery, p. 146) Cactus was selected for the extensive traveling exhibition Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and After and was mentioned in the accompanying exhibition catalogue as "embody[ing] an exemplary mastery through which Avery achieves without technical flourishes, the maximum visual expression." (Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and After, New York, 1981, p. 21)

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