Milton Avery (1885-1965)
The Music Maker
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1946' (lower right)
oil on canvas
40 x 32 in. (101.6 x 81.3 cm.)
Baltimore, Maryland, Baltimore Museum of Art, n.d.

Lot Essay

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 to become a cohesive whole. 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 1946, The Music Maker was executed during the most critical period of Milton Avery's career. In addition to their broad popular appeal, Avery's bold abstractions from the 1940s were highly influential to the development of Post-War painting in America and have been seen as critical forerunners to the works of Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, among others. Many scholars attribute the important stylistic developments in Avery's work that occurred at this time to his new professional affiliation with Paul Rosenberg's gallery. Avery's relationship with Rosenberg exposed him to modern European artists and their abstract ideals. Rosenberg arrived in America in 1940, bringing with him a cache of great works by important European artists that provided Avery with a new understanding of abstract representation. Barbara Haskell has explained these influences, "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)

A classic work from 1946, Avery has cleverly imbued The Music Maker with a lyrical sense of music and motion as the pattern and bright colors take on an expressive quality. The highly saturated palette of greens, blues, oranges and yellows seen in The Music Maker is representative of Avery's works from this period, as is his rendering expressive figures through a contained, plastic two-dimensional design. He simplifies the figures and objects to the broadest possible forms and invigorates them through his sophisticated use of highly saturated colors. In The Music Maker, Avery uses blocks of color both as expression and as a method of modulating space and suggests recession through the planes of color and their arrangement on the two-dimensional surface.

Rather than continuously working within this successful formula, Avery expanded upon it. "As the forties advanced, Avery's concentration on color and the simplification of shapes became increasingly intense. As before, color created the dominant impression and set the emotional tone, but now Avery's choices of colors and their combination became more striking and daring. Multiple layers of pigment were blended together into evenly toned areas marked by Avery's unmistakable color sense. Within these barely modulated color planes Avery created textures by scratching into the paint with a fork or razor, a process which reduced illusionistic recession by calling attention to the two-dimensional surface of the canvas." (B. Haskell, Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1982, p. 108)

Avery creates tension and balance through his selection and deposition of color. Avery uses complimentary and contrasting colors, shapes and patterns in The Music Maker. He balances the cool palette of whites and pale blue and pink with the striking bright blue, orange and yellow. The artist also employs his technique of scratching the surface of the paint to create texture, juxtaposing the smoothness of the orange wall with the textured black wall. He also creates contrasts in the shapes of the composition by apposing the smooth, curving lines of the sofa, violin case and two central figures with the angles of the room.

Though Avery discounted the influence of Henri Matisse on his work, it seems undeniable that he was inspired by Matisse's use of broad shapes to create depth, his preference for flat color over blended shades and his love of decorative patterning. In describing his working technique, Avery stated: "Today I design a canvas very carefully before I begin to paint it. The two-dimensional design is important, but not so important as the design in depth. 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 D. Ashton, "Milton Avery," Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and After, Houston Texas, 1981, p. 16) The Music Maker is a mastery of Avery's hallmark network of patterns and shapes, lending an expressive feeling to this work.

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