Throughout his career, Milton Avery returned repeatedly to littoral subjects exploring them in a progressively abstract manner. Painted in 1956, Harbour is an important work in the artist's oeuvre that embodies the transition from his earlier, more figurative, style to the reductive abstraction of his mature career. This poetic composition manifests Avery's talent as a colorist and his ability to capture the essence of his subject.
In Harbour, Avery has reduced the composition to simple, almost primitive elements, which are composed of largely monochromatic forms. He flattens the space by interlocking these elements in a planar fashion. This heightens the verticality of the painting and expresses the vastness of the harbor, which is underscored by Avery's choice to extend the water to three edges of the canvas. He combines this technique with careful color relations and variegated brushwork. In Harbour, Avery employs deliberately uneven paint application in the single band of pale blue that denotes the sky to add texture to the surface and allude to the effects of light on atmosphere. The contrast between this subtle hue and the rich chocolate tone of the slightly undulating hills is striking. The shoreline and landscape are distilled into a single dual-hued form, with a thin band of olive running across the lower edge. This is the same color as the building, adding unity to the composition and securely anchoring the architectural element within the composition. The pier and birds are loosely rendered in a deliberately naive manner that incorporates sgraffito. The most complex element in the painting is the water, which consists of broad, loose strokes and dabs of charcoal gray layered over a thin wash of paler gray. This stylistic approach imbues the painting with vitality, creating a dancing surface that alludes to movement and the play of light on the water's surface. The deliberately thin paint application in areas also conveys the liquidity of the subject, while the thicker, darker swaths express its depth.
Avery often spent his summers outside New York City and 1956, the year Harbour was painted, was his third summer at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Founded in 1907, this colony for visual artists, writers and composers provided both he and his wife, Sally, with studios and it is most likely that Harbour depicts one of the lakes at MacDowell. As in many of his landscapes, Avery is not interested in transcribing the scene in this lyrical composition, and has deliberately removed the specificity of the scene through his refusal to include the unique details innate to the site. Rather, he is seeking to capture a more profound characteristic in Harbour, the fundamental spirit of the place. The work exudes the tranquility and serenity of its subject, transcendent and intangible traits. In discussing his work, Avery said, "I always take something out of my pictures...I strip the design to essentials; the facts do not interest me as much as the essence of nature." (as quoted in B. Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 148) With works such as Harbour, Avery is simultaneously continuing and actively transforming the tradition of landscape painting in America.
Clement Greenberg wrote in his 1957 essay on the artist, "Avery's is the opposite of what is supposed to be a typical American attitude in that he approaches nature as a subject rather than as an object. One does not manipulate a subject, one meets it. On the other hand, his employment of abstract means for ends--which, however, subtly or subduedly naturalistic, are nevertheless intensely so--is nothing if not American." ("Milton Avery," Arts 32, December 1957, p. 40) Avery's stylistic evolution towards greater abstraction in later works such as Harbour is his response to the complexity inherent in his relationship with nature as he continually sought to portray its essence.