The modern nature of Milton Avery's style is all the more impressive when considering the atmosphere in which he developed. Avery matured as a painter at a time when most artists in America felt obliged to devote their work to the Depression economy, the world wars and the country's related harrowing state of affairs. As Alfred Jensen noted when describing the artist's impact on 20th century American painting, "Avery brought color to America." (Alfred Jensen to Edward Downe; quoted by Barbara Haskell in Milton Avery, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982)
Avery's bold use of color in Aquarium is perhaps the most characteristic and striking feature of the work. Executed in 1948, Aquarium draws in part from his admiration of the work of Matisse, while transforming his style into a new vision. "Although Avery's awareness of Matisse's work had precedented his affiliation in 1935 with the Valentine Gallery, his new alliance with Matisse's American dealer revitalized his interest in an artist whose sensibilities were much like his own. Matisse had written earlier that "Fauvism came into being because we suddenly wanted to abandon the imitation of the local colors of nature and sought by experimenting with pure color to obtain increasingly powerful - obviously instantaneous - effects, and also to achieve greater luminosity.' A similar desire impelled Avery, whose own commitment to color and to form reduction had been firmly established early in his careerEssentially, Matisse's example gave Avery license to extend the concerns he was already pursuing. His color after 1940 became much bolder as he created the mood of a situation by discarding the constraints of naturalistic hues and favoring a saturated, non-naturalistic palette." (B. Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 72).
Matisse's example catapulted Avery into further experimentation with color, and in Aquarium one can see that Avery's frame of mind is entirely liberated. He makes use of magenta as an audacious backdrop for the multihued fish that occupy the center of Aquarium's canvas. The use of magenta here may well be a reference to the same color in Matisse's identically themed Fish Bowl. However, Avery uses this vivid color and a dramatic lime green to achieve an entirely different affect than other artists, including Matisse, had done in the past. Contrary to Matisse and the Fauvists of Europe, Avery's radiant colors and striking color contrasts are completely free of aggressive force. Even though Avery's canvas are laden with intense hues and harshly oversimplified shapes, he uniformly achieved the effect of a world of tranquillity and subdued emotions.
Though Avery discounted any influence of Matisse (he felt pigeonholed by the comparison), it is undeniable that Avery understood the way Matisse used simple broad shapes and spectacular colors. Avery's ability is apparent in the way he interprets the Fauvists' range of color, but his true genius as an artist resides in his transformation of their vision. Even with the highly saturated palette of colors and exaggerated figures, in Aquarium, Avery's distinguishing serenity perseveres.
This work will be included in Dr. Marla Price's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Milton Avery.