The present painting, Outdoor Painter, depicts Milton Avery painting his wife Sally. Executed in 1949, when the family spent the summer in Millbrook, New York, during a critical period of Milton Avery's career. Indeed, Avery's work from the 1940s has the distinctive character that we have come to associate with the artist. In addition to their broad popular appeal, Avery's bold abstractions from the 1940s and 50s exerted a highly important influence on Post-War American painting and have been seen as critical forerunners to the works of Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, among others.
Many scholars attribute the important developments in Avery's style 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)
Instead of sticking with a 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, New York, 1982, p. 108)
The highly saturated palette of greens, blues, pinks and yellows seen in Outdoor Painter is typical of Avery's works from this period, as is his rendering expressive figures through a strict, plastic two-dimensional design. In the present work, he simplifies the figures and objects to the broadest possible forms, while invigorating them through his sophisticated use of infused colors. "There are hazards in this approach to the figure, but Avery has somehow side-stepped the greatest of these, namely, a sense of fixity that would deprive his figures of animation. The characteristic attitude of Avery's figures is one of relaxation and repose. His women--most of his figures are female--read, carry on conversation, talk on the telephone, lie on the beach, or sit around daydreaming. They project a presence that, however disinterested, is far removed from the pictorial stasis that the artist's method might seem to hold in store for them. The reason, of course, is that Avery's color imparts an emotional drama, a weight of emphasis and nuance, that recapitulates on the level of retinal sensation whatever graphic complexities have eliminated in the process." (H. Kramer, Milton Avery: Paintings 1920-1960, New York, 1962, pp. 17-19) For Outdoor Painter, Avery has created tension and balance by painting complimentary and contrasting colors and shapes. He offsets cool greens and blues with striking bright yellow. Avery balances these shapes of color by juxtaposing smooth, curving lines with hard edges: Sally's large, round hat rests on her angular arms while the artist's rounded body stands next to the rectangular painting on an easel as a vase is placed on a square table.
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 describes the essential pictorial elements in Outdoor Painter and the best of his work in the 1940s, "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)