Executed in 1946, Rough Sea is indicative of the best of the art Milton Avery was producing during this most important period in his career, the mid-1940's when he fully developed his unique style. His works from these years greatly influenced the course of American Post-War painting, and have been directly related to the works of color field painter Mark Rothko, among many others. This shift in artistic direction has been attributed to a newfound financial freedom brought on by a relationship with the New York art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Through that gallery, however, came a more important influence on his work from 1944 onward: the high exposure to avart-garde art that Avery was granted by this partnership, as Rosenberg himself had brought a large cache of works by important European artists when he arrived in New York in 1940.
Barbara Haskell breaks down Avery's transformation: "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 within crisply delineated forms. The result was a more abstract interlocking of shapes and a shallower pictorial space than he has 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)
Describing the technique that led to a finished work, 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." (as quoted in D. Ashton, "Milton Avery," Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and After, Houston, Texas, 1981, p. 16) In the present work, Avery relies on the interaction of the dark color of the sea, the pinkish sky at the horizon, the white of the sand and surf, and the varied colors worn by the bathers to affect the eye's experience of the work.
In Rough Sea, Avery renders expressive figures through a strict two-dimensional design. He simplifies the figures and objects to the broadest possible forms, and invigorates these forms through careful use of color. "The characteristic attitude of Avery's figures is one of relaxation and repose...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)
This painting will be included in Dr. Marla Price's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Milton Avery.