Painted in 1946-47, Siesta was executed during the most critical period of Milton Avery's career. Avery's work from the mid to late-40s has the distinctive hallmarks of simplified forms and blocks of color that characterize the artist's most notable works. In addition to their broad popular appeal, Avery's bold abstractions 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.
In Siesta Avery depicts a woman sleeping on a couch in a nonspecific interior setting. As is typical of Avery's mature style, he creates tension and balance through his selection of complementary and contrasting colors and shapes. Avery sets the highly saturated areas of red, blue, and yellow that represent the figure and couch against the earthly tones of the blanket and floor. He uses blocks of color both as expression and as a method to modulate space and suggest recession through the planes of color and their arrangement on the two-dimensional surface. In 1952, Avery discussed his use of color, "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 R. Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 51) Balance is achieved in the present work through the juxtaposition of the strong lines of the figure and the smooth, curvilinear forms of the couch upon which she rests.
Though Avery discounted the influence of Henri Matisse on his work, it seems undeniable that he was inspired by the French artist's use of broad, interlocking shapes to create depth and his preference for flat color over blended shades. Matisse described his approach to painting which could equally serve to define Avery's own technique: "Fit your parts into one another and build up your figures as a carpenter does a house. Everything must be constructed--built up of parts that make a unit..." Matisse further states, "The mechanics of construction is the establishment of the oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions." (as quoted in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, pp. 50, 53) On the topic of Matisse's influence, Barbara Haskell remarks "Matisse remained a major impetus behind his striking adoption of saturated, arbitrary color. Although Avery's awareness of Matisse's work had preceded 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...A similar desire impelled Avery, whose own commitment to color and to form reduction had been firmly established early in his career. But until his contact with Matisse's work, he had not totally embraced the Fauve attitude toward non-associative color, except in isolated paintings. Essentially, Matisse's example gave Avery license to extend the concerns he was already pursuing." (Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 72) In Siesta, it seems undeniable that Avery has assembled his composition according to Matisse's method.
Siesta is exemplary of Avery's paintings from the 1940s and includes all of the hallmarks that are distinctive of the artist's best works. "I like to seize the one sharp instant in Nature," wrote Avery, "to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving apparently nothing but color and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea--expressed in its simplest form." (as quoted in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, p. 53)