“One feels looking at an Avery landscape or seascape that the highest human experience is being alone and at peace with the land and the sea.”
“I like to seize the one sharp instant in Nature, to imprison it by mean 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.”
Pale Field, Dark Mountain is a striking ode to Milton Avery’s continued innovation and reinvention throughout his life. Painted during arguably the most important phase of his career, when his canvases began to release themselves from reality and pave the way for later artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, this scene of opposing natural elements builds upon Avery’s masterful combinations of color and form. The artist regularly returned to increasingly abstract landscapes, and by gradually doing away with individual elements and details, Avery was able to marry observational realism with chromatic abstraction to stunning effect.
One of a number of landscape works executed in the late 1950s, Pale Field, Dark Mountain reduces the vista down to gently undulating strata. A blue strip at the bottommost edge of the canvas gives way to the titular pale field, a flat, amorphous ribbon of wheat-colored strokes. In turn, the dark mountain encroaches upon the central plain, accompanied by a scumble of green forest and a swath of light blue sky. However, whereas the water, sky, and field lack any illusionistic qualities (and seem to actively eschew them), Avery’s mountain and its surrounding trees exhibit gentle strokes that anchor the composition in representation.
Based in reality, Avery’s landscapes evoke a feeling of nostalgic reflection and calm remembrance. Often depicting locations where the artist and his family visited or vacationed, works like Pale Field, Dark Mountain are visual studies in memory and place. By turning from realistic depictions, and instead embracing a more emotive style that borrowed from the French Fauves and German Expressionists, Avery was able to explore the world around him in terms of color and shape. As a stylistic precursor to artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, whom he befriended in the 1930s, Avery was one of the first New York painters to flirt with this chromatic abstraction. Continually simplifying his still lifes, portraits, and landscapes throughout his career, he set the stage for the later Color Field painters and their non-objective canvases.
Less concerned with the accurate depiction of depth and illusionistic space, Avery took cues from the work of Matisse, with whom he was a contemporary, and the primary conduit of the French painter’s style in the United States for many years. Hilton Kramer, writing for the New York Times in 1981, reminisced: “He was, without question, our greatest colorist…. Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect” (H. Kramer, “Our Greatest Colorist,” New York Times, April 12, 1981). Diverging from the accurate rendering of three dimensions, so lauded in the West since the Renaissance, Avery’s work abstracted the everyday into dynamic patchworks of opposing hues. However, whereas Matisse’s practice hinged on the decorative nuances of non-realistic coloring in works like The Red Studio (1911), Avery extracted contrasting zones of color from nature. Pale Field, Dark Mountain, like the 1960 work Dunes and Sea No. 2, distills the landscape into segments that intertwine and react to each other chromatically while still retaining a sense of place.
During the summer of 1957, while staying in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Avery started to work on a larger scale and dispensed with many of the ancillary details that rooted his work so clearly in representation. Paintings like Pale Field, Dark Mountain and Spring Orchard (1959) are indicative of this shift and highlight the artist’s purposefully nebulous depiction of reality. Working with thin layers of paint on each canvas, Avery held to the subject matter of his Realist forefathers, but pushed further into abstraction. Finding this dichotomy enticing, critics enthusiastically promoted this new work, which in turn bolstered support for a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1960.
Always nearing the point of total abstraction, Milton Avery nonetheless held on to representational subject matter throughout his career. Drawing upon his observations, he stated: “I like to seize the one sharp instant in Nature, 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” (M. Avery, quoted in Contemporary American Painting, exh. cat. College of Fine and Applied Arts, Illinois, 1951, p. 158-59). Avery’s career is a consummate illustration of the state of painting in the early 20th century. By challenging realistic depictions in favor of abstract surfaces and an emphasis on color, he primed critics and collectors for Color Field painters while also importing European techniques and ideas with a distinctly American quality. Works like Pale Field, Dark Mountain are a testament to Avery’s love of the Northeast and the locales he held dear, and at the same time exemplify the kind of painterly experimentation that brought New York to the forefront of the art world.