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Milton Avery (American, 1885–1965)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter and printmaker. He spent his childhood in Hartford, CT, where he remained until 1925, attending art school from 1911 to 1919 and thereafter painting in the surrounding countryside. His works from this period are characterized by shiny, enamel-like surfaces, created by applying colours with brushes and a palette knife and blending them with his fingers. After moving to New York in 1925 and his marriage, he replaced the light-drenched palette of his Hartford paintings with sombre tones. He also stopped using an impastoed, palette-knife technique and began to brush pigment on to his canvases in thin layers. His figurative and genre subjects resembled those of the realists, but his technique of dispensing with illusionistically modelled shapes in favour of simplified forms and flat colours derived from European artists such as Matisse and Picasso (e.g. Harbour at Night, 1932; Washington, DC, Phillips Col.). During the 1930s, this simplification of form, coupled with Avery’s luminous colour harmonies, provided a model for a group of younger artists including Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. He also had the support of the Valentine Gallery from 1935 to 1943 and of the Paul Rosenberg Gallery from 1943 to 1950.

In 1944 Avery precipitously abandoned the anecdotal detailing and brushy paint application of his earlier endeavours for dense, more evenly modulated areas of flattened colour contained within crisply delineated forms (e.g. Pink Tablecloth, 1944; Utica, NY, Munson–Williams–Proctor Inst.). This mature style was heralded by a one-man exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1944. In June 1949 he suffered a major heart attack. While recuperating in Florida in autumn 1950 he began making monotypes, for example Leaves (1951; see Johnson, no. 41). Over the next two years he produced nearly 200 prints.

Avery’s paintings underwent a subtle shift following his heart attack: quieter, more muted colour harmonies replaced the vibrant hues of earlier work, while thin washes of paint, applied one over another, created veiled, slightly mottled fields of colour. A further reduction of compositional elements and heightened colour effects occurred when Avery enlarged his paintings in summer 1957 while in Provincetown on Cape Cod. By mottling his colour and tinting his paint with white pigment, he created shimmering rhythms of colour that were simultaneously opulent and pastel. In paintings such as Dunes and Sea No. 2 (1960; New York, Whitney) he pushed towards the farthest limits of pure abstraction without abandoning his commitment to working from nature. Serenity and harmony had prevailed in all of Avery’s work. Yet this work, more than ever, exuded a world of low-key emotions from which anger and anxiety were absent. These large canvases, perhaps because of their greater parity between abstract and recognizable shapes, elicited an enthusiastic critical response. As Avery’s reputation began to grow, however, his physical condition worsened to the extent that he could not attend the opening of his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1960. In autumn 1961 he had a second heart attack from which he never fully recovered.

Barbara Haskell
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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