Milton Avery: The American Colorist Review – Clean, Exciting Lift | Art

There is a portrait by Milton Avery in this surprising survey with the title Man and woman. She shows a couple who have gone from his apartment in Greenwich Village for the evening. Against subtle purple walls, the man leans back in his armchair, facing a bright orange as he raises his hand to make a point, wearing tight brown shades. His wife is all cool blue, arms folded as she reclines on a mustard yellow sofa.

The forms are flattened, the faces barely showing except for a few marks scratched into the paint with the end of the brush. But somehow, everything from time and space to mood is tangible. Purple speaks of shade, brown indicates velvet and tweed trousers that seem to go with the man’s powerful pontification; different blues indicate calmness to the point of withdrawal. Everything is spoken in color.

Modest, quiet, unassuming, with his extraordinary flair for color and his simplistic grace, Milton Avery (1885-1965) is a singular master of American art. He is also the most exemplary of late starters. Raised in blue-collar Connecticut, he left school at 16 and worked in factories for 20 years to support the women in his family after the sudden death of his father, attending night school to study art during all the time.

Avery was 40 before he started painting full time, 60 when he painted the pivot Man and woman, and almost 70 before he began the large-scale landscapes that are generally held to be the pinnacle of his career. These paintings are world famous by now; hymns to Connecticut in the spring and Vermont in the fall, to the architecture of spiraling spruce and trees clustered like sheep, while cows pattern the soft green fields like bright, scattered pebbles.

The Royal Academy show (with some 70 works, the most comprehensive ever held in Europe) is rich in every period and resonantly resonant. The Avery palette works on you in mysterious ways. A 1957 painting of two female figures on a couch, an open book between them, should disappoint, with its pale browns and ocher relieved only by a gray table holding a darker gray vessel. But it sings and soothes the eye, its curved forms intertwining like a gentle rhyme scheme. The painting is called Poetry reading.

The two women in his art are generally those in his life: Avery’s wife and daughter, both artists. Photos of their latest apartment, on the Upper West Side, show the three works in progress. Mark Rothko, like Barnett Newman, so deeply influenced by their oldest friend and mentor, recalled the scene in a speech at Avery’s memorial service: “The walls were always covered with an endless and changing string of poems and light”; that can stand as a description of this show.

Little Fox River, 1942. © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Avery thinned his oil paint to the diaphanous consistency of watercolors so that it lay on the surface in floating patches and veils. Sometimes he scribbled on it—the outline of a pencil or a funnel, a fleet of horizontal scratches that somehow appear like leaves on a rust-colored autumn tree. Sometimes the brushstrokes of one color merge with those of another to produce a soft frisson, as in a snow-white nude against a black background, where the overlay shines.

Although he creates the illusion of space almost entirely through color, a lesson clearly learned from Matisse, there is always a fascination with the underlying note. How to depict the bow of a boat’s wake as it shakes the water and cuts its surface (a wonderful hybrid of drawing and painting). How to tell the wood from the trees, painting the branches with all the wisdom of a Chinese watercolor under the clouds in luxurious colors. How to show the shine of a bathroom mirror with an almost invisible zigzag of brushes.

Drawings made in the summer, on the beaches of Maine, became paintings in the long winters of Manhattan. A sense of lingering warmth lurks in so many of these scenes. The beach is like a canvas for him; all figures, towels and deckchairs placed as abstract shapes on a multi-colored sand. Eventually these shapes disappear altogether, and the coast becomes a banner of horizontal bands—radiant yellow, blue, and orange at the top for the hot sky. It is not difficult to find parallels in these paintings with Rothko’s numinous extensions.

Blue Sea, Red Sky, 1958.
‘Radiant Orange on Top for Hot Sky’: Blue Sea, Red Sky, 1958. © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

But Avery never invented anything he hadn’t seen. Despite the fact that they stand on the verge of abstraction, his paintings are always figurative. Friends who read, talk, eat; Avery’s apartment was always filled with fellow painters, although he himself is said to have sat quietly with his sketchbook. His daughter’s toy alligator appears in an underwear; the view through the window to a neighboring brownstone in another. Color very often has a special presence alone – the yellow of a dress, the strangeness of a wall – like another character in the apartment.

Knowledge is everything. Avery’s long-suffering day’s work generally began at 6 a.m., repeatedly seeing the same world seven days a week. It’s only when he gets lost in places unknown, at least in this show, that the art goes awry. There are three surprisingly clunky early scenes from the 1930s here, including a gruesome painting of what appears to be a strip show.

The Averys left America only once, to visit Europe in 1952. The paintings resulting from that trip are exquisite in their palette of muted purples, grays and greens, balanced forms in the most elegant compositions. . A boat on the River Thames is depicted in two horizontal bars of pale pink and mint green shining from a voluminous black river. London is suddenly as mystically beautiful as Cape Cod.

Self-portrait with Palette, 1958.
‘Typically cheerful and self-deprecating’: Self-Portrait with Palette, 1958. © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

The smallest painting here is a self-portrait from 1958, taken when Avery was 73 and in very poor health. It is typically cheerful and self-absorbed. A handful of pencils means brushes, his signature is written on his pants, a name on each leg, and his body is a blue-pink haze with a red flame for a head. Nothing else. Just what Avery is: a clean, cheerful man of color.

Milton Avery: American Colorist is at the Royal Academy, London, until 16 October

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