The oeuvre of the American artist Milton Avery (*1885 Altmar US | †1965 New York US) not only spans a significant period of American art history, but itself impacted the development of modern art. Nevertheless, it took some time before his work received recognition. This was mainly because of Avery's modest character. He wrote virtually nothing, participated in no organizations, and spoke with such reticence that hardly any oral testimony was recorded. Instead of all the spectacular gestures, public swaggering, and promotional pronouncements that are so common in the art scene, Milton Avery seemed to have had no will to express himself in any way other than painting: “Why talk when you can paint?.”
Milton Avery was born on 7 March, in the small village of Altmar in upper New York State where his father worked as a tanner. When he was twelve, the Avery family moved to Hartford, Connecticut. It was here, at the Connecticut League of Art Students, that he briefly received formal training in art - sufficient to commit him to the life of a painter. The death of his father, two brothers, and a brother-in-law before Avery's thirtieth birthday, provoked in Avery a profound sense of the transitory nature of life. It left him with an unrelenting compulsion to work hard and achieve something. Despite his being thrust into the role of provider for a family of eleven, Avery's commitment to painting – once made – never wavered. While following the daytime program of the School of the Art Society of Hartford, he found employment at the Travelers Insurance Companies, where he worked the night shift as a file clerk.
During the last years that Avery attended art school, he summered in the art colony of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he was offered free studio space in 1924. Directly across the hall a young woman, Sally Michel, had also taken a room for the summer. Just out of high school and intoxicated by the romantic myth of the young inspiring artist, she immediately attracted the attention of the handsome older artist. The innocent summer idyll gradually evolved into romance. At the end of the summer, Sally returned to her parent’s home in Brooklyn, and Avery followed her to New York City in 1925, at the age of 32. His active career as an artist dates from that time. The background of Sally and Avery's courtship was the museum and gallery world. These places offered a profusion of visual experiences through paintings of various periods and styles. It was here that he first saw the dazzling achievements of French painting: the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, especially Gauguin and Bonnard, and the new work of Matisse and Braque.
A year later, he married Sally which was the most decisive event in Avery's life and career. Sally guided their relationship in a manner that created a supportive environment in which he could work freely, unimpeded by economic and social responsibilities. She allowed nothing to interfere with his work and his development as an artist. Their life, with their wide circle of friends, was a saga of warmth, work, and mutual respect. In reality, the efforts of two artists catalyzed the magic of Milton Avery's work – his own and Sally's. In spite of their modest means and the small apartment they occupied at Sixty-fifth and Broadway, the Avery's were welcoming and generous hosts. Their visitors included many fellow artists. Over many years, the small group of artist friends met once a week at the apartment of the Avery's to sketch from model and to discuss the subject of painting. Domestic life provided him with many subjects: friends, family, places, and objects that comprised his personal universe.
Two crucial themes in his work are the figure and views of landscape and sea. His portraits and figurative works, often abstract in their economy of means, are sometimes devoid of facial expression. Nevertheless, they remain completely individual personalities. Never deterred by a lack of money for painting supplies, Avery sometimes used makeshift surfaces created by Sally out of cardboard covered taut with linen toweling. Economy of lifestyle and economy of means came to characterize Avery's painting style itself. For example, friends recalled that he was thinning his oil paints with turpentine so meticulously that he could make a tube of paint cover more canvas than any other artist could.
Milton Avery was a keen draftsman for whom drawing was a necessity. Sally once declared, “Drawing for Milton was as natural as breathing.” Avery's drawings reveal an abiding interest in the figure itself rather than in its fleeting spatial motion. His apparently casual compositions have a disciplined grace and order. The effortless quality of these compositions is the result careful observation. He made hundreds of sketches with a felt-tipped pen or with ink in small notebooks, on scraps of paper, or the back of an envelope. They were brief and barely suggested compositions, with many color notations. These quick sketches were the source from which Avery developed many of his drawings, watercolors, and monotypes.
Through European influences, like Matisse, Bonnard, and Braque, Avery's drawing and painting styles emerged and grew. He began to introduce the simplified forms and flattened space that would, along with unmodulated color, become the hallmark of his later work. He applied layers of different colors on top of one another, allowing the pigments underneath to shine through, creating borders between fields of colors and harmonizing their accord, and balancing shapes and forms. Yet, beyond achieving flatness of color fields and abstraction of shapes, Avery never entirely gave up the real world and his work remained figurative as opposed to many of his contemporaries. His land and seascapes still conveyed the awe one experiences in undisturbed nature, far from artificiality of man-made environments, because his paintings were rooted in his love for landscape or people. Even in his most abstract paintings, he always worked from nature and never invented his subject matter. His interest was held by the immediacy of a scene and its momentary pattern and flatness of surface in which formal perspective played no part. He strived for the essence of a particular image, saying: “I strip the design to essentials; the facts do not interest me as much as the essence of nature.”
The 1930s were financially precarious times for the Avery’s. He exhibited his work frequently, but it did not sell well. Nevertheless, they kept summering away from the city in Gloucester or southern Vermont. He took fellow artists Rothko, Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb with him. Paintings from these summers show us water, boats, seagulls, reflections, rocks, and waves in a subtle pallet of aqua, deep blues, and green. He also began to experiment with a variety of media, especially dry point etching on zinc and copper plates. He seemed to find etching a perfect medium for his instinctive economy of line. Over time, his printmaking led to linocuts, woodcuts, and monotypes, all of which were an inspiration for the ideas and techniques he applied to painting. Just like the process of scoring and scratching the surface of a plate, he scored and scratched areas of color in paintings.
In the 1940s, Avery slowly began to secure his position as a major American modernist. His compositions became stronger, the deviation from traditional perspective more radical, and the paring down of his subject to its essence more daring. In 1943, Avery had his first one-man museum show. In 1949, he suffered his first heart attack. While recovering, he started to produce monotypes, a medium that requires rapid execution. When he took up painting again, he adopted an even more schematic style, applying paint in fine superimposed layers to create veils of color. He increasingly eliminated extraneous detail from his work and began focusing on the harmony of the overall canvas rather than the interrelation of its parts. In the late 1950s, his works came even closer to pure abstraction in their simplification. These works, painted in a larger format, were well received. Powerful critics finally offered their support, and Avery's sales improved. However, his health took a turn for the worse and he was unable to attend the opening of his one-man exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1960. A year later he was struck by another heart attack from which he never recovered. He died in 1965.
Works by Milton Avery can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C; the National Gallery of Art, Canberra; the Tate Modern, London; among many others.