Until 16th October 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the works of Milton Avery, one of North America’s greatest 20th-century colourists. Milton Avery: American Colourist is the first ever exhibition of Avery’s artwork on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work is full of carefully balanced colour, which became more harmonious and simplified as his career progressed.
Milton Clark Avery was born on 27th March 1885 in Altmar, New York to Esther March (d. 1926) and Russell Avery (d. 1905). His father was a tanner, and the family moved around a bit until they settled near Hartford, Connecticut. Avery attended school until age 16, after which he started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company. Four years later, Avery enrolled in an evening class at the Connecticut League of Art Students to learn “commercial lettering”. He hoped this would improve his job prospects, but part way into the course, he transferred to drawing classes and dedicated the rest of his life to art.
Avery’s early works, dating between 1910 and 1918, reveal the influence of American Impressionist painters, who produced impasto paintings of landscapes. Gradually, Avery began using thinner paint, making his paintings flatter and less natural. He also started using arbitrary colours, often creating a distorted reality. As he moved away from Impressionism, Avery stopped painting from life, preferring to make quick sketches on-site and return to his studio to recreate them in oil paint.
From 1920, Avery started spending his summers in the art colony of Gloucester in Massachusetts. Despite his aspirations to be an artist, Avery took on other jobs, such as construction work, to pay for his tuition. Avery could finally focus on his painting after meeting the illustrator Sally Michel (1902-2003) at the art colony in 1924. Two years later, Avery and Sally married and moved to a studio complex in New York. While Sally worked as an illustrator for the New York Times, Avery devoted himself to painting and studying the arts.
During the late 1920s, Avery began exhibiting his work, starting with the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1927. After attending several shows, the Philips Memorial Gallery purchased Winter Riders, the first of his paintings bought by a museum. The art style shows Avery was beginning to move away from Impressionism, although he still used some techniques, such as layering thick paint to create a sense of texture.
Avery and Sally continued to spend their summers in Gloucester until the birth of their daughter March in 1932. During the summer months, Avery sketched and painted beach scenes, but around the time of his daughter’s birth, he began experimenting with cityscapes too. At this stage of his career, Avery’s paintings still contained a lot of energy, such as Chariot Race (1933). The carnival scene is a stark contrast to Avery’s other landscapes, which have the typical layout of a foreground, middle ground, background and horizon.
After settling in New York with his wife and daughter, Avery became part of the artistic community in the city. He joined the Valentine Gallery and held his first solo exhibition in 1935. The attention he received from this and other small exhibitions helped widen his friendship circle, which included the artists Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The Averys hosted many friends and acquaintances at their apartment, where they discussed art and read poetry.
Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery daily, paying great interest in Avery’s work. Known for his prolificness, Avery often completed a painting every day, which inspired his fellow artists. Despite his popularity, Avery did not talk much during gatherings, preferring to sit, listen and sketch the surroundings. Many of the objects he drew ended up in future paintings, as did portraits of the people in the room.
Avery’s early portraits, such as March in Babushka (1940), which depicts his daughter wearing a headscarf, became less detailed than his earlier landscapes. Despite winning a prize for portraiture in 1919, Avery did not produce many portraits in his early years. After the birth of his daughter, he moved away from landscape to focus on portraits of people within cityscapes. This change also signalled a new approach to colour and form, which he simplified and stripped of any layers or sentiment. Yet, in 1947, Avery held his first retrospective exhibition titled My Daughter March, which emphasised his love for his family.
During the 1940s, Avery stopped creating formal portraits but continued to include human figures in his work. Most of these figures lost any distinguishing features, such as the faceless girl in Seated Girl With Dog (1944), whose face is split between light and shadow with two contrasting colours. Avery no longer used the colours of nature, instead experimenting with various hues and tones. By thinning the paint, Avery covered large areas of the canvas with a single colour, focusing on the shape rather than perspective. He used the tone of colour to determine the atmosphere of the scene rather than rely on intricate details.
Avery’s change of style in the 1940s established him as one of America’s leading colourists. In hindsight, he greatly influenced the next generation of artists, who moved on to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of modern art. Avery revealed the possibilities of colour, particularly non-associative or unnatural tones, in scenes of everyday life.
Toward the end of the 1940s, Avery’s health began deteriorating, and doctors advised him to slow down and stay home. Avery did not follow medical advice and suffered a major heart attack in January 1949. After a six-week hospital stay and months of recuperating at home, Avery returned to the art scene with an exhibition at the newly founded Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York.
In 1952, Avery took his first and only trip to Europe with his family. They visited France and the United Kingdom, documenting his journey through sketches. Many of these drawings made their way into his paintings, such as Excursion on the Thames (1953). Avery sat on the steps of the Tate Gallery (Britain) to make the preliminary drawings for this painting. When speaking about his visit, Avery said, “I was visiting the Tate museum and got tired and went outside for a few minutes and saw this excursion boat and made this small sketch, and when I got back to New York City I painted a big canvas from it.”
With March now a young woman, Avery and his wife felt able to accept invitations to undertake summer residences, such as at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1957, Avery spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he began creating large-scale paintings. The larger the canvas, the less detail Avery included. Instead, he focused on bold colours to draw people’s attention to the artwork. Yet, Avery still depicted some form of scene rather than a random pattern.
During the winter of 1959, Avery and Sally travelled to Key West, Florida, where the warmer climate was better for Avery’s health. During their stay, Avery completed several simplified beach scenes, such as Boathouse by the Sea (1959). Using only four colours, orange, blue, yellow and black, Avery created a sense of depth and perspective, although some people may need to know the title before the scene becomes clear. The large black portion of the painting represents the roof of the boathouse, presumably viewed from above by the artist. The yellow and blue represent the sea, and the orange is the sky. Either Avery intended to depict the sunset, or he used orange to contrast with the colour of the water.
Other seaside scenes feature less conventional colours, such as the pinks in Sails in Sunset Sea (1960). This painting differs from other works because Avery has included squiggly lines to represent the waves or ripples on the water’s surface. The choice of colour may not be as random as it first appears. Capturing only the two sailing boats rather than a larger scene, Avery has focused on the colours of the setting sun on the water. Whilst it may not be one of his better works, Avery’s thought process is still visible.
Avery suffered a second heart attack in 1960 and spent the following year recovering in New York. Most likely against doctors’ orders, he continued to produce paintings. In 1963, Avery was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Members are nominated and elected by peers, making it a great honour to be accepted into the Academy.
On 5th March 1964, Avery, now critically unwell, completed his final painting, Hills and Sunset Sky. The following day, Avery went into intensive care at Montefiore Hospital in New York. He remained there for the rest of the year, eventually passing away on 3rd January 1965 at the age of 75. He was buried in the Artist’s cemetery in Woodstock, New York, and his wife donated all his personal papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
“He was, without question, our greatest colourist. … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” So said the art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) in his 1981 book about Avery. Several artists thought of Avery as an American Matisse due to his colourful compositions, which echoed the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Critics initially disliked Avery’s work, claiming it was too abstract, yet when Abstract Expressionism became popular, they said his work was too representational. Due to these opinions, Avery does not belong to a particular art category. Instead, he bridges the gap between two art movements, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.
Avery was not a rule follower, which allowed him to experiment with his art rather than conform to the accepted standards of the early 20th century. Visitors to the Milton Avery: American Colourist will see the progression of Avery’s work from Impressionism to something not quite Abstract Expressionism. Some will prefer his early paintings and not understand why he altered his style, but others will appreciate his use of colour and his ability to express himself in new ways that inspired a new generation of artists.
Milton Avery: American Colourist is open at the Royal Academy until 16th October 2022. Standard tickets cost £15, although concessions are available. To guarantee entry, booking is recommended.
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