Milton Avery

American Painter

Born: March 7, 1885
Sand Bar, New York
Died: January 3, 1965
New York, New York
I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, colors, form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter. At the same time I try to capture and translate the excitement and emotion aroused in me by the impact with the original idea.

Summary of Milton Avery

A singular artist, Milton Avery defied stylistic trends and charted his own way through American Modernism. A quiet man who did not necessarily fit the romantic, bohemian notion of the modern, avant-garde artist, Avery boldly used color and abstracted forms to convey a unique vision of the American scene. Friends with the young Abstract Expressionists, Avery imparted his unique vision of the power of color to them, and in turn, he seemed intrigued by their explorations of the power of ambiguous, abstract compositions.

While often overlooked in the annals of American art, Avery was a touchstone not only for the Abstract Expressionists and later Color Field Painters, but also for more contemporary painters, like Peter Doig, who emphasize color to convey the moods of places and memories. While his reputation was often overshadowed, Avery's art seems newly fresh again.


Progression of Art



Steeplechase exemplifies Avery's early work and pays homage to the city he made his home. As his wife Sally explained, "The subway fare to Coney Island was five cents; with...our sketchbooks in our knapsacks, we could spend a fascinating holiday at the beach ."

Steeplechase was one of the three amusement parks built on Coney Island, as well as the longest-lasting one. Avery paints it as a slice-of-life, with bathers, families, and tourists populating the foreground. In the background is a tall wooden roller-coaster, a large sign advertising the park, and a covered carousel dotted with bright lights. Though he uses tones of deep gray and blue in the sky and muted pale gray for the beach itself, this is not a melancholy image; rather, it is one of joie de vivre, of delight in the city's leisure offerings even on a cloudy day.

Critics often deem Avery's work a fusion of the traditional and the modern, and this work exemplifies that assessment. The depiction of an urban scene is reminiscent of American painters such as Georgia O'Keeffe, John Sloan, and Edward Hopper, but like O'Keeffe, who heavily abstracted her work, as well as Arthur Dove, Avery deviates from realism to focus more on aesthetics than mimesis. The human figures are not proportionate, perspective is off, shapes are flat. Like both European and American modernists, Avery seeks to, as critic Hilton Kramer explains, "emphasize the essentially flat, two-dimensional nature of the painting surface " and explore the way color and light create atmosphere, mood, and allusion.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Artist's Wife

In this portrait of his wife Sally, which she considered one of her favorites, Avery's signature style of flat, abstracted shapes and effusive color is on full display. Sally sits perched on a small stool against a background of creamy blue-green. Her attire is vibrant - a crimson skirt, a yellow blouse, a violet sweater flecked with red, and a mauve hat perched jauntily on her head - and her face is slightly tilted, staring out at the viewer with a content and cerebral gaze. Though the colors are lifelike enough, Sally's facial features are simplified, her figure is attenuated and abstracted, and the image is totally flat, lacking dimension or modeling.

Artist's Wife is certainly a portrait, but like modernist master Henri Matisse, whom Avery admired greatly and was compared to often (though Sally herself said it best when she succinctly stated the major difference between the two: "Matisse was a hedonist and Milton was an ascetic "), the focus here is more on color and shape rather than the depiction of an actual likeness. Avery, as a representative for DC Moore Gallery noted, "[had] an independent vision in which everything extraneous was removed and only the essential components were left," and was aptly lauded for his "chromatic harmonies of striking subtlety and invention ." Avery may have modeled this work after a sketch from life he'd made of Sally, but as she explained, he was "particularly intrigued by the color arrangements which were tender and striking at the same time ."

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


Red Rock Falls

Avery's paintings from the 1940s retained and expanded upon his visual vocabulary of saturated hues, robust shapes, and flat, abstracted subject matter. Here he paints Red Rock Falls, a popular destination in Glacier National Park, Montana, in perhaps the least representational terms for what is ostensibly a landscape painting. The river is two painted swathes of cream and lavender flowing from the upper middle part of the canvas. It divides the hills around it, which are rendered in hues of scarlet, lilac, and earthy brown and green. The sky, occupying a small strip of the top part of the canvas, is a sensuous pastel pink. A closer look yields crosshatched brushstrokes in faded gold on some of the cliff faces.

Without the title to guide the viewer, Red Rock Falls appears almost completely abstract. Critic James Panero wrote that every time he looks at the painting, "[It] seems simple, but it refuses to give up its secrets ." This is a painting that necessitates a close viewing even as its simplicity seemingly belies that need. Like early Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, Avery plays with painted shapes and explores how their placement and juxtaposition of color creates a push-pull effect. Panero also notes, "[Its] ideal of interlocking shapes and colors...allows for a special form of dynamism ." Indeed, the painting resembles a jigsaw puzzle, which is perhaps Avery's witty way of reminding his viewer that the way any image on a canvas comes together is through both the eye and the mind.

Oil on canvas - Milwaukee Art Museum


From the Studio

From the Studio is a much-lauded Avery piece, featured prominently in the artist's 1960 retrospective at the Whitney and, according to auction house Heritage, is "a reflection of Avery coming into the fullness of his career ." It is both an interior scene and an outdoor one; the viewer is placed inside a room in the foreground of the picture plane, looking through a large opening onto a veranda that in turn looks out onto a lush wall of greenery. A small female figure clothed in austere, almost ascetic, garb sits on a settee near the window. As always, Avery's color is front and center here. He uses stark, deep shades like crimson for the carpet in the first room as well as black and white for the walls, and he continues the use of black on the floor of the veranda. However, outdoors creamy and soft shades prevail: the ground is a gleaming ivory, and the wall of trees is comprised of watery green with subtle brushstrokes of white and forest green to denote the foliage.

There is a subject here - a figure sitting just outside an artist's studio - but in actuality, the subject is color and light, their gradations and subtlety. There is light suffusing both the interior and the exterior, and it is almost like everything within the canvas glows. Avery also demonstrates his interest in variegated brushstrokes and color application, playing with large sweeps of color, thin, precise marks, and both opaque and transparent painted spaces. As friend and patron Annette Kaufman explained, "Milton was interested in pure painting. He wasn't interested in using paint as propaganda for one thing or another ."

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Black Sea

Avery and his family often spent time at the Provincetown beaches, and the lure for the artist was, as Sally Avery remembered, always the sea: "It was the sea, alternately black and mysterious or ruddy and gay that expressed the mystery and independence that makes its lure unfathomable. For Milton this was a subject to challenge again and again ." In this large painting Avery has three sections of pure color: an inky black sea at the top of the canvas, a small band of frothy white waves, and vast spread of warm taupe sand. No human figures disturb the image, and in its uniform, ethereal light it seems unmoored in time.

Black Sea is one of Avery's most abstracted works, and its ambiguous imagery and monumentality may be derived from the capacious canvases of Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko, Newman, and Clyfford Still. Flatness and simplicity predominate in the painting; the allusion to landscape is only discernible in the title and the organic colors and shapes, not in any specific detail or recognizable natural formation. Avery not only reduces painting to its essence but also nature to its essence - a wave is always an undulating form; the sand and sea are flat expanses. Critic Barbara Haskell wrote of his approach to painting consisting of a single firm rule: "Never invent imagery. He would simplify, flatten, distort, or chromatically abstract a landscape, portrait, or interior, but he never introduced elements into the composition, which did not exist in the physical world. He would not invent what was not there ."

Oil on canvas - Phillips Collection, Washington DC


Morning Sky

Morning Sky, a view of Provincetown, Massachusetts, is divided into two painted sections, the bottom section twice as big as the top. It captures the cool darkness receding before the sun's rise, hinting at the imminent warmth and light through a glowing pink band in the top section of the canvas and glimmers of white in a field of deep blue in the bottom section. Ambiguity abounds in this painting. Is the blue section the sea and the pink section the beach, with the two small rectangular shapes in the pink field being beach towels? Or is the blue section a grassy field and the pink the sky with rectangular clouds? Regardless of which interpretation the viewer favors, as Hilton Kramer explained, clearly Avery's "penchant was for images of surpassing tranquility and order. There is never a threatening or an anguished note sounded in his work....[It] encloses us in a serene and immaculate atmosphere ."

Of Avery's late works, there is perhaps none that look more similar to the capacious canvases of Mark Rothko. The two rectangles resemble Rothko's suspended veils of sheer color, and the atmosphere that the colors create is similarly meditative and tranquil. Avery's economy of form is readily apparent here; as Hilton Kramer further explains, the "structure of the image is at once very lean, very delicate, and yet very firm, with nothing tenuous or inexact siphoning off its energy ." Avery needs nothing other than a few brushstrokes to convey the peace and stillness of the morning.

Oil on canvas - Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Biography of Milton Avery


Milton Avery was born on March, 7 1885 in Sand Bank, New York. His family was working class - his father was a tanner - and he was one of four siblings. When he was thirteen the Averys moved to Wilson Station, Connecticut.

Avery was not involved in the arts during his young adult years, instead taking jobs in the fields of mechanics and construction. With the death of his father and, later, his brother-in-law, Avery found himself providing for his remaining female relatives. However, a year or two after he turned twenty he signed up for a class in lettering at the Connecticut League of Art Students because a magazine ad promised it was a route to make money. The class ended up being full, but Avery enrolled in a drawing course and soon became entranced with the arts. However, his family's financial situation precluded him from making art his full time career. He worked as a file clerk during the evening to allow him to take classes at the more prestigious School of the Art Society of Hartford, where he won awards in portrait painting and drawing.

Early Training

Avery moved to New York in 1925 at age forty and married Sally Michel, a fellow artist in her twenties, the following year. It was not until twenty years after Avery's death that it was learned that Avery, known for his rectitude, actually lied about his age to court Sally because she was considerably younger. She encouraged him to concentrate on art, and he enrolled in night classes at the Art Students League. There he studied the work of notable painters such as Édouard Vuillard and Henri Matisse, devoured art periodicals, and kept abreast of movements such as Regionalism. Avery, though, did not let himself be swayed by the artistic currents of the day.

Sally acted as breadwinner for the couple through her freelance illustration work, but this wasn't always lucrative. Sally admitted, "The struggle to survive was sometimes a little grim. But my firm belief in Milton's talent buoyed us over the dark days ." Avery's biographer Barbara Haskell wrote that the couple's "entire lives revolved around art; rising at 6 in the morning, they would often draw or paint straight through until dinner ."

Avery and his wife lived next door to Stuart Davis in the artists' complex known as the Lincoln Arcade, and Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia frequently visited the building. Avery also formed friendships with some of the most significant artists of the day, including Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. Rothko and Gottlieb were eighteen years Avery's junior and Newman twenty years, and all openly acknowledged their debt to his work. Critic Maude Riley noted the younger artists' affection for and admiration of Avery, calling him "a sort of institution " in the New York art world.

Mature Period

Beginning in 1935 Avery exhibited with some of the top galleries in New York, and by 1943 when he began showing with Paul Rosenberg, his career was in full swing. He attained critical acclaim, with critic Hilton Kramer lauding his skills as a colorist and others in the art world dubbing him the "American Fauve." His first solo exhibition was at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC in 1944.

According to critic Edwar Aiking, Avery "knew the value of leaving New York City to reinvigorate himself and his family ." The Averys often went to Gloucester, Massachusetts or places in Vermont, and occasionally Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery during these New York absences. These coastal sojourns proved fertile inspiration for some of Avery's most accomplished paintings.

Unfortunately Avery suffered a massive heart attack in 1949 and never fully recovered. His wife commented, "Life became much more important because he almost lost it. I think the very simple things he did were the result of having experienced such a dramatic event in his life ."

Late Period

As the 1950s dawned, Avery's reputation amongst the New York art world diminished. Rosenberg dropped him in 1950 and sold off his entire stock of Avery works to collector Roy R. Neuberger.

Despite such setbacks, Avery continued to paint. He absolutely loved Provincetown, Massachusetts and summered there in 1957-1960, making it the subject of many of his late works. He experimented with larger and larger canvases, just like "the abstract boys" he once remarked .

Though his reputation ebbed and flowed over the years, even art critic Clement Greenberg came around, writing in 1957 that he had underestimated the artist. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his work in 1960. None of this meant that Avery was wealthy, however; one year he was estimated to have made only $50.

Avery spent the last few years of his life in a hospital in the Bronx after suffering a second heart attack. He died in his sleep in 1965. His funeral was attended by over 600 people, many of them art world luminaries. His close friend Rothko spoke, noting Avery's "greatness" and deeming him an "anchor" for younger artists ; he also called him "a great poet inventor who invented sonorities never seen nor heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come ." Avery was buried in the Artists' Cemetery in Woodstock, New York.

The Legacy of Milton Avery

It is only within the last few decades that Milton Avery has achieved the wider recognition he deserves, but it is telling that some of his greatest apologists during his lifetime were famed Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Avery was an inspiration to them and many others due to his intuitive, impassioned use of color and his ability to convey landscapes and figures with minimal mark-making, free from extraneous detail or narrative. He experimented with thinning his paint and hand-staining his canvases long before the Color Field Painters attained fame by doing so, and he sought to promote medium specificity before Clement Greenberg made it a formalist rallying cry.

Avery straddled the worlds of representation and abstraction, never heeding prevailing art world trends that demanded he choose one or the other. Like his predecessor/contemporary Henri Matisse, he gloried in the application of paint to the canvas and pushed the boundaries of color, line, and form. For Avery there was poetry in minimalism, in the everyday. He strove to create works of surpassing serenity and delicacy, though his quick wit is often discernible in a patch of color, a funky brushstroke, or an attenuated line. American modernists of the 1930s, Abstract Expressionists, and Color Field painters are all indebted to Avery, as are contemporary painters like Mary Weatherford, Peter Doig, Claire Bremner, who see color as a main route to capturing the essence of a person, place, or moment in time.

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