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 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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
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 D.C.
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