American art before Pollock and Warhol is murky territory for most of us, a hazy cloud of provincial post-impressionism and dirty social realism over which the shadow of the Great Depression hangs. Grant Wood’s american gothic is the only work from this era that almost everyone is familiar with – a bald farmer with a pitchfork and his wife in front of a barn with Gothic windows – although that’s as much for the countless parodies, by the likes of The simpsonslike the painting itself.
Milton Avery (1885-1965) stands out in this dark context as a notable American modernist. This important exhibition casts Avery as a great colorist, a defining influence on mega-names like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, who paved the way for the unstoppable rise of American art in the post-war era. Yet he was also, as the show itself concedes, something of a maverick; an artist who has interacted with many important movements and moments, without fully engaging with any of them.
Avery’s background was far from privileged. Coming from a working class family in Connecticut, he left school at 15 to work in a factory. He took evening classes in epistolary writing before becoming interested first in drawing, then in painting. A series of small early landscapes show the obvious influence of European painters from Corot to Van Gogh, which he absorbed at second hand via imitative American Impressionist painters such as Ernest Lawson. Yet there is an assured touch to Avery’s feeling for light and space, impressive in a semi-professional painter who still worked at night as an insurance clerk.
The earthy colors and deceptively naive forms of moody landscape (1930) and Ox and cart, Gaspésie (1938) recall Christopher Wood, the English modernist who found his artistic identity in Cornwall. And Avery, like Wood and the other British performers in St Ives, felt furthest removed from the hustle and bustle; there are many beach scenes in this exhibit.
little fox river (1942), one of the posters for the exhibition, gives us an aerial view of a village on a beach surrounded by rough seas. It looks – at a glance – quite amateurish, with its winding waves and creaking trees. Yet the retreat of light and space towards the tumultuous horizon is very skilfully captured. It’s a quintessentially American modernist landscape painting that still looks fresh 80 years later.
Upon moving to New York in 1925, however, Avery tackled the urban world head-on. Coney Island (1931), with its massed faces that invade the New York resort town, gives a truly hellish sense of the city on the beach. Yet while Avery befriended the young Rothko, Newman, and another key Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb, he remained slightly aloof from the New York art scene, even when welcoming his future luminaries during arty evenings around his kitchen table. In Dessert (1939) he depicts the faces of the diners, all absorbed in each other, each treated slightly differently, from the masked to the relatively realistic, as if to emphasize the absurdity of the moment. Like most of Avery’s paintings, this is unlike any other art you’ve seen.
In self-portrait (1941), Avery paints himself with red ears, thinning hair and an angry mustache, like the kind of American neighbor character who is always busy tinkering in his garage – and this despite the oversimplified modernist composition. While the forms become flatter as his art progresses and the color becomes less realistic, a sense of human interaction, even drama, persists.
Husband and wife (1945) offers a beautifully harmonious arrangement of somewhat dark, washed-out color: the face of the affable, pipe-smoking husband is colored a brilliant red, while that of the wife is a sour, acid green. Behind the semi-abstract surface of the painting, one has the impression that a row is preparing; something you would never get from Avery’s great inspiration, Matisse.
Indeed, rather than imitating the gracefully flowing lines of Matisse, Avery lets his forms take their own often awkward course. If there are moments of slight awkwardness – I’m not crazy about Two figures on a beach (1950) – Avery’s art never feels overtly derivative as so much fringe modernism tends. And at that time, America was still very marginal in terms of art.
Yet in Girl sitting with dog (1944) Avery created a truly revolutionary American image, almost, it seems, by accident. The girl’s face, facing us, is reduced to a shield-like shape, divided into flat tints of red, where it faces the dark, and pale pink towards the light. The disconcerting anti-naturalistic effect seems both surreal and oddly prophetic of Pop Art.
The final piece finds old Avery vacationing on Cape Cod every year with Rothko and Gottlieb, under whose influence, according to the show, his work has become increasingly abstract. Yet Avery never completely moved away from the figurative. In Boathouse by the sea (1959), a diagonal line crosses three broad bands of shimmering Rothkoesque color, leaving the lower half of the painting immersed in dense, eerie black. While the painting could in theory be considered entirely abstract, it is impossible not to read the black area as a shadow and the yellow beyond as sand, with a sea of pure blue under a glowing sky.
While Avery here interacts with some of the great artists of his time, he does so entirely on his own terms. It is this determination to follow his own quirky path, while ignoring the gloom of the times he lived through, that leaves Avery’s art still fresh and essentially timeless. This makes this exhibition a joyful and invigorating experience.
Milton Avery: American Colourist, July 15 – October 16, 2022
From news to politics, travel to sport, culture to climate – The Independent offers a wealth of free newsletters tailored to your interests. To find the stories you want to read, and more, in your inbox, click here.