HARTFORD, Conn. – There has always been a certain fluidity in our appreciation of the American modernist maverick Milton Avery (1885-1965). And this is not only due to the light, airy, daringly simplified, almost abstract paintings of sand, sea and sky that characterized his last decade. Avery was artistically unaffiliated, never part of any particular group or movement, which means that the publicity of his work fluctuates widely. It is always surprising to realize the range of his styles and subjects, and the opportunity to do so has been too rare.
Now one of those rare moments has arrived, with quite a few of Avery’s work featured in shows in New York City and Hartford, Conn. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford presents ‘Milton Avery’, a lavish overview of nearly 70 paintings (organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in association with the Wadsworth and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth). It is the largest since the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1982. In New York, Yares Art is celebrating the 50th anniversary of representing the Avery estate with an exhibition of 50 Averys; mostly paintings, with some watercolors.
And as a sidebar to these shows, D. Wigmore Fine Art has put on its third show of the work of Sally Michel (1902-2003), the Brooklyn painter who married Avery in 1926. She worked full time as a freelance illustrator for over 30 years so that he could paint full time. Her painting style was seen as a copy of her husband’s, but her contribution to its formation has yet to be fully recognised, especially his tendency to distill forms to their essence.
The Wadsworth show starts on a cringey note. The first work is a small oil on board from around 1910 with tufts of yellow and green leafy brushwork supported by trunks and branches whose thin, brittle lines suggest the use of a quill pen. Yaks. If that painting promises anything, it’s a future in greeting card design. But Avery, whose simplified use of flat, saturated colors would influence young abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman, pretty much acknowledged the problem: He called the scene “Spindly Trees” and went on to use lines more loosely and inventively. , making them a staple of his radiant, notational art.
The development of Avery’s use of lines is visible up close in a charming 1918 impressionist work, where the lines disappear into a richly colored palette knife surface. In two hilly vistas – “Moody Landscape” (1930) and “Fall in Vermont” (1935) – Avery begins to exploit the physicality of paint. Softer, thicker lines and fall colors suggest the influence of Marsden Hartley’s dark early landscapes, also inspired by Vermont. Then the thin lines return, softer and smoother, in 1945’s “Blue Trees”, an early adult painting; they almost seem to sway in the soft masses of blue and purple leaves of several trees.
If this seems like a lot of ground for a show to cover in the first 15 paintings, it is. The Wadsworth presentation is arranged thematically, divided according to traditional subjects – landscape, still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, figures and figure groups – as well as “Urban Scenes”, “The Breakthrough Moment” and “Color Harmonies”. Each of the first different galleries goes back to around 1930 and marches forward again, which gets confusing. Then, towards the end of the show, the dividing lines dissolve into one another, culminating in a final gallery of late 1950s and early 1960s works, when Avery enlarges his canvases, thins his paint and, for the most part, turns to uninhabited views of the sea, perhaps nature’s most abstract element. The few times he abstracted, however, he held back with a descriptive title like “Boathouse by the Sea,” which transmutes the orange, blue, yellow, and black hues of this 1959 painting into sky, water, sand, and shadow. .
Born to a working-class family in upstate New York, Avery grew up in Hartford and never really had an easy life. He left school at the age of 16 and took a succession of jobs – mostly manual labor – to help support his family. After his father’s death in 1905, he decided a job in commercial lettering would pay better and enrolled in a class at the Connecticut League of Art Students. The teacher encouraged him to switch to life signs classes; by 1911, he was listing his profession as an “artist” in the Hartford Directory, studying at night while working during the day.
In 1924, he met Sally Michel at an art colony in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She was 17 years younger than him, which is one reason he shifted his date of birth to 1893 around this time. After their marriage, two years later, their routine settled in a small Manhattan apartment. He painted in the living room – he never had a studio. She also worked ‘from home’ as we now say, as a freelance illustrator, including for The New York Times Magazine and Macy’s Department Store for three decades, and so was also able to care for their daughter March, who was born in 1932. on weekends, the couple visited art galleries and museums. Michel also painted, but only on board in modest sizes; she didn’t use a canvas and didn’t start solo shows until after Avery’s death.
Life was not easy for Avery and Michel, but its harshness did not affect his art. Avery consistently created soft, optimistic, deeply optical paintings that defined their own strip of no man’s land between representation and abstraction, rejecting both extremes through the use of simple shapes and saturated colors. (It wasn’t until the late 1950s that his job began to earn enough to quit her day job.)
The large ocean-oriented paintings of Avery’s last decade are considered his greatest works because they are closest to the pinnacle of abstract expressionism. But the shows at the Wadsworth exhibit and to some extent Yares testify that there are great Averys from every decade. He remained a unique hybrid, never settling in a niche, but constantly circulating, combining different proportions of cartoons, folk art, European modernism and American scene painting.
The 1941 Yares “Bus Ride”—which has slightly more late paintings than the Wadsworth, including his last—depicts the Avery family on a bus in New York City. Avery’s hair is wild and so is the spatial design in this strange fusion of American scene and folk art, with a touch of cartoons. In the 1931 “Seaside” at the Wadsworth, he places five figures on a beach on a grand scale, combining American Scene in a modernist meditation on pale colors. The ensemble is stage-like and feels a bit like a Shakespearean tragedy, or a Beckett farce, especially because of the startled expression on the main character’s face. It takes a moment for you to realize that the woman behind her is probably just zipping up her friend’s beach dress.
The view that Avery worked for decades to achieve a final blast of brilliance seems as antediluvian as the idea that he worked alone in a style that overwhelmed his wife’s work. First, they sat more or less on the hip, side by side, looking at and talking about art for 40 years. As other art historians have suggested, it may be impossible to see their style as anything other than collaborative, especially since Michel was an illustrator adept at abbreviating forms.
The 17 paintings in “Sally Michel: Reshaping Realism” in Wigmore include landscapes, still lifes, nudes and figures. They are not as soft as Avery, but they have a sharpness of composition and a bold color that gives them their own weight, tension and emotional strength. They affirm that without Sally Michel there would have been no Milton Avery, and not just because she took home the bacon for much of his artistic career.
Until June 5 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, Conn., 860-278-2670, thewadsworth.org.
Until July 30 at Yares Art, 745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, Manhattan, 212-256-0969, yaresart.com.
Sally Michel: Reshaping Realism
Until June 10 at D. Wigmore Fine Art, 152 West 57th Street, Manhattan, 212-581-1657, dwigmore.com.