In the new art we can trace two main currents; in one synthesis predominates, in the other analysis; the latter preponderates enormously. Indeed, this is the direction in which abstract art has tended to develop ever since the Renaissance.
—Julius Meier-Graefe, 1908

Why talk when you can paint?
—Milton Avery

My first acquaintance with the work of Milton Avery (1885–1965) was indirect. In Christmas 1982, a color-rich, half-abstract landscape of a mountain scene—a catalogue-cover reproduction of it anyway—landed on my parents’ coffee table. At this point, the total understanding of my world encompassed 1) the five blocks around my apartment, 2) the television lineup of Channel Thirteen, and 3) Central Park. To this was added 4) Red Rock Falls (1947) from 1982’s Avery retrospective, prepared by Barbara Haskell for the Whitney Museum. Avery’s waterfall flowed through my childhood with the drip of a bathroom faucet.

Until I started researching a show now at The Phillips Collection[1] (and I found that book), the whole experience was a sort of broken memory. There could be worse introductions to art than Red Rock Falls, or even its reproduction. Perhaps what I most remember is that I rarely grew tired of it; the ten thousandth glance was as engaging, or as frustrating, as the first. Red Rock Falls seems simple, but it refuses to give up its secrets. Depending on what you want art to do, I suppose, this refusal can either be construed as a painting’s greatest compliment or its harshest critique.

Red Rock Falls is made up of six fields of color: blue (water), purple (riverbank), brown (cliff), orange (hill), green (mountains), and pink (sky)—the image of the actual painting, which is in the Milwaukee Art Museum, so blends into the memory of my faded, sun-damaged reproduction that you must bear with me. A pattern of cross-hatches—not too regular—runs though the orange and brown regions. The blue varies as the waterfall joins the river, but other than that the colors are creamy and slightly mottled yet distinct from one another. The riverbank relaxes in its purple splendor all the way up to the foothills of the green mountains, which rub against the pink sky. The brown cliffs slip between the orange hill and the blue river.

The shapes tease at one another. The sky presses down on the mountains, which are packed against the hill. The riverbank sprawls out and pokes left into the narrowing river. This river does not so much flow down as shoot up, from lower left to upper right. It widens at one corner to form a body that thins into an attenuated neck (choked at its most vulnerable spot by the riverbank). This neck then leads to a head—the waterfall—that sits up and forms the flattest part of the canvas, here in the shape of a C. The notch in the C might be the river flowing around a rock in the cliff face. It might just as well be a mouth, wide open and yelling. (Is it because of the pushy riverbank? Is it shouting over the noise of the falls? Could it be producing the noise of the falls itself?) The brown cliffs hang down around this head like a mat of hair. The red hillside to its left: a fancy veil fluttering in the breeze.

That might be Wednesday. On Thursday, that head could become a hand reaching up to grab the green mountain—or is it holding it back? On Friday, back to the head again, but this time of a monster. Saturday is something different: the river becomes sky as seen though the beak of a tropical bird, a detailed closeup of Toucan Sam facing left, flat as a pancake. And on Sunday? It is a waterfall flowing over red rocks. Such are some conscious impressions. The corners of my eyes have their own, no doubt wilder, thoughts on the matter.

Milton Avery was fond of saying “Why talk when you can paint?” The quip sounds like a toss-off—a Yankee way of shushing the room. But I doubt whether Avery could have offered a more forthright statement about his artistic position. In Avery’s case, I think, the reasons went beyond New England reticence. He believed that his paintings said everything he needed to say, and that was that.

There lies a deep urgency in what Avery could create. The passage of time has only helped flesh out these qualities. While much of what seemed avant-garde in the past looks dated, Avery still resonates. The history of art is not a series of facts, of course, but a battleground of styles. How did this play out in the art of the twentieth century? On one side: tone, volume, depth, illusion, narrative, and an art that is as much literary as aesthetic. The opposing style: based in color, spiritual in an entirely different manner (one might say non-evangelical), and rooted most directly in Symbolism, synesthesia, tone poetry, and the art of the 1890s. Here the unity of painting predominates. The interlocking flatness and harmonies of shape and color take precedence over subject matter. The painting itself is subject matter. Within this vein, most notably as a colorist, Milton Avery has proved to be a central figure in twentieth-century art.

When Social Realism was riding high in art in the 1930s, Avery once remarked, “Either I am crazy or they are crazy.” He might have said the same thing in the 1920s, surrounded by the nativist style of the “American scene”—following the collapse of modernist art as championed by Alfred Stieglitz and Arthur Dove—or in the early 1950s, when his younger disciples, including Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman (they all met him in the late 1920s and early 1930s), began writing manifestos to the Times and took up pure abstraction. It must speak to an artist’s continued relevance when he is supposedly “surpassed” on numerous occasions for completely different reasons.

Avery’s laconic disposition and lack of political engagement were often mistaken for simpleness. It is rumored that he never voted. In the late 1930s, he gave up a job in the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project because he resisted signing the obligatory pauper’s oath. John Maynard Keynes: no thanks. But Avery was not a social outsider or a naif. He was known for his keen sense of humor. He led what must have been the most stable family life of any artist in the twentieth century, due in no small part to the steadfastness of his wife, Sally. She served as the Averys’ breadwinner first by drawing sketches for a publication called Progressive Grocer and then, after 1940, as the illustrator for a popular weekly column in the New York Times Magazine called “Child and Parent,” for which she earned $100 a week. In 1925, the year they met, Avery moved to New York. He gave up his odd jobs in manufacturing, third-watch shifts at the Travelers Insurance Company, and the conservative art schools he had been attending around Hartford, Connecticut. In New York he dedicated himself to art full time. He was forty—an artist with no reputation, no money, no means of high-level employment, but he was someone with prodigious, unabated output. Although he joined the esteemed Valentine Gallery in 1935—the American representative of Matisse—and received stipends from various sources, Avery was never really a money-making artist, partly because of some predatory dealers. Roy Neuberger, for example, speculated at bargain basement prices on a cache of Avery’s work from Valentine Dudensing in 1943, the year Avery left the gallery. Neuberger soon turned the work around to great profit and cut Avery out of the deal.

In 1926, the Averys moved into an artists’ complex called Lincoln Arcade on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on what is now part of Lincoln Center (as it happens, a block and fifty-odd years away from that coffee table). Their next-door neighbor was Stuart Davis. Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Jacques Villon were familiar visitors to the building. Here Avery primed his own canvases and learned to thin his pigments with turpentine. It was said he could make paint last longer than anyone. The Averys regularly welcomed other artists at their apartment, including Gottlieb and Rothko. Both eighteen years his junior, these artists—along with William Baziotes and Theodoros Stamos—directly drew on Avery’s work for their own. With Rothko and Gottlieb talking through the night, Milton listened and sketched his guests. Sally cooked the hamburgers. Perhaps Milton was most talkative when he was reading aloud. This was his family’s common and affordable form of entertainment; the reading list included Melville, Proust, Thoreau, Stevens, and Eliot—not too shabby. On Saturdays they all went to the galleries. In the summers it was off to Gloucester, Massachusetts, towns in Vermont, the Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, or a road trip to Yellowstone and California. With their daughter, March, in tow, it could have been a scene out of Norman Rockwell.

Avery did not lead a storied public existence. This was not from lack of artistic passion, as some might claim, but from a completeness of vision matched with an intensity of discipline. He developed and matured as an artist, especially from 1940 on. Yet even as it appeared that his style—colorist, impressionist, always representational—was on the wane, as happened more than once, he did not stray from his general aesthetic direction. Hilton Kramer, who wrote the first monograph on Avery in 1962, remarked that it was “in Avery’s aesthetic rather than in his biography that the key to his achievement will be found.” Avery was so private that he falsified, successfully, the date of his own birth by eight years, relocating his birth year from 1885 to 1893 so as to court his younger wife. This detail was only uncovered in 1982 by Barbara Haskell. That white lie, she notes, was probably the only time this straightforward and one might even say modest painter exaggerated his lot in life.

If Milton Avery rarely discussed his work, the critics had no hesitations. His reputation was hashed out in the papers and the critical press with increasing frequency, especially from the late 1950s through his death in 1965 and after. For those seeking The Next Big Thing, Avery was chronically out of touch. He arrived in New York with what one might call a European style of modernism, not Cubism but more like Post-Impressionism mixed with the Hudson River School, just at a time when Stieglitz was closing up shop at his famous 291 Gallery. In the 1920s, Avery was a colorist when few wanted color; in the 1930s, he was a hazy impressionist when the world wanted hard detail; in the 1950s, he was a representationalist when all-over abstraction was the rage. Despite the bad timing, the critic for the old New York Sun, Henry McBride, was one of Avery’s earliest champions, writing over twenty reviews between 1928 and 1951. McBride often urged collectors to purchase Avery’s work and was influential in placing him at Valentine Gallery. He wrote of one show in 1936: “it is a fine and natural talent that he has, though not easily defined. He is a poet, a colorist and a decorator; so excellent in each of these diversions that he might exist on any one of them; yet I presume that being a poet will eventually be his strongest claim.” Edward Alden Jewell, the critic for The New York Times, was not so generous. He wrote in 1932: “The fact that Milton Avery sticks, season after season, to his mysterious—or, as the case may be, his mildly exasperating—paint theories, makes one feel that he is perfectly sincere. These often grotesque and sometimes rather gruesome forms of his must mean something pretty definite to him.”

Bad as this treatment was, the most lasting damage to Avery’s reputation came from comparisons to Matisse. Many critics considered Avery derivative of Matisse. Avery was certainly aware of Matisse because of their connection to Valentine Gallery, and McBride was in fact the first to make the comparison in 1940. One critic called Avery “the Matisse of puritanism.” Frank Getlein wrote in The New Republic in 1966: “The French Master wished to make an art as comfortable as a good armchair, and he succeeded. The American’s art is more nearly described as a swim in the ocean off Maine.” Sally Avery, in one interview, keyed in the differences: “Matisse was a hedonist and Milton was an ascetic… . That is the opposite of French sensibility. … Milton’s nudes are the purest nudes you ever came across, where … Matisse’s have an erotic quality.”

Sally Avery was Milton’s first critical champion and his best observer. She once remarked of her husband: “The subject of his drawing was not the object of his drawing. It could have been anything.” In a seminal essay on Avery in Arts Magazine in 1957, Clement Greenberg agreed and acknowledged that he once underestimated the artist. Comparing Avery to Dove, Arnold Friedman, Marsden Hartley (whom Avery painted more than once), and John Marin, Greenberg wrote:

Fifteen years ago, reviewing one of his shows at Paul Rosenberg’s in The Nation, while I admired his landscapes, I gave most of my space to the derivativeness of the figure pieces, that made up the bulk of the show, and if I failed to discern how much there was in these that was not Matisse, it was not only because of my own imperceptiveness, but also because the artist himself had contrived not to call enough attention to it… . Avery’s is the opposite of what is supposed to be a typical American attitude in that he approaches nature as a subject rather than as an object. One does not manipulate a subject, one meets it.

Ultimately, it was Milton Avery himself who let his interests be known. In 1931, he gave a rare interview to the Hartford Courant that, very early in his career, identified his position with pinpoint accuracy:

the canvas must be completely organized through the perfect arrangement of form, line, color and space. Objects in the subject matter, therefore, cannot be painted representatively, but they must take their place in the whole design… . To those who do not see the aim of the artist, the effect seems to be a distortion … but to the painter it is simply the result of a planned organization of all the elements that enter into a painting in the space of the canvas. El Greco elongated his figures for the same reason.

There have been many artists as well as critics of modernism who have shared these painterly concerns. The achievement of Milton Avery can be found in the way he was able to articulate his faith in “the organization of all the elements” with an economy of means and, more significantly, with his color palette—different from both Bonnard and Matisse. He crafted Red Rock Falls through an ideal of interlocking shapes and colors that, I now realize, allows for a special form of dynamism. Even its checkered hatchmarks, as though sewn with a piece of thread, tie this work together.

The mid-size show at The Phillips Collection, “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips,” presents a wide range of Avery’s oeuvre. Louis Kaufman, a violinist, played on the soundtracks of some of Hollywood’s most famous films, including Gone with the Wind and Casablanca; he was also the first person to make a recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” In 1928 he purchased the first work Avery ever sold, Still Life with Bananas and a Bottle (1928). He and his wife, Annette—who at ninety helped organize this show—developed a close friendship with the Averys that lasted forty years. During this time they received many paintings and sketches from Avery, and the two also sat for a number of portraits.

Paired to the Kaufman collection are the acquisitions of Duncan Phillips, who was Avery’s first institutional buyer. In 1929 he acquired Winter Riders (1929) from a dealer for his new Washington gallery. This is more significant than it may appear. One of the great ironies of American collecting is that while Americans collected the French modernists ahead of the French, Americans often ignored the American school.

Rounding out the show is a handful of Avery’s famous large colorist works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, on loan from the Milton Avery Trust. These canvases constitute a magnificent conclusion to the exhibition and shed additional light on the earlier work collected by Phillips and Kaufman.

What I noticed from this exhibition, some of it purchased for collection, other work received as gifts, is how haltingly and sometimes falteringly Avery’s style developed: Compare the Matisse-like portrait of Annette in a Green Dress from 1933 with the distilled forms of Annette Kaufman in a Black Dress. Painted in 1944, Black Dress looks new even today while Green Dress appears fussy and, yes, derivative. There are also many drawings, sketches, and some exquisite drypoints here, crafted on discarded copper plates from Progressive Grocer, that reveal Avery’s deft achievements in line, which often rival his skills as a colorist.

It is as a colorist, nevertheless, that Avery most influenced the artists and critics around him. Roger Fry, in Transformations (1926), rightly predicted the importance of color in the art to come: “as colour becomes incorporated into the integral plastic expression the principles which underlie its evocative power will claim a more conscious and deliberate investigation.” Hans Hofmann maintained that “Avery was one of the first to understand color as a creative means. He was one of the first to relate colors in a plastic way.” At Avery’s memorial service in 1965, Mark Rothko famously remarked: “There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush. For Avery was a great poet-inventor who had invented sonorities never seen or heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come.” With quiet harmonies of color and line, Avery’s lessons continue to instruct.


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  1. “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips” opened at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., on February 14 and remains on view through May 16, 2004. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 9, on page 25
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