Sale, Christie's, New York, May 23, 1990, lot 230
Private Collection, Florida
ExhibitionNew York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Milton Avery: Retrospective and Recent Paintings, December 1952
LiteratureDore Ashton, "Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Milton Avery,” Art Digest, New York, December 1952, n.p.
Born in 1885, the arc of Milton Avery’s career was synced to the single most important exhibition held in America — the Armory show of 1913. The event acted upon American complacency with shocking force. It also laid the groundwork for an artistic revolution from which an artist such as Avery could emerge. Avery has often been characterized as America’s Matisse, but he is more appropriately viewed as a maverick who understood his inner nature and had a definite vision as well as a preternatural determination from which he never wavered. A quintessential American artist, his independent spirit manifested in his art and on his own terms: big shapes, no emphasis on light and shade or heavy modeling, flattened, simplified interlocking forms and non-associated colors and color relationships.
In the years before a group of younger artists followed him with rapt attention, Avery was on his own. As if to illustrate the point, his wife Sally humorously recalled that, “he began sketching me a lot and he did this big figure — a seated figure. And the man who loaned Milton his studio…came in and he said, “Milton! You’re getting lazy. You haven’t finished this picture!” And Milton said, “But I have finished it.” That’s his, you know, I mean, “from my point of view it’s finished.” (Interview with Sally Michel Avery, November 3, 1967, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
Woman in Blue was painted during the hardscrabble years of the Depression when even the expense of a single tube of paint was a burden. Avery jokingly claimed he could make a tube of paint last longer than anyone. It was probably true. In any event, his response to that circumstance proved serendipitous and contributed to one of the most salient aspects of his genius as a pure painter — his unsurpassed ability to achieve glowing color through deftly brushed washes. Painted in the late 1930s, Woman in Blue is a work that revels in a richer tonality than many afficionados of Avery’s work may be accustomed to seeing. Yet it amply demonstrates the luminous transparency of which he was capable; evident here in the deep bluish-sapphire brushwork that envelopes the entirety of the clothed figure. But Avery is equally adept at demonstrating the effects of utilizing relative opacity relationships to great effect. Note, for example here how the generously applied opaque floral element ‘pops’ and draws the eye to the scumbled-white cigarette, and downward along the forearm to her fingers resting on the arm of the chair. It is undeniable Avery felt an earnest connection to Matisse when he visited the French master’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931. But it is his profound and sophisticated understanding of color by way of the well-known proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and his upbeat and distinct vein of humor that that sets Avery apart from all others.
The impact of his glowing color and simplified forms on the younger artists was not just impactful, it has much to do with the way we view these artists today. As Mark Rothko related, “I cannot tell you what it meant for us during those early years to be made welcome in those memorable studios on Broadway, 72nd Street and Columbus Ave. We were there, both as the subjects of his paintings and his idolatrous audience.” Would Rothko be Rothko without Avery? Probably not. But perhaps it is enough to pronounce the two of them the greatest colorists of the twentieth century.
Ultimately, Rothko’s poignant eulogy given shortly after Avery’s death in early January 1965 pinpointed what made his paintings so special: “Avery is first a great poet. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty. Thanks to him this kind of poetry has been able to survive in our time. This alone took great courage in a generation that felt that it could be heard only thru clamor, force and a show of power. But Avery had that inner power in which gentleness and silence proved more audible and poignant.” (Mark Rothko, Commemorative Essay delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, January 7, 1965, reprinted in Adelyn D. Breeskin, Milton Avery, 1969.)
Milton Avery, 1950, photograph by Consuelo Kanaga
Milton Avery, 1944, photograph by Arnold Newman
Milton Avery, “Sally Avery with Still Life”, 1926, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Milton Avery, “Nude After Bath”, 1933, oil on canvasboard
Installation view, Henri Matisse, Museum of Modern Art, first monographic exhibition, 1931
Milton Avery, “Seated Woman”, 1953, oil on canvas