Ripe for (re)discovery: marvellous artist Milton Avery

It’s not often that I write about the visual arts, mainly, I suppose, because I suspect that most of you reading my posts know at least as much as I do about the subject, maybe more. But just occasionally, as happened with the Swiss painter Félix Vallotton or the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, I come across the work of someone comparatively unknown who I’ve never or barely heard of, and I am so enthused by the discovery that I feel the need to make a recommendation so that others can catch the exhibition. Such was the case this week with Milton Avery, around 70 of whose paintings can currently be found at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

I’d encountered Avery’s name just once before, when a former Time Out colleague who occasionally posts his own very impressive landscape paintings on Facebook mentioned that his striking use of colour might have something to do with his love of Avery’s work. So when I saw that the RA was mounting an exhibition called ‘Milton Avery – American Colourist’, I decided to check him out for myself. And what a lovely visit it turned out to be. Avery (1885-1965) may have been something of a late starter – he first enrolled in a life-drawing class at age 20, and wasn’t exhibited until he was 30 – but he soon made up for it in terms of productivity and quality. Though a figurative artist throughout who basically started out as an impressionist – the six small landscapes on display from the 1910s are exquisite – he developed a distinctive style that slowly but steadily worked its way ever closer to abstraction, so that large late works like Blue Sea, Red Sky (1958) and Boathouse by the Sea (1959) are not so very different from those of Avery’s younger friend Mark Rothko. Indeed, Avery was actually pretty successful and well respected in the USA, and regarded by some as having anticipated Abstract Expressionism; that said, the RA’s show is not only the first major retrospective of his work since one in New York back in 1982, but the first ever mounted in Europe.

Boathouse by the Sea, 1959

As the exhibition’s title makes clear, one of the most distinctive characteristics of Avery’s work is his bold use of colour (he is sometimes compared to Matisse). Even though, as time passed, it became less naturalistic, at the same time, as he progressively flattened his compositions, his imaginative deployment of colour was ingenious enough to suggest not just shadow but depth, mood and even, here and there, emotion, as in Seated Girl with Dog, 1944 (pictured at top), or March in Brown, 1954. But it’s not just his extraordinary palette that makes Avery’s paintings so intriguing and rewarding. There are also his mischievous play with perspective (City, 1928); his often surprising commingling of different techniques within a single painting (slabs of colour might be juxtaposed with unexpectedly detailed depictions of a hand or the hairs of a moustache, as in the portrait of Dikran G Kelekian, 1943); and his sometimes idiosyncratic sense of composition. He might include an oddly positioned, seemingly superfluous door-handle (Still-life with Skull, 1946), or embellish a picture of flowers (Red Anemones, 1942) with an incongruous little alligator, without choosing to make it fully clear that it was probably a toy belonging to his daughter. 

Indeed, there’s an awful lot of wit in Avery’s work, whether in the group pictures painted at the beach or in his own home, in the still lifes, in the pastoral landscapes or in the river pictures of the Seine and the Thames made during and/or after his only trip to Europe. (Avery was one of those artists who only painted what he saw or had seen, and who kept returning to the same kinds of subjects he knew from first-hand experience.) Sometimes the humour emerges from his vivid and expressive use of colour (indeed, one often feels, as with his paintings of oystercatchers and sooty terns, that the reason he chose to paint the birds was primarily because their high-contrast plumage appealed to him); sometimes from the body language and clothing of his human subjects (Twins, 1935, is a wonderful case in point); sometimes from the close attention he pays to a detail not central to the picture’s prime focus (the brickwork and fire-escapes on the building that forms the background of Still-life with Bottles, 1942, or the bathroom that sits to the side of Self-portrait, 1941). 

Self-portrait, 1941

Over and over, Avery’s paintings, whether in oils or watercolours, have the capacity to surprise; they nearly all succeed on more than one level. At first, a picture might look a little naive, even primitive, but then one notices a detail that will overturn any such impression; equally, it might look playful, even trivial, then further consideration reveals that it might also have something quite serious to say about its subject. In other words, his pictures, for all their apparent simplicity, retain a mystery that repays revisiting them. That mystery is what makes them feel so vibrant and fresh. And that vibrancy and freshness is why you should, if you possibly can, see the pictures at the exhibition, rather than online or in books. 

Beach Blankets, 1960

Finally, it might be wise to leave the last words to Mark Rothko. ‘There have been 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 nor heard before.’

Milton Avery – American Colourist continues at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 16 October. Pictures © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022, except Boathouse by the Sea © 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2021. Courtesy Victoria Miro and Waqas Wajahat.

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