Heading for the survey show of Milton Avery’s paintings at the Royal Academy earlier this week, I was uncertain what to expect. Milton Avery : American Colourist, suggested an artist attached to the Colour Field school of American second generation abstractionists – Frank Stella, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and (sometimes) Helen Frankenthaler – but when, before leaving, I turned to Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975, it was to find Avery present only among the biographies of other artists and none of his own work included.
The first of three rooms at the RA begins with several small landscapes, the earliest painted in 1918, when he was still living in Hartford, Connecticut, and, as the first canvas below suggests, very much under the early influence of Cezanne.
‘Setting Sun’, painted in the same year – and quite beautiful, I think – seems to show him beginning to move away from a rigid form of naturalistic representation towards a looser, more scumbled surface which allows him to delight in richness of colour and the effects of light.
Later landscapes, rather than building more directly upon this, show a growing interest in contour and line, the colour flattened rather than mingled and enriched, and suggesting some of the ways in which his work will change when he makes the move to New York City in 1925. Here he begins to find his way amongst the artistic community, taking classes at the Art Students League and, in 1928, being selected to show alongside Mark Rothko, eighteen years his junior, at a new gallery established to promote emerging artists’ work.
Back to those back pages of Color as Field. This is from the biographical notes on Mark Rothko …
“During this period (late 1920s into the ’50s) he became one of a small group of artists including Adolph Gottlieb, John Graham and Barnett Newman, who gathered around the painter Milton Avery. The group socialised and vacationed together and enjoyed animated conversations about every aspect of art.”
So there is Avery, the focal point, it seems, of this powerful and distinctive group of artists and their concerns with abstraction and the primacy of colour on canvas – the ways in which it can be made to ‘live and breath’ on the surface – what does he do? He flattens his colour instead of employing techniques to make it vibrate, and, without moving away totally from abstraction (Clement Greenberg must, by now, have been screaming from the sidelines) places the human figure – angular, geometric, largely faceless, but the human figure, nonetheless – at the centre of the canvas.
We’re in the second and central room, the one which holds Avery’s most distinctive and, for me, most rewarding work.
The use of colour is bold and distinctive, the contours clearly delineated, the composition as a whole deeply satisfying, both for its balance and for what it suggests about the relationship depicted. And if ‘Husband and Wife’ isn’t my favourite piece in the whole show, then it has to be the ‘portrait’ of his daughter, March, below. How he loved those shades of brown!
Abstraction, however, seems to have won out in the end. The figure was banished and the canvases grew larger and larger; the work from the last decade of his life is good to look at and easy to enjoy, but, I think, less distinctive. The very best work had been done.
Milton Avery: Colourist continues at the Royal Academy until October 16th.