HARTFORD, Connecticut — Our appreciation of the American modernist maverick Milton Avery (1885-1965) has always been fluid. And that’s not just because of the light, airy, daringly simplistic, almost abstract paintings of sand, sea, and sky that defined his last decade. Avery was artistically independent, never part of any particular group or movement, meaning public perception of his work varied wildly. It is always surprising to see the breadth of his styles and themes, and the opportunity to do so was too rare.
Now is one of those rare moments when some of Avery’s work is featured in exhibitions in New York City and Hartford, Connecticut Art Museum Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford presents “Milton Avery”, a lavish survey of almost 70 paintings (organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in association with the Wadsworth and Modern Art Museums of Fort Worth). It is the largest since the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1982. In New York Yares art celebrates 50 years of representation of the Avery estate with a display of 50 Averys; mainly paintings, with some watercolours.
And as an aside to these shows, D. Wigmore Art has organized its third exhibition of works by Sally Michel (1902-2003), the Brooklyn painter whom Avery married in 1926. She worked full-time as a freelance illustrator for more than 30 years so that he could paint full-time. Her style of painting has been seen as an imitation of that of her husband, but her contribution to its creation has yet to be fully appreciated, particularly his tendency to distill forms to their essence.
The Wadsworth Show starts off on a spooky note. His first work is a small oil painting from around 1910 showing tufts of yellow and green leaf brushes supported by trunks and branches whose thin, brittle lines suggest the use of a quill. yick If this painting promises anything, it’s a future in greeting card design. But Avery, whose simplistic use of flat, saturated color influenced emerging abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman, practically acknowledged the problem: he dubbed the scene “Spindly Trees” and employed line more loosely and inventively. making them an integral part of his radiant notational artistry.
The development of Avery’s use of line can be seen up close in a charming little Impressionist work from 1918, where the lines disappear into a richly colored, paletted surface. In two hilly landscapes—Moody Landscape (1930) and Fall in Vermont (1935)—Avery begins to exploit the physicality of color. Softer, thicker lines and autumnal colors suggest the influence of Marsden Hartley’s dark early landscapes, also inspired by Vermont. Then the thin lines return, softer and more supple, in Blue Trees from 1945, a precocious painting; they almost seem to sway in the soft masses of blue and mauve foliage of various trees.
If that seems like a lot of ground for an exhibition to cover in her first 15 paintings, it is. The Wadsworth presentation is thematically structured according to traditional subjects – landscape, still life, portraits and self-portraits, figures and groups of figures – as well as “Urban Scenes”, “The Breakthrough Moment” and “Color Harmonies”. Each of the first several galleries goes back to about 1930 and marches forward again, which gets confusing. Then, towards the end of the show, the sections dissolve into one another, culminating in a final gallery of late 1950s and early ’60s work, as Avery enlarged his canvases, diluted his paint, and turned to mostly deserted views of the sea, arguably most abstract element of nature. The few times he approached abstraction, however, he held back with a descriptive title like “Boathouse by the Sea,” which uses the orange, blue, yellow, and black bands of color in this 1959 painting in Sky, Water, Sand and shadows transformed.
Born into a working-class family in upstate New York, Avery grew up in Hartford and never really had an easy life. He left school at 16 and took on a variety of jobs—mostly manual ones—to support his family. After his father’s death in 1905, he decided that a job as a commercial writer would pay better and enrolled in a class in the Connecticut League of Art Students. The teacher encouraged him to transfer to the life drawing class; In 1911 he listed his occupation as “artist” in the Hartford Directory, studying nights and working days.
In 1924 he met Sally Michel at an art colony in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She was 17 years his junior, which was one of the reasons he changed his date of birth to 1893 around this time. After their marriage two years later, they established their routine in a small Manhattan apartment. He painted in the living room – he never had a studio. She also worked “from home,” as we say today, as a freelance illustrator, working for The New York Times Magazine and Macy’s department store, among others, for three decades, allowing her to look after her daughter, March, who was born in 1932. On the weekends she visited Few art galleries and museums. Michel also painted, but only on board in modest sizes; She did not use canvas and only began having solo shows after Avery’s death.
Life wasn’t easy for Avery and Michel, but his harshness didn’t affect his art. Avery consistently created gentle, optimistic, deeply optical paintings that defined their own streak of no man’s land between representation and abstraction, defying both extremes through the use of simple forms and saturated colors. (It wasn’t until the late 1950s that his work began to earn enough to allow her to give up her main jobs.)
The large, sea-oriented paintings of Avery’s last decade are considered his greatest works because they come closest to the pinnacle of Abstract Expressionism. But the shows at the Wadsworth show, and to some extent Yares, are a testament to the fact that there are great Averys from every decade. He remained a unique hybrid, never settling into a niche but constantly circulating, combining various ratios of cartoons, folk art, European modernism, and American scene painting.
In the 1941 “Bus Ride” at Yares – which has slightly more late paintings than the Wadsworth, including his last – the Avery family is depicted on a New York bus. Avery’s hair is wild, as is the spatial design in this odd mix of American scene and folk art with a touch of cartoon. In “Seaside” at Wadsworth from 1931 he places five figures spread out on a beach and combines the American scene in a modernist meditation on pale colors. The ensemble is theatrical and feels a little like a Shakespearean tragedy or a Beckett farce, mainly because of the startled expression on the main character’s face. It takes her a moment to realize that the woman behind her is probably just pulling up her friend’s beach dress.
The notion that Avery labored for decades to achieve a final burst of brilliance seems as antediluvian as the notion that he worked alone in a style that overwhelmed his wife’s work. First of all, they were connected more or less at the waist, worked side by side, looked at and talked about art for 40 years. As other art historians have suggested, it may be impossible to envision their style as anything but collaborative, especially as Michel was an illustrator adept at abbreviating forms.
The 17 paintings in Sally Michel: Reshaping Realism at Wigmore include landscapes, still lifes, nudes and figures. They’re not as polite as Avery, but they have a sharp composition and bold color that give them their own weight, tension, and emotional power. They affirm that without Sally Michel there would have been no Milton Avery, and not just because she brought home the bacon for much of his artistic career.
Until June 5 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut, 860-278-2670, thewadsworth.org.
Until July 30 at Yares Art, 745 Fifth Avenue, 57th Street, Manhattan, 212-256-0969, yaresart.com.
Sally Michel: Transforming Realism
Until June 10 at D. Wigmore Fine Art, 152 West 57th Street, Manhattan, 212-581-1657, dwigmore.com.