I was surprised to see the announcement of Milton Avery’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth. While the museum is committed to collecting and showing works from the 1940s to the present, most of its major retrospectives in recent years have focused on contemporary artists. The exhibition by Sally Michel Avery and March Avery at the Jody Klotz Fine Art Gallery in Abilene coincides with a 50-year overview of Milton’s museum work. Although much has been written about Milton’s work, I am not familiar with the work of his wife and daughter. As I researched their work, I realized what is called the “Avery style.”
It’s important to note that for forty years, Milton and Sally have shared a studio in the small living room of their Manhattan apartment. Ever since they were married in 1926, Sally has supported them with commercial illustration commissions so Milton could paint full time. During the summer, the family – including their daughter March, who was born in 1932, spent years traveling and painting together. Milton was a very prolific artist, sometimes completing a painting in a day. Sally’s work thrived during the summer months. It was after Milton’s death in 1965 that Sally began promoting and exhibiting her own work.
Avery’s distinctive formal elements include innovative use of colors, simplified forms, and a flattened image plane in compositions. Technically, their process involved working from sketches created on the spot, as well as diluting the oil paint to create wide colored areas on the canvas. The thin color also allowed layered translucency in their works.
Milton’s early work shows the influence of European and American impressionism. Picture Flowering (1918) is characterized by a strong application of paint with large, textured brush strokes and a pastel palette. It wasn’t until a few decades later that he came to his own confident style. Unique was his refusal to adapt to the “ism” of the time; while his younger male peers embraced abstract expressionism, he remained true to his style. And yet, as he researched his own style, his color palette changed over the years.
An example of Milton’s development from sketch to final painting is exhibited Fox River Village (1938) a Little Fox River (1942). A 1938 sketch, drawn from the top of a hill / aerial view, has muted blue and green tones, depicting a stormy day at the beach. In the final oil painting, the perspective shifted to a more dynamic composition: simple lines define the trees in the foreground and the movement of the waves, and the whole painting is done in a vibrant green-green and yellow palette.
The 1940s and 1950s showed a shift in color, form, and compositional depth in Milton’s work. in Husband and wife (1945) a March in brown (1954), the pictorial plane is flattened and consists of simplified, figurative forms filled with colored blocks. Its unconventional use of color serves to provide the essence of the moment rather than to represent the object. in Husband and wifeMilton’s orange face and Sally’s green face together evoke a tense home situation. in March in brown, the body language of the female figure is restrained, yet it remains abundant in the shot.
Two later works by Sally and March use similar uses of color and composition. March work, Orange sand (1962), depicts two figures sitting on the sand facing each other. The background (sand) is bright orange, while the figures are painted in outline using shades of blue and green. Although the characters are close to each other, there is an emotional distance between them, which is expressed in part by their wary, hesitant body language. Sally’s Untitled Ibex, (1970) is an image of three ibex on a bright orange background. Sally painted the ibex with colored blocks — purple and yellow — and added the most detail to their horns. A flattened image plane is also exhibited here.
Sally’s poetic and lyrical work Five Birches (1977). This painting, created twelve years after Milton’s death, shows the confident development of Sally’s style. Using a typical Avery flattened space plane, the color palette is unique with a pink cotton candy landscape. The middle part contains layered patterns of green, yellow and orange with scratched texture lines. Simple organic lines form birches. March painted the same theme in her work Spring birches (1977). Her style is also uniquely unique; Although it uses the same pink background from cotton candy, the branches have more depth and detail. It is reminiscent of a whimsical forest from a childhood story.
Much has been written about Milton Avery’s influence on abstract expressionism and his friendship with Mark Rothke, Barnett Newman and Adolf Gottlieb. While Milton remained true to his compositional style, I found it interesting that some of his latest works had moved completely into the abstract realm. Maybe it’s because at the end of Milton’s life, Rothko spent several years with the Avery family, and their mutual influence. Shipyard by the sea (1959) show Milton’s departure from a recognizable object to pure color experimentation. Although the work is oil on canvas, the paint is applied in thin varnishes and reveals the canvas beneath it.
While most critics attribute Milton’s Avery style, it is clear from their work that Milton, Sally and March influenced each other. They were each other’s models, fans and critics. While Milton was said to be a quiet and reserved man, the family communicated through their art and art was the primary focus of their lives.
The Milton Avery Modern exhibition has a lot to explore. There are so many interesting works and my favorite was not available for reproduction. The beautifully printed catalog has an excellent essay by curator Edith Devaney of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Jody Klotz exhibition is worth a trip to Abilene. The exhibition catalog is available on the gallery’s website, but it is difficult to get an idea of the scale without a personal inspection of the works.
Milton Avery is on display at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth until January 30, 2022. Avery: Family heritage is on display at Jody Klotz Fine Art in Abilene until the winter of 2022.