Milton Avery was born in Altmar, New York and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1905 with his family. Avery received his formal training at the Connecticut League of Art Students while supporting himself with a factory job as well as a night placement at the Travelers Insurance Company. Avery’s early landscapes and seascapes of the 1920s have a light palette and atmospheric effect that is reminiscent of the work of the American Impressionists, Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) and John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902). Upon his move to New York in 1925, Avery encountered the works of Henry Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). As a result, he began to simplify his forms into bold areas of close valued color and his work became increasingly abstract. By the mid-1940s Avery developed a mature style that can be characterized by a reduction of elements to their essential forms, an elimination of detail, and surface patterns of flattened shapes, filled with arbitrary color in the manner of Matisse. Avery increasingly controlled suggestions of volume, in part by compositional simplification, so that his late canvases such as March on the Beach appeared quite flat.
Avery’s use of color and handling of composition were among the most sophisticated of the 20th century, and even though his subject matter was limited primarily to figure studies and seaside scenes, it was charged with the same type of controlled emotional tension felt in the work of Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). In the hands of both artists, even ordinary scenes are memorable.
At first glance, Avery’s figures and use of color appear childlike in their simplicity. In March on the Beach, a portrait of his teenage daughter March, he reduces what was a detail-rich scene to a few essential shapes and hues using an approach known as figural abstraction. Distracting detail is eliminated, allowing sophisticated relationships between color, shape, and line to be revealed. In his work, Avery diligently explored these universal elements that underlie our visual experience of the world. He ranks as an innovator in American art who inspired subsequent generations of American colorists, such as Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974). Though never associated with major artistic groups, he was nevertheless an important and influential figure.
“I am not seeking pure abstraction,” Avery once said, “rather, the purity and essence of the idea—expressed in its simplest form.” In Child’s Supper the artist reduced a domestic scene to simple, essential shapes formed by adjoining areas of carefully chosen color. By eliminating some details, such as the facial features of the adults, and providing others, as in the child, Avery introduced psychological complexity and ambiguity. This approach invites the viewer to decipher the painting’s “story” by closely examining the figures, their postures, and the ways in which color and line lead the eye to certain elements.
Have you seen Avery’s work at the NBMAA yet? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite painting by Avery? What do you think of his style? Does it help you appreicate the narrative better? Or does it abstract it beyond comprehension?