Royal Academy of Arts opens 'Milton Avery: American Colourist'

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Royal Academy of Arts opens 'Milton Avery: American Colourist'
Milton Avery, Two Figures on Beach (detail), 1950. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Private Asian Collection. Photo: Sotheby's © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022.

LONDON.- Milton Avery (1885 – 1965) has long been recognised in the United States as one of the most important and influential twentieth-century American artists. Avery’s compositions, taken from daily life and which include portraits and landscapes, are imbued with a colour sensibility, harmony and balance, which was to have a major influence on the next artistic generation. Avery played a vital role in the development of Abstract Expressionism through his close association with some of the younger exponents of the movement, such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb. His work defies distinct categorisation; stretching between American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, both of which had a significant impact on his oeuvre, although he was not formally associated with either movement.

Milton Avery: American Colourist at the Royal Academy covers the full development of Avery’s career. He was famously prolific, and this survey features a careful selection of around 70 works, including many of his celebrated paintings from 1910 to the 1960s. The last retrospective of his work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982 and this is the first solo exhibition of Milton Avery in Europe in a public institution.

The first section, Early Work, features work from 1910 up until the late 1930s, covering his main themes; the landscape, the city and the domestic. A number of these works have never been publicly exhibited before. The influence of the American Impressionists and Avery’s early appreciation of the landscape is revealed. Paintings include Blossoming, 1918 (New York, Milton Avery Trust) through to Fishing Village, 1939 (New York, The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation).

In the second section, Portraits, there are paintings of his family, friends and self portraits. Featured here is a portrait of his friends in The Dessert, 1939 (New York, Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)) and Self-Portrait, 1941 (Purchase, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York). From the early 1940s he ceased formal portraiture but retained the figure in his work.

A section entitled Innovation in Colour and Form charts the period of innovation from the mid1940s when Avery developed a system of flattening the compositional forms of his paintings into abstracted tonal planes. It was this development which established him as a major American colourist. His mid-career subjects include scenes of the quotidian; taking from the European Modernist painters the tendency to depict the ordinariness of the subject, and in doing so highlighting the work’s composition. Key works in this section include two portraits of his daughter March, Seated Girl with Dog, 1944 (Purchase, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York), and March in Brown, 1954 (Private Collection), as well as Husband and Wife, 1945 (Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art).

And finally in Late Work, paintings from the 1950s to the early 1960s reveal a continuing influence of European Modernism, particularly Henri Matisse, as Avery increasingly employed non-associative colours in his compositions. There is a strong focus on the landscape and a further paring down of the detail of the subject. These works show the extent to which Avery perfected his unique ability to balance colour and form in increasingly abstracted compositions, as seen in Black Sea, 1959 (Washington, Phillips Collection), and Boathouse by the Sea, 1959 (New York, Milton Avery Trust).

Having exerted such a profound influence on the young emerging colour field Abstract Expressionist painters, Avery also took much from them – with his scale increasing and these late works becoming less dependent on the figurative content. Mark Rothko said of Avery in his memorial address in 1965, ‘There have been several 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.’

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