Forty years ago, Sanford Schwartz wrote in these pages about the Milton Avery retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He wrote that it was “overhung, yet when you leave you feel that you haven’t seen enough, and that Avery himself has passed you by.” He struggled to reconcile the claims made for Avery (1885–1965) by other critics—the view of Avery as the true American scion of European modernism and one of our premier colorists—with his own impression of the paintings’ “strangled strength.” Schwartz wished for the inclusion of earlier pictures, which in “their murky and bumbling way... give the viewer what the Whitney’s show makes him want most: a flesh-and-blood sense of who Avery himself was.”
That envisioned exhibition is now installed through early summer at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, having arrived from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth en route to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Atheneum has made efforts recently to reclaim Avery as a Hartford son. (The Avery family moved there in 1898 when little Milton was a toddler, and he lived, worked, and studied there until 1925. In 1915, an exhibition included his work for the first time at the Atheneum’s no longer extant Annex Gallery.) “Milton Avery: The Connecticut Years” ran at the museum from May to October of 2021. It was an exceedingly fine, focused show. The current exhibition, simply titled “Milton Avery,” includes works from every decade of the artist’s mature career, seventy pieces in all. It fills three galleries that have been hung spaciously, with enormous care and due reverence.
Even as someone who takes Avery’s genius as fact, I understand how Schwartz concluded that Avery “didn’t see the sensuous substance, juice, or gleam of color. He never painted light—not a light that gives off heat, anyway.” The later, reductively modernist Avery uses color as tonal effect, isolated from every other possible use of color. The palette is, if not arbitrary, at least anti-referential. Figures are sometimes green, skies orange, the ocean pink. The subject of Rooster’s Domain (1948) is a handsome, distinctly un-chicken-like ultramarine.
The works in “The Connecticut Years,” however, showed Avery operating in an Impressionist mode with considerable skill. Their procedure derives not from Matisse, comparisons to whom Avery came to regard as a nuisance, but Millet. Landscapes like Three Trees and Early Snow (both 1918) have surfaces that shimmer gorgeously, exuding all the sensuousness you could want. Painted during hardscrabble times on boards and canvas scraps, they are the product of a hand that could have competed with any number of American latecomers to the plein air study. I think they would have moved Schwartz to a gentler judgment.
It wasn’t that Avery didn’t see the gleam of color, but that he came to see no point in recording that sort of phenomenon. The catalogue for “Milton Avery” records a new interview with the artist’s daughter, March Avery Cavanaugh, and grandson, Sean Cavanaugh, both painters themselves. The daughter recalls trips to Vermont as a child in the 1920s. The grandson, born decades later, interprets Avery’s artistic situation convincingly: “By the end of the summer in Vermont, he’s becoming tired of all the shades of green and starts painting the fields in bright reds, purples, and oranges. Those fields were never those colors—he’d just reached his limit with green.”
Avery was a reticent talker and left little record of the thought process behind his work. It feels inapt to expound upon it in retrospect, guessed at from looking at the paintings. Nevertheless I write on the authority of having painted quite a few landscapes of my own that the genre is possibly the most overmined of Western subjects, Impressionism having launched a perma-style that continues to be practiced by amateurs and professionals alike. Even figure drawing, which has a much longer history, seems to have more possibilities left undiscovered and more viability among the possibilities already known. One can understand how an ambitious painter like Avery, encircled by people like Marsden Hartley and Mark Rothko, might finally have tired of the colors of the forest and decided to start painting the trees cornflower blue.
Some of those color choices can make the viewer feel like he’s getting slapped around. This is particularly true of the figurative works from the 1930s and ’40s, which give the impression of having been left in the oven for too long—reds darkening all the way to brown, greens verging on black, blues creeping into gray, and beiges roughly the color of an adhesive bandage glowing like gold in the relative gloom. Young Writer (1942) is a case in point. The subject’s skin tone is a dingy shade of ham, and it repeats in the base of the desk lamp, which provides no discernible illumination. It doesn’t help that the gray outline around the forms is so angular and unflattering.
Things don’t get much easier in a similar picture from 1944, Two Figures at a Desk, though the palette has brightened. By this time Avery was in his late fifties and working in the manner for which he is known. The perspective on the furniture is smashed, and the figures have the grace of a pile of logs. The painting is organized around the most intractable of complementary pairs: the yellows of the models and the bench versus the violets of the clothing, wall, and desk. Even tinted all the way to pastels, the colors feel antagonistic.
No wonder that Schwartz came to regard Avery as “a man whose mental life is so filled by the techniques of the art he has seen that he never thinks to develop a life away from the job.” In 1971, Clement Greenberg wrote an essay that contrasted modernism’s “hot” aspect, its “enthusiastic and hectic side,” with its “cold” aspect, characterized by its “hard-headed, sober” side. Greenberg identified the “cold” side of modernism as its defining trait, noting of the “hot” side “that middlebrows have found it easier all along to infiltrate.” Avery was a consummate “cold” modernist. The passion with which he modulated the mauves in Two Figures at a Desk is undeniable, but one would not call it sultry. That creates an emotional remove. The forelegs visible in the painting within the painting are drawn with concessions to naturalistic form that I wish were applied to the seated figure’s knee or the standing figure’s head. But upon stepping back from the picture it becomes apparent that any change would injure the composition. That knee and that head look like handmade bricks for good reason.
One painting in the Atheneum’s collection proves that the indistinct rendering of Avery’s figures did not necessarily deprive them of personality. Husband and Wife from 1945 is a six-step tour of the color wheel, arranged in opposites: her blue blouse against his orange face, the yellow couch against the purple wall, the green armchair against whatever that red shape is lurking under the sofa. Tying it all together is an ashen houseplant on a black table in the middle of the room. If anything, the story is a little on the nose—the plant has two brittle leaves and neither evinces a trace of life. For that matter, Poetry Reading (1957) is as intimate as anything painted by Vuillard, and the work is a master class in how to maximize the coloristic effect of neutral hues. We may not come away from the exhibition with the fullest sense of Avery the man, but we get a complete sense of him as an artist, and we can be sure that whatever he saw, he saw profoundly.
Though Avery’s faltering health might have made scaling down more productive, camaraderie with Rothko and others drove him to expand. He simultaneously enlarged his compositions and emptied them, resulting in works like Beach Blankets (1960), which consists of five simple shapes and wants for nothing. I dare anyone to say that its six feet of width—with its rosy sands and yellow sky—casts no heat. Sea Grasses and Blue Sea (1958), of which the London exhibition will be deprived, could be a Clyfford Still homage, as ominous, craggy shapes arrange themselves across the indigo waters under the weight of a cerulean plank of air.
The exhibition’s thematic grouping is sensible and visually successful, but one mustn’t assume from the layout that the big, open landscapes conclude Avery’s working life. Reclining Blonde dates from 1959, and Two Figures was painted a year later. They are masterpieces of American modernist figuration. Two Figures achieves naturalness of drawing without sacrificing expressionist power, and the coloration is glorious, the figures composed of subtly altered near-whites that feel like a view in blinding sunlight, though in no manner resembling one. Hence the necessity of quotation marks for “cold” modernism. In hands like Avery’s, that coldness could burn as hot as anything.