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Milton Avery

American, 1885 - 1965

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Milton Avery (1893 - 1965) was a thinker, an observer, and a reader, not a talker. A largely self-taught artist, though always looking carefully at the art of others, he developed his own method of working and a style that uniquely straddles representation and abstraction. Although his paintings at first may appear naive in their compositions of simple, flat, interlocking shapes, they are highly evolved results of Avery's penetrating visualization of form and surface and his finely tuned sense of color. As Adelyn Breeskin observed, "He developed a style of his own, with no predecessors whose work closely resembled his, and also with no direct followers."1 Yet Avery did not come out of nowhere. His acknowledged influences were Albert Pinkham Ryder and Henri Matisse; he was part of a circle in New York that included Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Jacques Villon; he worked in artists' retreats such as Gloucester and Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Woodstock, New York; and close friends in later years were Mark Rothko and Adolf Gottlieb.

Avery's working process was clearly charted; he found what worked for him and did not stray from it even as his style developed. He began his paintings by making sketches from nature, attending sketch classes and drawing from live models throughout his life until poor health prevented it; from sketches he proceeded to watercolors, where the format of a painting emerged, but he did not begin to paint until he had mostly worked out the composition in his head. He then painted quickly to maintain the freshness of his vision, maintaining flexibility only to improvise in the choice of colors.2 Avery painted thinly, using transparent washes to give emphasis to the flatness of the canvas; contours were sometimes created by simple juxtapositions of colors.

Avery painted nudes frequently throughout his career. Between the 1930s and early 1940s, his nudes displayed flattened bodies with slight indications of shading, but by the late 1940s his forms as well as his colors had moved farther from reality.3 The nudes Avery created during his last decade show his ultimate integration of simplified shapes and forms. Contours and details such as hair, breasts, or fingers (if they are indicated at all) were drawn with uneven, hair-thin lines that waver and occasionally disappear, so that changes of color alone suggest boundaries. Many of Avery's nudes of the 1950s, such as Red Nude, were painted in a single flat color with little modulation of tone, showing his inclination during that decade to eliminate anything that seemed extraneous. In fact, Red Nude, which is composed of a severely limited range of reds, rose, hot pink, and orange, may be his most minimal, most sophisticated handling of the subject, for few other works have the same spectral glow.4 In Red Nude, small hints of light surround the figure's torso, so that the image nearly disappears in an overall radiance.

Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection, (2009), pp. 40-42.

1. Milton Avery, introduction by Adelyn D. Breeskin, exh. cat. (Washington, DC: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1969), n.p.
2. Robert Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, exh. cat. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the American Federation of Arts, 2001), p. 71.
3. See, for example, Blue Nude (1947), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
4. See, for example, Sailfish in Fog (1959), reproduced in Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, in association with Harper & Row, 1982), pl. 91.

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