A singular American painter and his forever ignored wife

HARTFORD, Conn. — There has always been a certain fluidity in our appreciation of American modernist maverick Milton Avery (1885-1965)....


HARTFORD, Conn. — There has always been a certain fluidity in our appreciation of American modernist maverick Milton Avery (1885-1965). And it’s not just because of the light, airy, boldly simplified, almost abstract paintings of sand, sea and sky that characterized his last decade. Avery was artistically unaffiliated, never part of any particular group or movement, meaning the general awareness of his work fluctuated greatly. It is always surprising to realize the range of his styles and subjects, and the opportunity to do so has been too rare.

Now one of those rare moments has arrived, with much of Avery’s work featured in exhibitions in New York and Hartford, Connecticut. Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum in Hartford presents “Milton Avery”, a sumptuous study of almost 70 paintings (organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in London in collaboration with the Wadsworth and the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth). It is the largest since the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1982. In New York, Yares Art celebrates its 50th anniversary as a gallery with an exhibition of 50 Averys; mostly paintings, with some watercolours.

And on the sidelines of these shows, D. Wigmore Fine Arts mounted its third exhibition of the work of Sally Michel (1902-2003), the Brooklyn painter who married Avery in 1926. She worked full-time as a freelance illustrator for over 30 years so he could paint full-time. Her style of painting has been considered an imitation of that of her husband, but her contribution to his formation has not yet been fully recognized, particularly her tendency to distill forms down to their essence.

Wadsworth’s show begins on a squeaky note. His first work is a small oil on panel from around 1910 that features clumps of yellow and green leafy brushwork supported by trunks and branches whose thin, brittle lines suggest the use of a quill pen. yuck. If this painting promises anything, it’s a future in greeting card design. But Avery, whose simplified use of flat, saturated colors would influence early Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, all but recognized the problem: he called the scene “Spindly Trees” and continued to use the line more loosely and inventively, making it a staple of his radiant notation art.

The development of Avery’s use of line can be seen nearby in a charming little Impressionist work from 1918, where the lines disappear into a richly colored, palette-cut surface. In two rolling panoramas – “Moody Landscape” (1930) and “Fall in Vermont” (1935) – Avery begins to exploit the physicality of painting. Softer, thicker lines and autumnal colors suggest the influence of Marsden Hartley’s early dark landscapes, also inspired by Vermont. Then the fine lines return, softer and more supple, in “Blue Trees” from 1945, a first mature painting; they almost seem to be swaying in the soft masses of blue and purple leaves from different trees.

If that sounds like a lot of ground for a show to cover in its first 15 charts, it is. Wadsworth’s presentation is organized thematically, divided into the traditional subjects – landscape, still life, portraits and self-portraits, figures and groups of figures – as well as “urban scenes”, “breakthrough moment” and “color harmonies”. Each of the first galleries go back to around 1930 and move forward again, which becomes confusing. Then, towards the end of the exhibition, the divisions dissolve into each other, culminating in a final gallery of works from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Avery enlarged his canvases, lightened his painting, and turned mostly to unpopulated views of the sea, arguably the most abstract element of nature. The few times he dabbled in abstraction, however, he held back with a descriptive title like “Boathouse by the Sea,” which converts the orange, blue, yellow, and black bands of color in this painting from 1959 in sky, water, sand and shadow.

Born into a working-class family in New York State, Avery grew up in Hartford and never really had an easy life. He left school at 16, working a succession of jobs – mostly manual – to help support his family. When his father died in 1905, he decided that a job in commercial lettering would pay better and enrolled in a course at the Connecticut League of Art Students. The teacher encouraged him to switch to the nature drawing class; in 1911 he listed his profession as an “artist” in the Hartford Directory, studying at night while working during the day.

In 1924 he met Sally Michel at an art colony in Gloucester, Mass. She was 17 years his junior, which was one of the reasons why, at that time, he postponed his birth date to 1893. When they married two years later, they established their routine in a small apartment in Manhattan. He painted in the living room, he never had a studio. She also worked “from home” as they now say, as a freelance illustrator, including for The New York Times Magazine and Macy’s department store for three decades, and was thus able to take care of their daughter, March as well. , born in 1932. on the weekends, the couple visited art galleries and museums. Michel also painted, but only on board in modest sizes; she did not use canvas or begin to have solo exhibitions until after Avery’s death.

Life hasn’t been easy for Avery and Michel, but its harshness hasn’t affected his art. Avery has always produced soft, optimistic and deeply optical paintings that define their own strip of no man’s land between representation and abstraction, refusing both extremes through the use of simple forms and saturated colors. (It wasn’t until the late 1950s that her job began to earn enough that she could quit her day job.)

Avery’s large ocean-oriented paintings of the last decade are considered his greatest works because they are closest to the pinnacle of Abstract Expressionism. But the shows in the Wadsworth exhibition and, to some extent, Yares attest that there are great Averys from every decade. It remained a singular hybrid, which never settled into any niche, but circulated constantly, combining different ratios of cartoon, folk art, European modernism and American scene painting.

In the 1941 “Bus Ride” at Yares – which has slightly more late paintings than the Wadsworth, including its later one – the Avery family is depicted on a New York City bus. Avery’s hair is wild, as is the spatial design in this odd fusion of American scene and folk art, with a cartoonish twist. In 1931’s “Seaside” at Wadsworth, he spaces five figures wide on a beach, combining the American scene in a modernist meditation on pale colors. The whole thing looks and feels a bit like a Shakespeare tragedy or a Beckett farce, mainly because of the frightened expression on the main character’s face. It takes a moment to realize that the woman behind her is probably zipping up her friend’s beach dress.

The idea that Avery worked for decades to achieve a final burst of brilliance seems as antediluvian as the idea that he worked alone in a style that overpowered his wife’s work. First of all, they were more or less linked at the hip, working side by side, watching and talking about art, for 40 years. As other art historians have suggested, it is perhaps impossible to consider their style as anything other than collaborative, especially since Michel was an illustrator, adept at abbreviating forms.

The 17 paintings in Sally Michel: Reshaping Realism at Wigmore include landscapes, still lifes, nudes and figures. They aren’t as suave as Avery but they have a compositional sharpness and boldness of color that give them their own weight, tension and emotional force. They confirm that without Sally Michel, there would have been no Milton Avery, and not just because she brought home the bacon for much of her artistic career.


Milton Avery
Until June 5 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, Conn., 860-278-2670, thewadsworth.org.

Milton Avery
Through July 30 at Yares Art, 745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, Manhattan, 212-256-0969, yaresart.com.

Sally Michel: reshaping realism
Until June 10 at D. Wigmore Fine Art, 152 West 57th Street, Manhattan, 212-581-1657, dwigmore.com.

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