Milton Avery’s place in art history isn’t clear cut. Lauded as a preeminent colorist able to alchemically synthesize his palette, he is often described in terms of what he borrows from Henri Matisse or lends to Mark Rothko. “Milton Avery”—a traveling exhibition of 69 oil paintings, watercolors and works on paper on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, until June 5th—aims to chart the artist’s trajectory and contextualize his work for a new generation; Avery’s last major retrospective was held at the Whitney in 1982. Despite an occasionally uneven presentation, a hokey graphic identity and an ironic lack of color correction in the catalog, the exhibition succeeds at this goal. I left the museum thinking about contemporary artists whose work resonates with Avery’s rather than ruminating on his relationship to Matisse or Rothko—suggesting that historical classification is often a fool’s errand.
The first two galleries, which flank the Wadsworth’s towering atrium, focus on Avery’s development as an artist. Initial catalysts were his move to New York City in 1925 and marriage to the painter Sally Michel, both of which happened after he turned 40. Avery spent his teens and early adulthood in Hartford, where he studied to be an artist and showed his work locally, including at the Wadsworth. The Averys quickly ensconced themselves in the New York art world, frequenting exhibitions and developing close friendships with painters such as Adolf Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and Rothko. Michel worked as an illustrator during this period, which allowed her husband to devote himself entirely to painting. His style evolved from the Impressionistic en plein air paintings he made back in Connecticut to a more pared-down approach of simplified forms and a relative economy of paint. Many of these works, such as Seaside (1931), clearly prefigure his later style, but tentatively, as though he had yet to find exactly what he was looking for.
A transformative stay in 1938 on Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula, where Avery made more than 200 watercolors, was the next decisive moment in his trajectory. He made several oil paintings of the landscape from these works on paper in the ensuing years, a common process for the artist. The importance of the trip is showcased in Ox and Cart, Gaspé (1938 or 1939), one of the most striking works in the exhibition’s first two galleries. The painting has a blue cast to it, which infiltrates the various greens of the rolling hills, the dark expanse of ocean, and the ox, cart and maroon-skinned driver that collectively dominate its foreground. The flatness of Seaside is gone, but its lack of embellishment remains. Avery’s simple colored forms give this painting a rich depth that evokes a powerful sense of place. It feels like a magic trick.
The works on view in the exhibition’s final gallery expand on the strength of Ox and Cart, with Avery’s mastery of color now firing on all cylinders. The serpentine space begins with works from the mid-1940s, a productive time for the artist, and culminates with paintings made a few years before his death in 1965. As I wandered around the gallery, an attendant asked me which painting was my favorite. When I returned the question, he brought me over to March in Brown (1954), which depicts Avery’s daughter, and said that the painting had convinced him that such an ostensibly drab color was worthy of a loved one’s portrait. Herein lies the power of Avery’s mature work. The paintings aren’t a means of representation, but rather an evocation of a place or being by way of figuration. It is here that I feel a particular resonance with contemporary painters such as Matthew Wong, Noah Davis and Reggie Burrows Hodges.
The exhibition concludes with the enormous Speedboat’s Wake (1959). Here, the slightly off-kilter bell curve of the titular wake, painted casually in gauzy white, is the painting’s subject, rather than Avery’s familiar distant horizon and white-capped sea. The work is hardly bombastic, but set among canvases marked by Avery’s serene hues, its trail of disturbed water feels monumental. This reminds me of Amy Sillman, who uses gesture to activate the colored forms in her paintings, which similarly toe the line between figuration and abstraction. In her essay “On Color,” Sillman cites the same Julia Kristeva quote twice, in which she argues that color is “the shattering of unity.” Speedboat’s Wake is quietly singular, just like its maker. —Beryl Gilothwest
Milton Avery, March in Babushka, 1944. Oil on canvas, 34 x 26 inches. Private collection. © 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York