After years of painting romantic landscapes, the American painter Milton Avery produced, in 1945, Swimmers and Sunbathers. Divided into four horizontal areas, this small painting is a masterpiece of poetic nuance. In the distance, subtle olive green marks suggest a wood. In front of this is a strip, made up of pinky-grey shapes, that indicates the rocky edge of a lake. An intense black-blue stripe dominates the centre of the work, while the foreground consists of an area of Germolene pink. Here, the outlines of two female swimmers sit on the grey and beige pools of their towels, their backs to the viewer, looking out across the navy lake. The whole painting is jolted into life by a couple of vibrant red strokes set against the dark blue water. These appear to be abstract marks but a closer look suggests they are the limbs of a swimmer. All the zones are flattened, except for a few scratched marks in the trees. It is colour that gives form and emotion to the whole.
Or take a painting made the following year of two figures lying on a beach. Two elongated female forms (think Matisse cut-outs) recline on the mud-coloured sand. Each is propped up on her elbow facing a different direction. The further figure looks away from the viewer, the one in front towards us. Their jutted hips are like hills in the landscape and the palette limited to a few shades of earth colours. The far woman is blonde and painted in cool creamy tones. The near figure is dark and executed in hotter terracotta colours. So much is suggested – the languid ambience of the beach, the women’s stylish swimwear – by the bravura line of the drawing and blocks of flat colour. Imbued with gentle humour, the painting is a witty social observation.
Milton Avery is not much known in this country. His entry into the art world did not follow a conventional trajectory. Born in 1885 in Altmar, New York, his family settled in Hartford Connecticut, where he would leave school at sixteen for a blue-collar job in a factory. In order to improve his earning potential he enrolled in an evening class to learn commercial lettering but soon switched to drawing. After his father’s early death he became the financial mainstay of his family, only able to attend art school in the evenings. As a result, he was late to the table of American art, not painting full time until he was 40. Whenever he could, he and his wife, Sally, – ten years younger and his greatest fan who supported him through her work as an illustrator for the New York Times – would take vacations in various rural locations. He liked to work outside, using what he’d done as notes for paintings to be worked up later in the studio.
The first group at the RA, made between 1910 and 1945, consists of lyrical landscapes. There are deep wooded valleys, clear rivers overhung with leafy trees, tiny, dotted cows and sheep – depicted with no more than a flick of the brush – set in the Connecticut landscape that he loved. Looking at these early paintings one would not automatically predict the flattening, thinning and simplification of colour to come. They are romantic in feel, their dominant influence the work of American Impressionists such as John Henry Twachtman and Ernest Lawson. From the 1930s there is a shift from naturalism to something more daring: flat planes of arbitrary, pared-down colour and greater distortions of reality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Avery is seen by many as the bridge between American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. A movement over which he had a huge influence. Yet, although he counted Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman among his close friends, he was never affiliated to any particular artistic group but followed his own aesthetic inclination to find innovative ways to simplify nature through the balance of colour and form.
What is evident is that before he found his mature style he looked at a great deal of art. By 1926 he was living in New York and working full time as an artist. There are echoes in his theatre paintings of Degas, and of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in his 1933 Chariot Race, circus painting. It was while living in the city that he began to paint crowd scenes at the beach such as Seaside and Coney Island. (1931). A man of few words, he was an observer rather than a participant, sitting quietly on the edge of things sketching scenes and people that would later be worked into paintings in his studio.
But it is his portraits that are his truly innovative work. Paintings such as Husband and Wife (1945) and his daughter, March in Babushka, (1944). Here all sentimentality is stripped away. Features are minimal, the paint thin. Form and colour express everything. It was this breakthrough that was to establish him as a leading American colourist. One who was significantly to influence the next generation of painters to understand how colour could be used to create a sense of the sublime. In his late paintings, many of them executed during summers in Cape Cod in the company of Rothko and Gottleib, the work becomes larger and more abstract. Black Sea, (1959), painted on the diagonal, consists of just three colours. A triangle of black sea in the top left hand corner, frilled by a ribbon of flat white surf, then a completely flat area of sand. In its pared simplicity it combines something of both Rothko and Barnett Newman’s sensibility, leading the art critic of the day, Clement Greenberg to describe these paintings as ‘a late flowering.’ Yet, despite this move from representation to greater abstraction, these late works predominantly fulfil Milton Avery’s lifelong, personal quest to capture what he described as ‘the essence of nature.’