Milton Avery (American, 1885-1965)

Milton Avery lived in and around Hartford, Connecticut, until 1925, when he moved to New York City. A factory worker as a young man, one day he saw an advertisement for a class in lettering at the Connecticut League of Art Students and enrolled. He thought he might make money at this pursuit, butwhen the class was canceled—just a month after he entered—he took a life drawing class instead. (1) In 1918, while working for an insurance company at night, he studied at the School of the Art Society of Hartford. The following year, he won top honors in the portrait and life drawing classes. In 1920 Avery began spending summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts. There, in 1924, he met a young painter named Sally Michel. He followed her to New York, and in 1926 they were married. At the beginning of their marriage, Sally Avery determined to place her own artistic concerns second to those of her husband, and she worked as a freelance illustrator to free Avery from the need to support hisfamily.

Avery’s early training had prepared him for a career as an academic painter. But he frequented the New York galleries thatexhibited modernist European art, including the Valentine Gallery, which held a retrospective of Matisse’s work in 1927. By 1930, references to Matisse and Picasso can be discerned in Avery’s paintings, and he began to introduce the simplified forms and flattened space that would, along with clear, unmodulated color, become the hallmarks of his later work. The 1930s were financially precarious times for the Averys. Avery exhibited his work frequently, but it didnot sell well. However, a 1935 invitation to join the prestigious Valentine Gallery, which exhibited Matisse, Picasso, Miró, Derain, Braque, Kandinsky, Stuart Davis, and others, had a vitalizing effect on his painting and his outlook.

Although Avery never joined any of the artists’ organizations that proliferated in New York during the 1930s, the couple’s apartment became a meeting ground for young painters. Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman were frequent visitors, and often joined the Averys during summers spent in Gloucester or southern Vermont. Many of Avery’s paintings originated during these summers away from the city. A quiet man who seldom participated in conversations about him, Avery constantly sketched—landscapes, people, interiors—whatever was at hand. Around 1938, the Averys began organizing sketch classes where they and their friends shared the costs of a model. John Opper was among those who congregated at the Averys and remembered the lively talk and stimulating company.

In 1943, Avery joined the New York gallery of Paul Rosenberg, an important dealer who had been forced to flee Paris when the Nazis took the city. This affiliation, coupled with a retrospective exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in 1944, brought Avery national acclaim. Yet sales remained few, and New York museums, for the most part, showed little enthusiasm for his work. Avery persisted nonetheless, refining form and clarifying color. In 1946, the family spent three months in Mexico, where not only the landscape but the peasants and city streets offered new subject matter.Three years later Avery suffered a heart attack from which he never fully recovered. Prevented by his health from workingoutdoors, Avery began making monotypes, a medium that requires rapid execution. These monotypes affected his paintingstyle, and after about 1950, Avery increasingly eliminated extraneous detail from his work and began focusing on the harmony of the overall canvas rather than the interrelation of its parts. (2) Critical acclaim for Avery’s work waned for several years during the early 1950s, eclipsed, perhaps, by Abstract Expressionism. Yet, by late in the decade, his independent vision, distilled, vibrant color, and acutely refined forms had secured his recognition as one of the most subtly powerful artists in mid-century America. ~Smithsonian Museum of American Artists

1. The best, and most accurate, account of Avery’s early years and subsequent career can be found in Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery(New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harper and Row, 1982).

2. Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harper and Row, 1982) p.117.

Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)