DescriptionMilton Avery (1885-1965)
Oil on canvasboard
30 x 24 inches (76.2 x 61 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Milton Avery 1961
Milton Avery Trust;
Knoedler & Company, New York;
Private collection, New York, acquired from the above, 2002.
Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania, "Paintings by Milton Avery and His Family," September 4-26, 1971;
Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York, "Milton Avery: My Wife Sally, My Daughter March," January 4-31, 1989.
Allentown Art Museum, Paintings by Milton Avery and His Family, exhibition catalogue, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1971, no. 42;
Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Milton Avery: My Wife Sally, My Daughter March, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1989, n.p., illus.
Milton Avery's Bather from 1961 belongs to his late period, which the art critic Hilton Kramer saw as his finest, opining, "I believe [these works] are among the greatest paintings ever produced by an American artist" (R. Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York, 1990, p. 24). For decades, Avery had been quietly shaping his unique modernist aesthetic, interpreting vacation haunts or figures in domestic settings with flattened, interlocking "puzzle pieces" of uniform color. Yet in the late 1950s when he began summering in Provincetown on Cape Cod, his paintings shifted more decisively toward abstraction. Overall his canvases grew larger, some up to six feet, while his landscapes, like Sea Grasses and Blue Sea (1958, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) or Beach Blankets (1960, Wichita Art Museum, fig. 1), were reduced to geometric shapes of pure color. Some art historians attribute these changes to Avery's being influenced by his longtime friends, the Abstract Expressionists Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, who worked alongside him in Provincetown. For instance, the background sky and sea in Bather - a scumbled powder blue rectangle atop a saturated indigo rectangle -- read as an inversion of the dark green rectangle atop a fluffy white rectangle in Rothko's Green on Blue (1956, The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, fig. 2). Nonetheless, Kramer insisted that Avery's vision was superior to Abstract Expressionism, in part because it balanced abstraction with representation: "These last paintings by Avery are, in my view, a more impressive achievement than Rothko's, for they encompass a far greater range of experience and bring to it a subtler and more varied pictorial vocabulary" (Hobbs, p. 24). Other critics jumped on the band wagon; Clement Greenberg "called for a full-scale retrospective 'not for the sake of his reputation but for the sake of the situation of art in New York. The latest generation of abstract painters in New York has salutary lessons to learn from him that they cannot learn from any other artist on the scene'" (B. Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 170). For the first time in his career, Avery was receiving major acclaim. The American Federation of Arts and the Whitney Museum offered him exhibitions, and he even appeared in Time magazine.
What critics admired in these late works was Avery's powerful and nuanced use of color, as well as a lyricism that derived from personal imagery. Indeed, Bather is not simply an abstracted figure superimposed on a color field, she is March, Avery's daughter who inspired numerous paintings throughout his life. Indeed, at the end of the day, Avery was a family man, and "his pictures managed to combine a witty and affectionate view of life with a very clear grasp of what it is that makes a painting, as a painting, really live" (Hobbs, 24). Bather perfectly encapsulates Avery's modernism, where family and painting are always integrally connected.
It is not surprising that Avery's embrace of modernism coincided with his marriage to fellow artist Sally Michel in 1926. Prior to this momentous occasion, he had studied Impressionism in the style of John Henry Twachtman and Childe Hassam at the Connecticut League of Art Students and the School of the Art Society in Hartford, all the while supporting himself with construction jobs. In 1924, he met Sally Michel from Brooklyn in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the artist's colony made famous by Winslow Homer, Twachtman and Hassam, Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, and Stuart Davis. Captivated by Sally and by the daring canvases of Hartley and Davis, Avery moved to New York City in 1925 and effectively reinvented himself at the age of forty. Sally and Milton's partnership was perfectly symbiotic and complementary. Gregarious, energetic, and devoted to her husband's career, Sally supported them through her work as a freelance illustrator for publications as varied as the Progressive Grocer and The New York Times. Meanwhile, quiet and introverted Milton was free to develop the first of his demarcated color paintings, based on his study of Edouard Vuillard, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse, and Franz Marc. The couple did everything together: painted side by side, read American literature, traveled, and, although frugal, graciously entertained friends like Gottlieb and Rothko at their Lincoln Arcade apartment. Avery's exquisite use of color in his paintings of Sally, figures in interiors, and rolling country landscapes reflected his joyful state of mind. Too, his simplification of recognizable forms to their essences of color and pattern paid tribute not merely to the Fauves, but to Sally, who practiced a whimsical cartoonish style, and to homespun American folk art. Avery was developing his own color-form aesthetic infused with humor, playfulness, and intimacy.
And then March arrived. Sally and Milton's only child, March, was born in 1932, and her constantly evolving physical and emotional being provided Avery with endless material for his modernist experimentation. Sally remembered:
"March was only a week old when Milton made his first painting of her. Her pediatrician looked horrified. 'How could you make such an ugly painting of such a beautiful baby?' March was always with us, trailing along on our walks, sketching side by side. There were myriad renditions of our daughter, some stark and bold, some pale and tender. Every aspect of the growing child was noted; the tiny baby fast asleep, the little girl having her hair combed, the gangly teenager on the telephone. The awkwardness, the moodiness, the boniness all found equivalents in color and form radiating the father's delight in discovering new harmonies inspired by a growing child. We were a family united, united by a passionate love for painting" (S. Avery, introduction to My Wife Sally, My Daughter March, exhibition catalogue, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York, 1989).
In early paintings of March, Avery favored local color and detailed settings. For example, Two Figures at Desk (1944, Neuberger Museum, State University of New York at Purchase, fig. 3) depicts Sally standing behind March, age twelve, who is seated at a desk in her bedroom. Although Avery begins to abstract the figures, constructing them out of angular shapes, he identifies March with her real-life jet-black hair and situates her in a specific room with household objects like a painting and a desk with lamp and inkwell. He also captures emotion through facial expressions and body positions: Sally, with her gentle face and soft form, tries to relate to her pre-teen daughter, who, staring straight ahead and holding her body rigid, essentially ignores her. As March aged, Avery further abstracted her. In Summer Reader (1950, The Roland Collection), an image of eighteen-year-old March reading while leaning against a daybed, Avery renders her with blue skin and without facial features, her bent arms and legs a jumble of geometric masses. Avery tips his hat to Matisse here, with the collage effect of the flattened figure and furniture, as well as in March on Balcony (1952, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). In this painting of March at age twenty, he seats her in a "Matissean" interior with a shuttered window overlooking a sailboat on a river. March now becomes a massive, primitive sculpture-like form in a red dress and with a red face and yellow hair. That Avery considered March integral to his creative process is evidenced by his choice of theme for his first retrospective, held at the Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in 1947: "My Daughter March."
One of Avery's last major paintings of his daughter, the present lot, Bather, is a masterful summation of the March oeuvre. Here, he renders his twenty-nine-year-old daughter with the same long limbs and knobby knees as her twelve-year-old self in Two Figures at Desk. Suggesting Avery's adoration of March, the bather is monumental, stretching from heaven to earth. While he employs "logical" local color in her peach skin and dark hair, he removes her facial features altogether. On the one hand, this blank mask connotes the anonymity and alienation of a Cold War society. It also transforms March into an archetypal human in communion with nature. The mask serves as a formal device; by making March's face blank, Avery prompts the viewer to focus on her bathing suit as a vibrant yellow shape balancing the cool blue rectangles of sky and sea.
Bather also underscores the importance of landscape for Avery as a family man and artist. He, Sally, and March relished their annual summer vacations, particularly to the Massachusetts beaches of Gloucester and Provincetown, as opportunities for relaxation and artistic renewal (fig. 4). The rocky coasts, dunes, beaches, and water provided ideal subjects for Avery's experimentation with color. Preferring soft, harmonizing hues, he thinned his paints and often tinted them with white pigment; too, he used rags to control layers of paint and allow light to reflect off of the surface. Where Avery's seascapes from the 1930s and '40s feature locale-specific details like boats, piers, and bathing huts, his late Provincetown paintings are universal in their radical reduction to three or four geometric color-forms. Such is the case with Beach Blankets (fig. 2), and also with Bather, in which sea and sky become vigorously painted blue rectangles complementing the warmer yellow and pink cylinders of the figure. Ultimately, Bather is as much about color and form - Avery's art - as it is about March - Avery's family. This complete integration of painting and family effected a sense of intimacy in his work and prompted his longtime friend Rothko to laud, "Avery is first a great poet. He is the poet of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty. Thanks to him this kind of poetry has been able to survive in our time" (Milton Avery: A Singular Vision, exhibition catalogue, Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, 1987, p. 13).
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