DescriptionMILTON AVERY (American 1893 - 1965)
Newark Meadows, 1943
Oil on canvas
24 x 36in.
Signed, titled, and dated by the artist on reverse, Newark Meadows by Milton Avery 1943
Alternate title written on the stretcher bars, Newark Meadows Night
The Little Gallery, Newark (stamp verso), possibly a framer;
Two other partial and illegible gallery/exhibition labels (verso)
Curt Valentin Gallery, NY;
Property of a Gentleman
It is fortunate that Milton Avery had the habit of titling his own paintings if for no other reason than we were provided with a label for this extraordinary work of 1943. Newark Meadows is without qualification the most complex and iconographically challenging work of Milton Avery's artistic maturity, and the title provides the clue to its meaning. Plastered with signs, words, and parts of words, logos, structures, arrows, and surface noise, Newark Meadows is the closest Milton Avery ever came to the jazzy, frenetic style of Stuart Davis, one of the most politically-charged American painters of the first half of the twentieth century. Since this painting has a definite message, it is no wonder Milton Avery chose to create it with elements related to Davis's pictorial vocabulary, but with his own gentler palette and touch.
In many instances, Avery's titles don't make much difference to our experience of his serene, colorful paintings, because the subjects they treat are those he explored regularly with endless variation. These were subjects close to him, domestic scenes, such as his wife Sally with their baby, the meeting of sky, land, and sea, chickens in his barnyard, figures on a beach. In championing Milton Avery at mid-century and afterwards, Hilton Kramer celebrated his art for all the ways it was like Abstract Expressionism, even though it didn't entirely relinquish representation. He was a color field painter like his close friends Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman, whose art was touted as evoking universals rather than particulars, and as having the process of painting itself as its subject. Kramer wrote: "[Avery's] art represents in many respects the reverse of all those styles that seek to impress our emotions with rude force and urgency. The formidable tact that he brings to his paintings, the ease of manner that is psychologically disinterested and pictorially vivid, places a great distance between all forms of emotional violence and the particular plateau of feeling on which his own aesthetic faculties flower most brilliantly" (Hilton Kramer, Milton Avery paintings 1930-1960, New York and London, Thomas Yoseloff, 1962, p. 12-13).
Newark Meadows doesn't fit this description as neatly as many of Avery's other works because its forms and content are critical, urgent, and charged. This painting is full of strong angles and aggressive words, unusual for an artist who seldom put words in his work. Newark Meadows is Avery's passionate environmentalist essay about the mess we have made in the march of "progress" during our industrial age. The specific environmental catastrophe highlighted in the present work is a wetland (or former wetland) between Jersey City and Newark that Avery watched turn into a dump, largely on account of the steel industry servicing upward mobility. (It rests at the crux of all the bad jokes about polluted Jersey.) The Newark Meadowlands, as they are known, had begun to be spoiled from the days of the earliest inhabitants of the region, and by the late nineteenth century, had already become a compromised industrial zone that was contaminated with toxic by-products and substantially filled in in the name of progress.
But things took a turn for the worse for the already besieged Newark Meadowlands in 1930-32 when the New Jersey Highway Department built a massive new steel cantilever and truss bridge right through it in order to link the two cities, thereby hoping to alleviate some of the New York City area's traffic problems. The result was named the Pulaski Skyway, a $20 million 18,480-foot state-of-the-art span with causeways, which, in addition to crossing the Passaic and Hackensack rivers, sank its massive steel reinforced concrete support piers into vast sections of the low-lying coastal plain. The piers were the greatest source of controversy to the project, because they were believed to interfere with "navigational interests" involving river transportation, and because they were one more stake driven into the heart of the Meadowlands. During the construction process, there were fifteen fatal accidents and one labor-related murder which made the newspapers. The Skyway was not an easy birth.
As New Jersey's contribution to the "Good Roads" movement, the Skyway initially seemed to be a success in terms of alleviating the traffic flow problems and the chronic freight congestion in the area of New York Harbor. Motorists were able to travel from downtown Manhattan to Newark Airport in 20 minutes. However, during the 1940s when Avery painted the present work, the congestion along this route doubled the required commute time, because the new span diverted traffic from other areas. Moreover, because of its narrow four-lane, 40-foot-wide roadway, there were numerous fatalities owing to collisions with oversized vehicles, so that the Skyway was soon closed to commercial vehicles. By the early 1950s, these factors necessitated construction of another crossing over Newark Bay.
It's hard not to imagine Milton Avery crossing and recrossing the Pulaski Skyway on trips in and out of the city. The title penned on the stretchers - Newark Meadows Night - conjures an image of the artist stuck in the eternal pile up, looking out over the landscape from the high vantage point, and seeing the lights and billboards, hearing the horns honking, and thinking about how to translate the experience into paint.
In Newark Meadows, the Pulaski Skyway dominates the top of Avery's picture with its criss-crossing structural triangles and piers. It runs across the upper edge like a bannerhead speckled with strings of lights. In the lower right quadrant are two thick beige bands flecked with dots. Close examination reveals reddish-orange dots on the right, yellow ones on the left. This is Avery's shorthand for the opposing lanes on the bridge and causeway showing the headlights of oncoming and outgoing vehicles. In the painting, Avery split the lanes even though in real life the engineers didn't do so with a median barrier. Public outcry over numerous deaths as the result of head-on collisions resulted in the eventual erection of a median separating the right lanes from the left.
In Newark Meadows, below the surface of the bridge and the causeways, is a deeper green color defining the flat plain of the Meadowlands itself. It is scarred with slices of railroad track that made the first decisive cuts into the wetland. The arrows are probably references to railroad switches.
Above the ground and the skyway, Avery created a lively mosaic of references to the steel (crucible) and chemical industries that contributed to industrial advances and made the great allied effort of the Second World War possible, a war that was still raging as Avery was painting this picture. It also created urban eyesores and toxic health hazards in places like nearby Harrison, New Jersey, a place mentioned in Avery's picture. Also present is the word "Worthington," probably a reference to Henry Rossiter Worthington, the noted American mechanical engineer whose inventions led to the perfection of the direct steam pump (1845-55). He patented the duplex steam pump (1859), built the first duplex waterworks engine, and established a pump manufacturing plant in New York City in 1859.
Also present in Avery's image are references to elements used in industrial processes. Just left of center is the symbol for barium (Ba), used in many commercial applications including the manufacture of paints, bricks, tiles, glass, and rubber and is known to have a toxicity similar to arsenic. At upper center is chromium, which is used to harden steel, to manufacture stainless steel, and to form many useful alloys. It is much used in plating to produce a hard, beautiful surface and to prevent corrosion. Chromium compounds are toxic and must be handled with proper safeguards.
Specific companies with ties to heavy industry, steel in particular, are prominently emblazoned on the abstract landscape of Newark Meadows. A sign reading "Koppers" occurs at upper left, and refers to a global chemical and materials company founded in 1912 in Pittsburgh, the world's largest center of steel production at the time. While Koppers developed many business lines, they were all connected to the company's original involvement in steel and coke oven construction. The Krupp Company, which originated in Germany and spread worldwide before World War I, is represented in Avery's picture with its famous "three ring" logo. Krupp, which later merged with Thyssen, invented the seamless forged and rolled railway tires that became the standard. Also included is John W. Hyatt (1837-1920), who was the first to commercially produce celluloid, which was invented by Alexander Parkes. The very first derivative of cellulose came about when, in the form of cotton, it was reacted with nitric acid. The result was cellulose nitrate. Unfortunately, this new invention was first used to kill people. A powerful explosive, it soon replaced common gunpowder as the explosive charge in the ammunition for rifles and artillery, and was used extensively during the First World War. But it also had a much more positive public safety benefit related to transportation. Cellulose nitrate was also used to make an early polymer used in the production of safety glass. A sheet of cellulose nitrate sandwiched between two layers of glass held the glass together when broken. In its application for automobile windshields, the cellulose nitrate saved the lives of many drivers and passengers, including those traveling the Pulaski Skyway.
The painting demonstrates Avery's keen awareness of the double-edged sword of progress. Without it being too big a stretch, it would also be fair to say that in his own career as a professional painter, Avery was keenly aware of the double-edged effect his artistic alliances were having on his creativity. He was showing his highly simplified landscapes and figures in the heart of the New York art world, with dealers such as Paul Rosenberg. But he also was feeling the pressure of committing himself to a formalist cause that didn't include the type of specific imagery and content this work contains.
In 1943, the same year he painted Newark Meadows, Milton Avery also produced the two most powerful portraits of his life, one of his painter friend, Marsden Hartley, and one of himself, standing on dealers' row (57th Street in New York). To one side of him is Valentine Gallery Modern Art 55 E 57. To his right is 20 E 57 DIKRAN KELEKIAN IN [reversed] C. Beyond a vertical line is the dealer with whom he was currently showing, PAUL ROSENBERG, at 16 E 57. In a little square Avery painted "PAINTING by Milton Avery 1943." There he stands in his big bulky overcoat that seems to be made out of newsprint. Why newsprint? It is tantalizing to speculate whether this portrait, together with Newark Meadows, was Avery's way of referencing the pressures he felt to ally himself more neatly with the Greenbergian camp of painters who declared in a manifesto they sent to the New York Times that their painting was primarily about painting, rather than about any particular subject. Rothko, Gottlieb, and Barnett signed it, and asked Avery to sign it, too. But he did not. Instead, it seems he painted his powerful portrait of Hartley, a true independent spirit whom he vastly admired, and his own self-portrait wrapped in words (Hilton Kramer declared both paintings "minor works"). The reemergence of Newark Meadows calls this critical opinion of Kramer's into question, particularly because it seems to be yet another portrait, albeit a portrait of a place, dealing pointedly either with someone who refused to compromise or with the devastating result of something that already has been.
The painting is in its original condition, unlined, on its original stretchers, and in its 1940s frame (which in keeping with the theme of the painting has a heavy molding and appears to be leafed with the industrial metal, aluminum). One of the labels on the stretcher bar reads The . . . Gallery / 505 18[th Street . . .]
Estimate: $300,000 - $400,000.
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