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The Boston Globe

Arts

FRAME BY FRAME

Avery made color carry secret meanings, too

WADSWORTH ATHENEUM

HARTFORD - Milton Avery was one of America’s finest mid-century artists, and the one who learned most from Henri Matisse.

From that scissor-wielding sage of sensuality, he learned that when it comes to color, size does matter. Or, as Matisse put it: “One square centimeter of blue is not as blue as a square meter of the same blue.’’

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Avery quickly saw the ramifications of this for drawing, which thus became as much about shaping color as defining form. And for modeling in space, which, by modulating color, tends to compromise its intensity.

HUSBAND AND WIFE

Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford CT 860-278-2670. http://www.thewadsworth.org

What did Avery do with all this?

Just what he felt like. Avery’s sense of color was completely unlike Matisse’s. It could be tangier. It could be more subdued. But in either case, his harmonies were endlessly surprising.

Avery (1885-1965) made picture-making a tantalizingly private affair. He matched his soft-pedaled feeling for the fine line between harmony and discord with an uncanny feeling for the strangeness, the volatility, at the heart of human intimacy.

He could be painting a landscape, a nude, or - as in this marvelous 1945 painting at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford - a husband and wife at rest in a living room. But in every case, you feel a kind of spiritual shiver, a lack of completion, something short of the full-throatedness of a true hedonist.

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Here, is it the way the husband and wife seem alarmingly untethered, threatening to float away from each other to left and to right?

Or is it her defensively crossed arms, and the angle of her head, which seems to respond to an invisible pressure exerted by the two leaves of the limp-looking plant.

Things to note about the colors: There are six, maybe seven kinds of blue. There are three hues in the pink-to-purple range. There are two yellows - one yolky, one pale and acidic. There is one tremendous, anchoring black at center. And the man is clothed in two different hues of brown. (Another puddle of brown leaks out from under the couch.)

Many of these colors, especially the mauve and lighter brown, feel harmonious but hesitant - not quite one thing or another. Classic Avery.

But these hesitant hues make the bright red of the man’s face almost shocking. It’s certainly the most active ingredient in the whole composition, and it matches the man’s active, pompous, pipe-smoking pose.

Is he holding forth? Trying to be shocking, while his demure wife maintains her uncomfortable silence? Who knows? Perhaps he had an unusually ruddy face. Or was it simply that Avery thought: “A patch of flaming red would be perfect right here’’?

I can’t say. But I think it’s a masterpiece.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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