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Milton Avery’s color sense and sensibility

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art — in Avery’s hometown of Hartford — hosts the first retrospective of his work in the US in four decades.

Milton Avery, "Husband and Wife," 1945. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford.© 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

HARTFORD — Where does Milton Avery belong? It’s a perennial question about the too-little known American painter, and maybe it’s time to finally stop asking it. Avery’s work “could not quite be fitted into any of the handy categories by which contemporary art tends to be judged,” wrote the critic Hilton Kramer on the occasion of Avery’s last retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982. “It belonged to no ‘school,’ it generated no controversy and the artist who created it was definitely not ‘a personality.’ It was therefore assumed — mistakenly — to be not of major importance.”


If Kramer sounds frustrated, it’s a shame he didn’t live to see the next Avery retrospective, a full four decades later and now on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in the artist’s hometown. Avery, a quietly formative force in American Modernism who died in 1965, has always resisted definition. But his work, finally, has touched down in a time receptive to his protean sensibility. Old categories have eroded; silos have broken open. Avery no longer needs to belong to anything. He can finally be himself.

Milton Avery, "Blossoming," 1918. Milton Avery Trust.© 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, the show doesn’t disregard that complicated history, but it concerns itself with what Avery was rather than what he was not. As a painter, his aplomb is singular, however stock his subjects: friends and family, forest and sea, great expanses of sky that go on all but forever. His work was thoroughly modern while eliding the irresistible force of abstraction — American Modernism’s painterly end game — as he stayed moored in reality like Pablo Picasso and the artist he admired above all, Henri Matisse.

Avery had no allergy to certain -isms, to be sure. Born in 1885, he grew up outside Hartford a working-class kid whose first job, at 16, was in a local factory. His foray into art began with a commercial lettering course at the Connecticut League of Art Students, where his teacher, the painter Charles Noel Flagg, recognized his talent and encouraged him to pursue painting. Flagg had studied and shown in Paris, a city then bursting with the initial wave of Impressionism, which he imparted to Avery. In the first galleries at the Wadsworth, Avery’s early stabs at landscape painting have Impressionism’s hallmarks — trees with leaves wadded thick with impasto, skies tracked heavy with blue and white paint.


Milton Avery, "Blue Trees," 1945. Collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. © 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Photo by Jim Frank

But Averyism — the only one that really mattered to him — emerges early. ”Blossoming,” from 1918, is a small scene of flowering trees heavy with oil paint blotted thick with a palette knife. Soon the rough textures would be gone, as Avery slimmed down his surfaces, focusing on composition and color. “Blossoming,” through the gloop, foretells: With its mustard-colored ground, blue-green trunks, and foliage like icy crystal, the piece is a toe in the water of the intuitive, against-the-grain color play into which Avery would plunge for the rest of his career.

Across the room, “Blue Trees,” from 1945, feels like the end of the journey that “Blossoming” had begun. Its perspective compressed flat, Avery’s trees appear as though in a police lineup, backed up against the wall. Each is uniquely otherworldly, strange characters in a fantasy play: One is bushy and lavender, another is a looming haze of robin’s egg blue. A stiff-backed pine in dark navy seems to be in charge, keeping the rest in line.


The timing is worth noting. In 1947, Jackson Pollock would show his breakthrough drip paintings for the first time; Abstract Expressionism, the new religion of American art, was ascendant. Avery was right in the middle of it, but steered himself to the side. In 1925, he and his wife, Sally Michel, moved to New York, where he started taking evening sketching classes at the Art Students League of New York. (It’s also worth noting that Michel, a painter of no small order herself, took a job in commercial illustration to support her husband’s art career, thereby diminishing her own; a reclamation effort of her work is also now on view at New York’s D. Wigmore Fine Art, and a terrific piece by Roberta Smith in The New York Times sums up what was surely her profound influence on him.)

Milton Avery, "Seated Girl with Dog," 1944. Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York.© 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Photo by Jim Frank

Avery was then 40, senior to most of his classmates, which included AbEx superstars-to-be Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. He would serve as a painterly sage for the young rebels-in-waiting. He and Michel hosted poetry readings at their small apartment, where guests would engage in lively discussions of the fast-changing world of Modern art.

It’s tempting to cast Avery as the curmudgeon averse to rapid evolution as abstraction took hold. In truth, he embraced radical change, and even led it, on his own terms. At the Wadsworth, a gallery of portraits and still lifes sets up the final act. Avery experimented with perspective and a variety of painting techniques. The beguiling “Still Life (Blue Bowl with Nuts),” 1945, is a small wonder of playful innovation: Avery scratched decorative patterns into his objects, taking paint away to create depth and texture.


Milton Avery, "Poetry Reading," 1957. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, N.Y. © 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © 2021 Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute/Art Resource, NY

Avery’s mature pictures are both spare and electric, with rich riots of color bottled up by simply-drawn forms. The dissonance delights, the eye feeding the mind. ”Husband and Wife,” from 1945, is an everyday scene ironed flat and filled up with surreal hues: his head featureless and pumpkin orange, her body several shades of blue head-to-toe. “Seated Girl with Dog,” from 1944, is magnificent and haunting: The background is cleaved into sharp fields of orange and black, her face bisected between light and dark, one half a blood-red. “Poetry Reading,” 1957, achieves intimacy by economy of means; it’s a wonderfully strange study of reduced form and limited palette, shading strict earthy hues in shapes that cluster into a pair of bodies huddled close at the center.

Was Avery tempted to join his young friends as the abstract frenzy took hold? The show offers a tease. From 1957 to 1961, Avery spent summers on Cape Cod, a hotbed of American abstraction. Nearing the end of his life, he joked he wanted to paint larger canvases “like the abstract boys.”

Milton Avery, "Boathouse by the Sea," 1959. Milton Avery Trust. © 2021 The Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Victoria Miro and Waqas Wajahat

The results, like the mesmerizing “Boathouse by the Sea,” 1959, read like a dare. In its soft-cut blocks — orange, aqua and gold, underpinned by an angular haze of black — Avery is poking fun at his friend Rothko and his oppressive fogs of color, or Newman, with his rigid compartmentalization. But the title anchors it: It is sunset, sea, beach, and shadow.


Nearby, playful pieces like “Black Sea,” 1959, black and brown sliced by an angular seam of sea foam, and 1958′s “Blue Sea, Red Sky” — gleefully Rothko-esque, with sky, sea, and sand stacked soft-edged one atop the other — stake Avery’s claim to solid earth. To explore what mattered most to him — color and proportion, the dynamics of light — he needed no abstract departure. With the wonder of his work in front of you, what a gift it was that he kept both feet planted on the ground.


At the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford, through June 5. 860-278-2670, www.thewadsworth.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.