HARTFORD – Milton Avery’s evolution as a figurative and abstract artist – and a remarkable colourist – can be traced from his early landscapes to his late works in an extensive retrospective of his paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art which opens on Saturday, March 5.
Arranged chronologically, the 70-piece show reflects Avery’s personal life and artistic influences, culminating in the richly colored figurative and abstract pieces for which he later became known as a modernist painter.
The show is something of a homecoming for Avery (1885-1965), who grew up near Hartford, where he took his first evening art classes at the Connecticut League of Art Students and later at the School of the Art Society of Hartford. In 1915 he exhibited his work for the first time at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s fifth annual exhibition of oil paintings and sculpture.
The retrospective – the first in 30 years in the United States – opens with Avery’s impressionist landscapes painted outside on artist’s boards and pieces of canvas. It was the style of painting that was in vogue at the time, said Erin Monroe, Krieble curator of American painting and sculpture at the museum.
“They’re kind of like relics from a time that few people are aware of, those formative years,” she said. “Avery fell in love with painting from nature, which he continued to do throughout his career, through direct observation.”
On the adjacent walls, Avery’s subsequent pieces, including “Moody Landscape” and later “Little Fox River” and “Blue Trees”, begin to show his stylistic evolution towards the use of simplified forms and imaginative colors and not local.
“He subtracts, and he plays with color, and those approaches get more extreme as we go through the show,” Monroe said.
In 1920 Avery visited an artists’ colony in Gloucester, Mass., where he met the painter Sally Michaels, whom he married. Avery and Michaels and their daughter March moved to New York in 1925, where they befriended artists Mark Rothko and Robert Gottlieb, among others, and Avery began to show his work in New York galleries.
Over the next 20 years he painted a range of subjects – the people of Coney Island, farm animals, landscapes and cityscapes, and many scenes of daily life with family and friends – all reducing its forms to simple forms, while continuing to refine its color palette described as “poetic”.
In the later galleries, a life of experimentation blossoms in a number of stunning figurative pieces that reflect Avery’s development of flattened forms and complex color palettes, including “Husband and Wife” and “Poetry Reading”, among others.
Monroe said Avery’s characters stand out from traditional forms and styles, in part because of the way he distorts the human body.
“Avery’s characters aren’t idealized, they’re not super-sexualized. Sometimes they are stiff and look like paper cutouts, but at the same time he has a full understanding of the body,” she said.
In later galleries, Avery’s large abstract beach scenes and seascapes he produced during six consecutive summers spent in Provincetown, cascade down the walls in vivid color.
In a large work, “Beach Blankets”, an orange shape and a yellow shape float on a field of color under a golden horizon and a dark line. In another, “Boathouse by the Sea,” broad swaths of color seem to juxtapose sky, sea, sand, and the angle of a roof.
“That’s where his highly distilled style begins to emerge, where it’s more reductive. It reduces even more,” Monroe said.
At the end of the show, on the final wall is Avery’s “Speedboat’s Wake”, depicting a ghostly figure on a small ship, drawing a thin white line in its wake as it travels through a vast dark sea under a night sky with rich colors.
“Milton Avery” runs from March 5 to June 5. Visit thewadsworth.org for more information.
The exhibition was curated by Edith Devaney at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Andrea Karnes at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth and Erin Monroe at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.