”The Poetry of Sheer Loveliness”: Milton Avery, Sally Michel and March Avery
Summer with the Averys [Milton | Sally | March] at the Bruce Museum, and March Avery at Blum & Poe
Bruce: May 11 to September 1, 2019
1 Museum Drive
Greenwich, Connecticut, brucemuseum.org
Blum & Poe June 27 to September 14. 2019
19 East 66th Street
New York, blumandpoe.com
Our love affair with Milton Avery’s work began in 1967 when Donald Morris and his wife Florence introduced us to his paintings in their gallery in Northwest Detroit. Today, after seeing more than two dozen exhibitions of his work over these fifty plus years, our attachment remains strong. So we lost no time in driving to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut (less than an hour from New York City,) to see this unusual show that brings together a dozen paintings each and numerous sketches by three members of the Avery family: Milton, his wife Sally Michel, and their daughter March. This triple treat was curated by Kenneth Silver with Stephanie Guyet.
The Averys spent virtually all of their summers together in favored locations in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire as well as in more distant destinations in Mexico, Canada, and Europe. In each place they sketched the mountains and the seas, the forests and the beaches as well as family members and friends. Often, they were able to complete watercolors of those scenes while still on vacation. They would then take their drawings back to New York where Milton would develop many of his into oil paintings during the winter months. Why this show is so significant is that it provides an opportunity to appreciate what Robert Hobbs has called “the Avery style”, common to the three artists.
First and foremost, Milton, Sally and March are outstanding colorists. Milton was called, early on, “the American Matisse” because of his use of extremely vivid, often unnamable colors. Whether subtle and serene like Sea Gazers (1956) from the Whitney Museum or agitated and restless like Breaking Wave (1959) from the Neuberger Museum, Milton’s colors range from strikingly vivid to peacefully harmonious. Other characteristics of this family’s style are the flat picture plane, often interlocking simple shapes and over time, greater simplicity of forms. The Avery Style was far more than charming. As Milton grew older and more frail, one could see in his solitary figures or animals his acceptance of isolation and his recognition of impending death. But then, each of the artists seemed comfortable with painting figures who did not communicate with each other.
On the occasion of Milton Avery’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1982, Hilton Kramer suggested that Avery was slow to receive his deserved reputation partly because his work was “Too realistic for the avant-garde during his lifetime and too abstract for the realists.” Milton came as close to total abstraction as possible, but never wanted his paintings to depart from nature. He left it to his friends, Adolf Gottlieb and Mark Rothko to make the complete break.
Milton grew up near Hartford, Connecticut and in 1920, at the age of 35, he spent the first of several summers in Gloucester in order to be able to sketch from nature. Four years later, while there, he met Sally Michel, an aspiring painter and illustrator who was almost 20 years his junior, and followed her to New York City in 1925. They married the next year and Milton painted every weekday for close to forty years, reserving their weekends for galleries, museums and trips to friends. Seeing Matisse and Picasso opened up new options for Milton in color and form and he continued to experiment with flattened surfaces, interlocking forms and both bold and muted colors throughout his career. Taciturn by nature, Milton’s sketches and his paintings often provided an outlet for his wit and humor. Milton belonged to no art movement or art school and continually forged his own path, a trait greatly admired by Gottlieb and Rothko.
The fourteen paintings and multiple sketches in this exhibition provide a mini-retrospective of Milton’s career. The earliest three paintings have cruder figures with more literal and defined facial features. The first mature painting, Gaspé Landscape (1942), with its spacious open feeling features a graceful line of foam encircling an agitated blue sea along with several carefully placed tiny houses and grazing animals under a dark restless sky. Swimmers and Bathers (1945) is a more serene painting that features a strong horizontal format with four well defined areas. At the bottom is the lilac beach with two female figures sitting on a towel and beach blanket that interlock with the sand. Their backs are toward the viewer as they gaze at the dark grey sea. A highly abstracted and whimsical orange swimmer has just swum past them. Beyond the water is a horizontal line of light blue and white boulders and above that at the top of the painting, is a dark olive-green abstracted forest. As in Gaspé Landscape, the various elements in Swimmers and Bathers appear to be harmoniously coordinated, another Avery trait.
Two other outstanding paintings by Milton are Woman and Palm Tree (1951) that incorporates the more vivid colors that he began using in the mid-1940s and Dunes and Sea II, 1960, owned by the Whitney Museum. This late seascape is his largest painting in the exhibition at 52 by 72 inches – a simplified masterpiece with a light purple foreground and a strong diagonal sand dune set against a restless blue and black sea under an animated cloudy grey sky. Avery spent considerable time over the years in the company of Gottlieb and Rothko, and he acknowledged that in Provincetown in the summers of the late 1950s, he wanted to paint large like “the abstract boys”. Toward this end, while there, he completed a series of major oil paintings. Rothko said of Avery’s great canvases that they “have always a gripping lyricism and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt.”
There are 15 paintings and multiple drawings by Sally Michel in this exhibition, all done between 1946 and 1988. Unfortunately, with no paintings by Milton from their 1946 summer in Mexico, the only two paintings from their six weeks in San Miguel de Allende were done by Sally. Also included are two of Sally’s lyrical and poignant sketches of Milton: Artist as Ease (1949) and Striped Napper (1959). Her painting, Man and Wife (c1950s) best depicts “the Avery style” with its highly abstracted figures, flattened forms, and vivid colors. But, the exhibition equally enables us to appreciate the differences between Milton and Sally’s work. In Spring 1956, with its rich blue, green and yellow foliage, we see the much greater detail that Sally incorporated at a point in time when Milton’s work was already highly streamlined.
It is hard to imagine what Milton’s career might have been like without Sally Michel. Sally recognized Milton’s potential when she married him and did everything she could to allow him to develop both his craft and his style. She served as his model, his constant companion, his provider, and the hostess of their frequent dinner gatherings. Restricting her own painting to summer vacations with the family, she sublimated her talents as a painter to the pursuit of a career as an illustrator, becoming the breadwinner of the family. In this context, it is illuminating to view her keen-eyed illustration for the New York Times, The Care and Handling of Parties. Sally’s efforts enabled Milton to paint almost every day, sometimes completing as many as four paintings before supper.
It is just as hard to imagine what Sally’s career would have been like without Milton. She and Milton shared similar views about painting when they first met and, over the years, her work was influenced by his. Sally learned much from Milton, such as it is sometimes the artist’s last gesture that turns a good paining into a great one. Because Sally believed that Milton was the superior painter, she always shone the spotlight on her husband’s work when artists, critics and collectors came to visit. It is, therefore not surprising that while she participated in some group shows, including those of the Avery family, Sally did not have a solo show of her own until 1973, eight years after Milton’s death. Sally continued to paint for more than another decade and enjoyed several exhibitions of her work until she died in 2003 at age 100.
As March was growing up, absolutely everyone she knew, and not just her parents, was an artist. She explains in a lengthy catalogue interview that she thought that making art was the only thing people did. And so, from an early age, each summer modeling her parents’ behavior, she sketched and painted alongside them without paying attention to the content of their work. Aware that “the most important thing was my father’s painting”, March served as his model. Milton exhibited many of these paintings in a 1947 show entitled My Daughter March.
Today, at age 87, March is still painting six days a week. Twelve of her paintings and numerous drawings from 1967 to 2017 are included at the Bruce. Her work, like Sally’s, reflected many of the characteristics of an Avery style while also showing her unique vision. The Dead Sea (2009) contains a reductive seascape of vivid and unusual color combinations emanating from the light purple sea, the aqua sky and the deep gold beach. As in many of her parents’ works, the sea is thinly painted with several white areas of blank canvas visible, perhaps in this case representing salt. However, the mix of both abstracted and more defined black mud-clad figures, demonstrates the particularity of her own vision. Whereas the segmented uppermost floating figure is as abstract as the orange swimmer in Milton’s Swimmers and Bathers, the two more realistic lowermost figures entering and leaving the water appear to have been captured with a stop-action camera. In fact, March acknowledged that in addition to using sketches like her parents , she departs from them in both using a camera to help her remember scenes she might like to paint and sometimes even working from her imagination.
Luckily, March is the subject of a concurrent show in New York at the Blum & Poe Gallery with more than two dozen paintings done between 1963 and 2018. It provides several examples of the mature Avery style in her domestic scenes, still lives and landscapes. Several reveal the simple interlocking shapes and bold colors of Milton’s advanced paintings such as her Family Tea (1965), Ruth in a Sling Chair (1985), and Card Players (1983), but they are clearly her own. For example, Family Tea (1965) is perfectly balanced with a series of subtly combined colors in the mother’s jacket, lap, and seat. But, the facial features of both the mother and the older child as well as the pitcher and tea set are more realistically drawn.
Since Milton Avery’s death at the age of 80 in 1965 his reputation has continued to grow. His decision to hold onto reality is no longer seen as a drawback and his simple forms and quirky and imaginative use of color have been a source of inspiration to many beyond Sally and March.
At Avery’s Memorial Service, Rothko described him as “a great poet …. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty. This alone took great courage in a generation which felt that it could be heard only through clamor, force, and a show of power. But, Avery had that inner power in which gentleness and silence proved more audible and poignant.”