Milton Avery - Biography and Legacy
Sand Bar, New York
New York, New York
Biography of Milton Avery
Milton Avery was born on March, 7 1885 in Sand Bank, New York. His family was working class - his father was a tanner - and he was one of four siblings. When he was thirteen the Averys moved to Wilson Station, Connecticut.
Avery was not involved in the arts during his young adult years, instead taking jobs in the fields of mechanics and construction. With the death of his father and, later, his brother-in-law, Avery found himself providing for his remaining female relatives. However, a year or two after he turned twenty he signed up for a class in lettering at the Connecticut League of Art Students because a magazine ad promised it was a route to make money. The class ended up being full, but Avery enrolled in a drawing course and soon became entranced with the arts. However, his family's financial situation precluded him from making art his full time career. He worked as a file clerk during the evening to allow him to take classes at the more prestigious School of the Art Society of Hartford, where he won awards in portrait painting and drawing.
Avery moved to New York in 1925 at age forty and married Sally Michel, a fellow artist in her twenties, the following year. It was not until twenty years after Avery's death that it was learned that Avery, known for his rectitude, actually lied about his age to court Sally because she was considerably younger. She encouraged him to concentrate on art, and he enrolled in night classes at the Art Students League. There he studied the work of notable painters such as Édouard Vuillard and Henri Matisse, devoured art periodicals, and kept abreast of movements such as Regionalism. Avery, though, did not let himself be swayed by the artistic currents of the day.
Sally acted as breadwinner for the couple through her freelance illustration work, but this wasn't always lucrative. Sally admitted, "The struggle to survive was sometimes a little grim. But my firm belief in Milton's talent buoyed us over the dark days ." Avery's biographer Barbara Haskell wrote that the couple's "entire lives revolved around art; rising at 6 in the morning, they would often draw or paint straight through until dinner ."
Avery and his wife lived next door to Stuart Davis in the artists' complex known as the Lincoln Arcade, and Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia frequently visited the building. Avery also formed friendships with some of the most significant artists of the day, including Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. Rothko and Gottlieb were eighteen years Avery's junior and Newman twenty years, and all openly acknowledged their debt to his work. Critic Maude Riley noted the younger artists' affection for and admiration of Avery, calling him "a sort of institution " in the New York art world.
Beginning in 1935 Avery exhibited with some of the top galleries in New York, and by 1943 when he began showing with Paul Rosenberg, his career was in full swing. He attained critical acclaim, with critic Hilton Kramer lauding his skills as a colorist and others in the art world dubbing him the "American Fauve." His first solo exhibition was at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC in 1944.
According to critic Edwar Aiking, Avery "knew the value of leaving New York City to reinvigorate himself and his family ." The Averys often went to Gloucester, Massachusetts or places in Vermont, and occasionally Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery during these New York absences. These coastal sojourns proved fertile inspiration for some of Avery's most accomplished paintings.
Unfortunately Avery suffered a massive heart attack in 1949 and never fully recovered. His wife commented, "Life became much more important because he almost lost it. I think the very simple things he did were the result of having experienced such a dramatic event in his life ."
As the 1950s dawned, Avery's reputation amongst the New York art world diminished. Rosenberg dropped him in 1950 and sold off his entire stock of Avery works to collector Roy R. Neuberger.
Despite such setbacks, Avery continued to paint. He absolutely loved Provincetown, Massachusetts and summered there in 1957-1960, making it the subject of many of his late works. He experimented with larger and larger canvases, just like "the abstract boys" he once remarked .
Though his reputation ebbed and flowed over the years, even art critic Clement Greenberg came around, writing in 1957 that he had underestimated the artist. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his work in 1960. None of this meant that Avery was wealthy, however; one year he was estimated to have made only $50.
Avery spent the last few years of his life in a hospital in the Bronx after suffering a second heart attack. He died in his sleep in 1965. His funeral was attended by over 600 people, many of them art world luminaries. His close friend Rothko spoke, noting Avery's "greatness" and deeming him an "anchor" for younger artists ; he also called him "a great poet inventor who invented sonorities never seen nor heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come ." Avery was buried in the Artists' Cemetery in Woodstock, New York.
The Legacy of Milton Avery
It is only within the last few decades that Milton Avery has achieved the wider recognition he deserves, but it is telling that some of his greatest apologists during his lifetime were famed Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Avery was an inspiration to them and many others due to his intuitive, impassioned use of color and his ability to convey landscapes and figures with minimal mark-making, free from extraneous detail or narrative. He experimented with thinning his paint and hand-staining his canvases long before the Color Field Painters attained fame by doing so, and he sought to promote medium specificity before Clement Greenberg made it a formalist rallying cry.
Avery straddled the worlds of representation and abstraction, never heeding prevailing art world trends that demanded he choose one or the other. Like his predecessor/contemporary Henri Matisse, he gloried in the application of paint to the canvas and pushed the boundaries of color, line, and form. For Avery there was poetry in minimalism, in the everyday. He strove to create works of surpassing serenity and delicacy, though his quick wit is often discernible in a patch of color, a funky brushstroke, or an attenuated line. American modernists of the 1930s, Abstract Expressionists, and Color Field painters are all indebted to Avery, as are contemporary painters like Mary Weatherford, Peter Doig, Claire Bremner, who see color as a main route to capturing the essence of a person, place, or moment in time.