Milton Avery


About The Artist


The work of American modern painter Milton Avery (1885–1965) represents an important turning point in the history of 20th century art. Working between figuration and abstraction, Avery executed his forms using the most economic means. Described by critic Hilton Kramer as “without question, our greatest colorist”, his flat planes of vivid color are reminiscent of the saturated tones employed by Fauvist artists like Henri Matisse and Franz Marc. Hailing from Altmar, New York, Avery started his career while working in a succession of blue-collar jobs. He began painting in his spare time and taking classes at the Art Students League of New York in the 1920s.

Avery’s paintings and works on paper are characterized by their atmospheric tone, achieved simply and directly through the use of simple, blocky forms and bold tones. His enigmatic subjects, ranging from mysterious figures to dreamy landscapes, were taken from everyday life yet became infused with an elemental power under Avery’s gaze. As his widow Sally Avery explained, Avery was fascinated by “the landscape and the seascape...I love what Rothko said – out of these homely subjects great poems are made. It wasn't the subject that was great; it was Milton that was great. And he took these ordinary subjects and infused them with a great deal of poetry.”

Understated, yet poetic, Avery’s work was considered masterful by many seminal 20th century artists. Despite somewhat obscure origins, he acquired a circle of prominent admirers, including Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko - the latter exhibited alongside Avery at the Opportunity Gallery in New York and became a close friend of both the artist and his wife. It has been suggested that Rothko’s later use of thinned paint can be attributed to his weekly sketching sessions at Avery’s apartment. While Avery did not espouse any particular artistic theories, nor was associated with any school of art, his radical approach to painting proved deeply influential for generations of abstract artists to come.

Kramer, HIlton. “Art View; AVERY-'OUR GREATEST COLORIST’. New York Times. April 12, 1981. Web. Aug, 28 2016. Raynor, Vivian. “ART; MILTON AVERY: PAINTINGS ON PAPER AT THE WHITNEY.” New York Times. Oct, 10, 1982. Web. Aug, 28 2016. “Oral history interview with Sally Avery.” February 19, 1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Web, Aug 28, 2016. Galenson, David W. Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Princeton University Press, 2006. 89.