This is a big season for the semi-abstract American painter Milton Avery (1885-1965). For nearly a year a retrospective with almost 70 of his works has been taking a far-flung route, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas last fall to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut last winter and opening last week as "Milton Avery: American Colourist" at the Royal Academy of Art in London (where it stays until October 16). Here in New York, Yares Art is celebrating its half-century relationship with the artist's estate by "Milton Avery: Fifty Paintings/Fifty Years" (through July 30). Creating not one but two museum-quality shows might tax the powers of most artists, but all things considered Avery's powers are more than equal to the task.
FIRST, THE SHOW AT YARES
Indeed, the Manhattan show – the only one I was fortunate enough to see – is truly lovely. Although it has a requisite number of figure studies, the emphasis is really on landscapes and seascapes, especially in the gallery's opening space – where it originally began in business.
At the entrance to this part of the show there is a very nice picture of a pool player, and another very nice picture of a bather, but the rest of this part of the show is predominantly nature-oriented. Moreover, it displays largely work from the '50s and '60s, when Avery was painting larger and looser – and at last beginning to sell enough of his work to be able to live on it.
Commanding this part of the display is the majestic "Brown Sea" (1958), measuring approximately 4 by 6 feet, and accompanied by its smaller preliminary study, somewhat confusingly titled "Crescent Beach" and measuring 2 x 3 feet.
At right angles to "Brown Sea" is a whole long wall of slightly smaller paintings of bodies of water. At their left end hangs the charming "Birds Over Sea" (1957), my special favorite. To me, it is practically perfect.
Across the elevator bank, in the newer part of Yares' space, are mostly earlier paintings by Avery, and/or figure studies, and/or works on paper – watercolors and the occasional gouache. There are some treasures here, too
FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE PEDESTRIAN
I am less happy with some of the critical reception that has greeted Avery's twin exhibitions. While it has uniformly given Avery's work the high praise it deserves, only some of that praise makes sense to me. The rest is the sort of hoopla that turns me off.
To take just one of the most obvious examples, here in New York, Roberta Smith was given a full page in the New York Times on May 13 to review a) the Yares show b) the retrospective, then in Hartford, and c) "Sally Michel: Reshaping Realism" at D. Wigmore Fine Art (closed June 10). And where does this review begin?
MAVERICK? NOT SO MUCH
In the very first paragraph, Smith calls Avery a "maverick" because he was "artistically unaffiliated, never part of a particular group or movement..."
What she means is that he was only semi-abstract, never an abstract expressionist, but this is to consider him only in the context of the 1950s, when "ab-ex" was getting most of the publicity, or the 1960s, when pop came to the fore.
INSTEAD, ONE OF A CROWD
If one goes back to the 1940s, though, one is struck by the plenitude of semi-abstract artists exhibiting in Manhattan. My dissertation, which dealt with paintings exhibited and discussed in New York in that decade, included a whole section on these semi-abstract painters, listing 13 in all. C.S. Price (b. 1874) was the oldest. Then came Avery, but the group also included Mark Tobey (b. 1890), Karl Knaths (b.1891), Rufino Tamayo (b. 1899), Loren MacIver (b.1909), and Morris Graves (b. 1910).
By contrast, the first generation of abstract expressionists, with the exception of Hans Hofmann, were all born later -- between 1903 (Rothko) and 1916 (Motherwell).
Where the semi-abstract artists had typically begun exhibiting in the 1930s, the abstract expressionists didn't begin getting solo shows until the '40s In my dissertation, I suggested that they didn't take over the leadership of the art scene until the 1949 Whitney Annual, which opened in December and stretched into January 1950.
This show was where the canvases of Pollock (b.1912) and de Kooning (b. 1904) first claimed Stage Center, not only at the museum but also in Art News, the Bible of the industry, and Time, the weekly newsmagazine which in those days might be called the avant-garde's unofficial jeering section.
EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION
However, as I see it, this public acceptance of "ab-ex" (for better or for worse) had been preceded – and made possible by -- three waves of progressively more abstracted artists coming to the fore throughout the previous decade.
At the beginning of the 40s, the gallery shows that commanded the most attention had also been the most objective and literal, whether American Scene painting like that of Grant Wood, "studio painting" like that of Robert Brackman, "social realism" like that of Ben Shahn, or surrealism like that of Dali.
But by the mid-40s, the shows attracting the most attention were of artists commonly known as "expressionist," by which was meant painting characterized by looser, lusher brushwork and freer, more emotional forms.
My candidate for the leader of this expressionist wave (and the central figure in my dissertation) was a mostly-forgotten painter named Abraham Rattner, who showed at Paul Rosenberg (as did Avery). Rattner won a top prize at the 1945 annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with a freely-brushed painting of a newspaper vendor in his kiosk.
Other painters who fit the definition of expressionist and personified this mid-40s trend included two younger ones from Boston, Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine, and two seniors, Max Weber and Marsden Hartley. Despite Hartley's death in 1943, both he and Weber continued to be known for the freely-brushed and moody, but still representational canvases they produced in their old age.
The semi-abstract painters came the fore in the wake of the expressionists. To be sure, many of them – including Avery and Tobey – weren't newcomers. However, the degree of acceptance they received – in the media and (to the extent that the media reflected the enthusiasms of the public) by the public at large as well —crested toward the end of the '40s.
Then – from what I can tell, without having examined the record in as much detail—that enthusiasm subsided in the wake of the much larger waves being generated by a much more radical art form, abstract expressionism.
The other principal part of Roberta Smith's review that irked me occurs at the very end, so that it gets to provide the grand climax. This is the discussion of the Sally Michel show at D. Wigmore.
"Sally who?" you may well have asked -- at any rate, if you're not a Milton Avery fan. If you are an Avery fan, of course, you know that Sally Michel (1902-2003) was Milton Avery's wife, and a talented commercial artist. The couple lived and worked in a small Manhattan apartment (along with their daughter March).
it has often been said that Sally supported them all with her drawings for the New York Times and Macy's Department Store from the 1930s until the l950s. Only in the '50s did Milton's fine-art paintings begin to tell well enough to support the family instead, and not until after his death did Sally begin to exhibit (and presumably sell) fine-art paintings of her own.
This, however, was not enough to satisfy Smith, who argued that Sally and Milton were "joined at the hip" for 40 years, and quoted some (unnamed) art historians as having suggested that "It may be impossible to think of their style as anything but collaborative…."
The critic then discusses the 17 fine-art paintings by Michel at Wigmore, conceding that they "are not as suave as Avery but they have a sharpness of composition and a boldness of color that gives them their own weight, tension and emotional force. They confirm that without Sally Michel, there would have been no Milton Avery, and not just because she brought home the bacon for much of his artistic career."
All of this is in line with fashionable 21st century critical discourse, which puts politics ahead of esthetics and cares more about who makes the art than how good the art itself is. Given these priorities, this discourse elevates female, gay and minority artists at the expense of straight white males whenever possible, and Smith's review is no exception.
Although I didn't see this particular Sally Michel show, I have seen other paintings by Michel, and mostly they look like second-rate Milton Avery. Words like "cute" "sentimental" and even "mawkish" come to mind, but more than any of these, I am reminded of the words of a great 20th century literary critic—T. S. Eliot.
A large percentage of Avery's paintings, especially in the earlier parts of his career, are figure studies, with the figures simplified into a few shapes and lines, and there is no getting away from the fact that these figures come perilously close to cartoons.
I see these cartoon shapes as Michel's most obvious contribution to the family "collaboration." As Smith says, being an illustrator, she was "adept at abbreviating forms."
Then again, it's really Avery's landscapes and seascapes that have an element of the timeless for me; the figure studies are more often time-bound, especially when they occupy most of their picture-plane.
Even when they do come off, I am reminded of Eliot's dictum: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn."
To me, Avery was the better poet in this family.
ENTER AVERY'S MOST SIGNIFICANT FAN CLUB
Tobey, Avery and maybe Tamayo are the only three members of that group of semi-abstract painters from the later '40s whose reputations continued to survive and even grow after 1950, and from what I can tell, all three had to adapt to the climate of the new decade. In Avery's case, many of his paintings grew larger and yet freer in their outlines, especially from the period beginning around 1957.
This was particularly true with his increasing number of landscapes, seascapes and those many paintings which dealt with skies and beaches in combination with the sea.
Also in the 1950s, three longtime painter friends of Avery's became art-world celebrities themselves: Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. The foursome had met back in the 1920s, when all were still studying at the Art Students League, and in those days, their work had much in common.
To a degree, they were influenced by American Scene painters like Thomas Hart Benton, but more by Precisionists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, who found cubist-like beauty in industrial forms.
At any rate, this was certainly true of Avery, to judge from an excellent show of such industrial works by him from the '20s and '30s held at Knoedler's back in 2010.
(I wonder what's become of those works? There's only one 1941 subway scene at Yares, and it focuses on faces not industrial forms. Nor do any of the critics covering the retrospective mention this phase in Avery's career, though the show does seem to include other work from the '30s).
I have also perceived hints of this period in the four men's lives in the few subway scenes of Rothko from the '30s that I've seen, and comparable early work by Gottlieb. I haven't seen any such "Precisionist" work by Newman, but then I've read that he himself destroyed all his work done prior to 1945.
However, these three abstract expressionists uniformly praised Avery and credited him with having influenced them. This seems to have helped Avery's sales and moreover his critical reception.
In the '40s, Clement Greenberg had been dismissive of Avery – as he was of many expressionist and semi-abstract artists. Commonly, he wrote of their tendency to "illustrate" feeling in their paintings, instead of "expressing" it—the way that his own favorites, the abstract expressionists did.
However, by 1957, those abstract expressionists had gained enough attention so that invidious comparisons were no longer necessary, and Greenberg wrote favorably about Avery as one of their principal representational sources of inspiration instead.
Moreover, the article he published in Arts that year on Avery was one of the relative few out of his many publications chosen by him for revision and inclusion in his widely-read "Art and Culture" (1961).
AND HOW ABOUT AVERY'S BOOSTERS IN LONDON?
Funnily enough, none of the critics I've read mention Greenberg as an admirer of Avery. But goodness knows, some of them make a big deal of how much credit was given him by those abstractionists who had been his friends since the 1920s.
In London, to be sure, the critics were merely following the lead provided by the Royal Academy – whose website in huge type leads off its promo with "Worshipped by Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Milton Avery expressed his vision of the world through harmonious colour and simplified forms."
Still, the way that some of these London reviewers describe the debt that Rothko et al. owed to Avery leaves one wondering how these artists would have reacted to these reviews.
Take Jonathan Jones, a 46-year-old critic for The Guardian, who led off his review with "As this brilliant exhibition shows, Avery was an experimental dreamer whose sublime landscapes and beach scenes paved the way for Rothko, Pollock and Newman.".
How does Pollock get into the mix, one wonders? He had nothing to do with Avery – unless one reads the phrase "paved the way" to refer to public acceptance, as opposed to artistic influence, which is not what Rothko and Newman meant…
Jones is similarly curious in his comparisons between Avery on the one hand and Rothko and Newman on the other. He viewed Avery as "a missing link between landscape and abstraction," and has nothing to say about American Scene painting or Precisionism let alone the bath in French surrealism that Rothko, Gottlieb and for all I know also Newman found it necessary to swim through on their challenging way to abstract expressionism.
Rather, this Guardian critic seemed to consider abstraction a simple matter of removing the figurative elements from an impressionist painting.
As one example, he offers Avery's "Man with a Pipe," which he calls "a deliberately bizarre scene painted in 1935. But remove the people and you would have three layers of abstract colour: a blackish sky over a gray ocean over a yellow beach. Exactly the kind of sublime vertical stack of colours Rothko painted."
Again, to demonstrate this simplistic understanding of an artist's evolution from representation to abstraction: "It isn't just Rothko's rectangles of moody color you see in [Avery's] scenes," he wrote. "Take the memento mori objects out of his 1946 painting, Still Life with Skull, and you see the vertical lines that
Barnett Newman made his trademark.".
NOW A FEW WORDS FROM AN OLD-TIMEY FORMALIST
Clement Greenberg actually knew Rothko, Newman and Gottlieb. The latter two were good friends of his, and although Rothko was more stand-offish and asked the critic not to review his gallery shows, he doesn't seem to have objected to being included in "American-Type Painting" (1955;1958), Greenberg's often quoted and reprinted introduction to the school as a whole.
The critic's familiarity with these three abstract expressionists is reflected in his discussion of their relationship to Avery, and the way he did so represents a step onward from his earlier dismissal of Avery.
Although the critic didn't say so, it was something of a shift for him to concede that a younger American's semi-abstract paintings could convey "feeling" – just as an abstract painting could. Yet the critic's 1957/61 explanation for the admiration felt for Avery by Rothko et al. rested on his claim that Avery's "feeling" was what his art transmitted to them.
"That the younger 'anti-Cubist' abstract painters who admire Avery do not share his naturalism has not prevented them from learning from him any more than it has prevented them from admiring him," Greenberg wrote. "His art demonstrates how sheer truth of feeling can galvanize what seem the most inertly decorative elements – a tenuous flatness; pure, largely valueless contrasts of hue; large, unbroken tracts of uniform color; an utter unaccented simplicity of design – into tight and dramatic unities in which the equivalents of the beginning, middle and end of the traditional easel picture are fully sensed. His painting shows once again how relatively indifferent the concrete means of art become where force of feeling takes over."
Doesn't this description of Avery's surfaces make them sound more interesting, challenging and admirable than Jonathan Jones's meat-axe eagerness to tag these surfaces with "equivalences" to the mannerisms of Rothko or Newman? But this is what old-fashioned "formal analysis" looks like—painter's language, and apparently too challenging for use in the media today.
Then there is Greenberg's reference to "feeling," a term that he had used often in the '40s with reference to Pollock and others but would eventually discard when he concluded that it was no guarantee of quality
Here, in the concession that even a representational painter like Avery could express feeling is maybe the beginning of the end but none the less flattering for all that.
The version of this essay in "Art and Culture" ends on a prophetic note: Greenberg foresaw the day when Avery might be exported, and wondered how well his art would travel.
He suggested that perhaps the artist's narrowness of "impact" might explain "why Avery, like Marin, and like Paul Nash in England, has proved unexportable so far. But one hesitates to accept this explanation, just as one hesitates to accept the idea of unexportability in general. There are certain seascapes Avery painted in Provincetown in the summers of 1957 and 1958 that I would expect to stand out in Paris, or Rome or London just as much as they do in New York."
One final thought, before I send my readers scampering off to Yares (where they have only two days left to see this wonderful show), or the RA (where they have until October).
Doesn't influence run both ways?
Whatever cartoon imagery Sally Michel passed along to hubby Milton seems to have been only one aspect of his painting, whereas her paintings most likely borrow practically everything else from his—why else would they look so much like feeble Milton Averys?
Similarly, why do Milton's paintings grow in scale and simplicity in the later '50s and '60s – if not in response to the larger and simpler abstract expressionist paintings by Rothko, Newman and Gottlieb being exhibited, praised and sold at that time?