Milton Avery – Form into Colour, by Edith Devaney

Notwithstanding the considerable and rich body of work which he produced over his lifetime, Milton Avery’s particular place in the history of American art has proved consistently difficult for art historians to neatly define and categorise. Never affiliated to a particular artistic group or tendency, he rather spanned, and to an extent became the link between, two significant twentieth-century national movements, American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism,

both of which had an impact on Avery’s own oeuvre. It is also significant that, through his close association with some of the younger key exponents of Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work from the late 1920s and 1930s played an influential role in that movement’s development and unfolding.

Avery’s work from the late 1920s and 1930s played an influential role in Abstract Expressionism’s development and unfolding.

There is, perhaps unreasonably, an expectation for artists to offer a sense of direction regarding their particular position in the artistic canon by articulating their thoughts and influences on the execution of their work; in other words, to reveal their motivation and give an account of their sense of their own artistic heritage. With his reticence to talk about, or in any way explain his work – “Why talk when you can paint?”[1] is his much-quoted remark – Avery has left scant verbal or written matter relating to his work, making it difficult to chart his psychological and intellectual development alongside that of his painting. The observations of others however provide an invaluable insight, offering both a sense of his influence as well as his standing


Mark Rothko: There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush.[2]


Adolph Gottlieb: I always regarded him as a brilliant colorist and draftsman, a solitary figure working against the stream.[3]


Barnett Newman: The fact is that Avery is one of the most important painters who has come out of America.[4]


The intellectual and artist John Graham, a contemporary and associate of Avery, opined in his influential theory of abstract art System and Dialectics of Art: “art in particular is a systematic confession of  personality” [5]. It is a statement fitting to Avery, who constantly strove – particularly in his later works – to communicate a sense of truth. Truth: not only in his depiction of the subject as he perceived it, but also in emotions which engaged him whilst he contemplated it. Avery’s paintings reveal everything about the man and the artist.


To a considerable extent, Avery’s early life and unconventional and lengthy route into the art world help adumbrate his arrival at, and his steadfast dedication to, his own particular artistic inclination. Born in 1885 in north-central New York, to a working class family which finally settled in Connecticut near Hartford where his father worked as a tanner, Avery left school without graduating and started factory work at the age of sixteen. In 1905 he enrolled in a course of commercial lettering at the Connecticut League of Art Students. This attempt to further his earning prospects was most likely prompted by the untimely death of his father at the beginning of the same year, placing pressure on the young Avery to provide financial support for the family. Encouraged by the League’s art teacher to transfer to a drawing class a

month later, when the lettering class was discontinued, his attendance at the evening art classes and related discussions continued until 1918, when he transferred to the School of the Art Society of Hartford.


The art training Avery received across both organisations was traditional and academic, but at the same time largely part-time and somewhat informal. Indeed, despite receiving artistic instruction for fifteen years, Avery did not gain a recognised qualification; consequently, it has been stated by some commentators that Avery was essentially “self-taught”. It is certainly clear that his autodidactic propensity, honed during his years of attending classes, continued unabated throughout the rest of his career, ensuring his constant artistic development. The reasoning for the self-imposed length of training is unknown. By 1911 he felt sufficiently proficient and committed to describe his occupation as “an artist”, suggesting that he had no sense of self-doubt regarding his ability. This would have been confirmed by the approbation, albeit on a modest scale, which followed from 1915 when he started to exhibit locally. His work from this period is accomplished, though traditional, reflecting the influence of his teachers and their allegiance to American Impressionism. The more romantic landscapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), imbued with symbolism, were also of great interest to Avery, as must have been Ryder’s steadfastly personal vision.

Avery’s early and midcareer subjects represented the quotidian, taking much from the European Modernist painters…

The depiction of the natural world seen in the American Impressionists John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) and Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) held much appeal to Avery, particularly their focus on the landscape and of painting directly from the motif. Working at the same time as the American Realist and Regionalist artists, who included Grant Wood (1891-1942) and Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975; famously tutor to the young Jackson Pollock), Avery’s approach to figuration was wildly different from these contemporaries. Eschewing any socio-political subject matter, Avery’s early and midcareer subjects represented the quotidian, taking much from the European Modernist painters, where the deliberate ordinariness of the subject served to highlight the work’s composition.


Most importantly Avery’s vision was a universal one, as opposed to the native concerns of the Realists and Regionalists. This more expansive view also ruled him out of Alfred Stieglitz’s celebration of cultural nationalism as seen in his “Seven Americans” group of artists which first exhibited together in 1925. This group, featuring amongst others Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, were united in their mystical vison of America and deliberate shift away from European modernism. Avery’s later work, leaning more towards the abstract, placed him even further out of step from these contemporaries. Unlike theirs, and to a certain extent the younger Abstract Expressionists’ work, Avery’s painting did not emerge from the concerns which were radically changing American life: the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and its resultant economic devastation; the Second World War; the nuclear bomb; and the Cold War. His singularity of vision enabled him to retain his inherent focus on the harmony of his paintings – a perfect balance between composition and subject. This is not to suggest that Avery was indifferent or insensible to the momentous changes and uncertainties existing around him, but any emotion engendered in his work was “the emotion aroused in me by the impact with the original idea”.[6] This understanding of what was essentially expressionism was not lost on the younger Abstract Expressionists, who developed this notion further, with the emotional element effectively becoming the painting’s subject. Mark Rothko later claimed that he (Rothko) was “only interested in expressing basic human emotions”[7]

Following his marriage in 1926 to the younger artist Sally Michel, Avery dedicated himself full-time to his painting…

Arriving in New York in 1925, Avery encountered an art scene which mirrored the dismal cultural and political times, with little opportunity either to see or exhibit art. However, his arrival coincided with the beginning of what was to be one of the most creative periods of regeneration in America’s cultural history, starting in 1929 with the opening of MoMA under the direction of the visionary Alfred Barr, and the Whitney Museum of American Art opening three years later. By the 1930s many influential artists and intellectuals, fleeing the rise of Nazism in Europe, had settled in New York. Josef Albers and, later, Hans Hofmann resumed their teaching practice in America, exporting many European practices to the US. By the 1940s Marcel Duchamp, Andr. Breton, Max Ernst and Roberto Matta, amongst others, had arrived, making an inevitable impact on New York’s artistic community, and bringing with them a deeper understanding of the recent major European artistic movements of Surrealism and Cubism – both critical to the development of Abstract Expressionism.


Following his marriage in 1926 to the younger artist Sally Michel, Avery dedicated himself full-time to his painting; he was able to do so thanks to Sally’s freelance illustration work which supported them. Although, as earlier noted, Avery did not fit into any particular group or tendency, it is important to stress that he was not an outsider as such. He did not remove himself from the  art world in the way of a contemporary such as Joseph Cornell, but nor was he inside any fold either; for his steadfast adherence to figuration, and to an extent his seniority to those painters he felt most artistic allegiance to, effectively kept him out of the various “inner circles”.


Avery fully embraced the artistic scene in New York where, amongst many others, he would have become familiar with the work of his contemporaries and the younger generation of artists, as well as absorbing all the ideas imported from Europe. Avery’s first inclusion in a group show at the Opportunity Gallery in 1928 resulted in the painter Max Weber, who had been a student of Matisse’s atelier, offering Avery his first solo exhibition in New York. He began attending the Art Students League drawing classes several evenings each week and sought out the society of other artists, often entertaining in his modest apartment. An avid reader of periodicals covering the contemporary arts, he was also a regular visitor to galleries. It is most likely that he visited the Matisse retrospective at the Valentine Gallery in 1927, and the larger 1931 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Picasso’s work was also shown in New York from the late 1920s, which he undoubtedly would have seen.

The art historian Dore Ashton suggests that it was Matisse who was the agent of Avery’s most significant development in technique…

It is clear from the development of his work from this period that, as well as absorbing the many contemporary artistic influences, it was the European masters Matisse and Picasso who provided Avery with the strongest stimulus for change. The art historian Dore Ashton suggests that it was Matisse who was the agent of Avery’s most significant development in technique – the thinning and layering of paint, the abandonment of traditional perspective and the employment of colour.


In Matisse he could also study radical ways to use color both as expression and as a way of modulating space.[8] 


La Desserte Rouge was included in the MoMA retrospective. And in Avery’s 1946 Still Life with Skull , although he has not replicated any of Matisse’s elaborate patterning, the ornamental cockerel evokes a sense of the swirling blue forms. But it is the composition and the application of colour, the effect of which is both to unify and flatten out the background, which takes something from Matisse. As in La Desserte, Avery’s slightly aerial view and frontal position of the table deliberately distorts the sense of perspective. Grey Nude, 1943-44, with its stone colouring, devoid of any sense of living skin, and unnatural proportions, owes much to Matisse’s paintings of monumental nudes, and indeed to his sculptural figures, which were also included in the MoMA exhibition. White Pitcher of 1946 bears an interesting comparison to Matisse’s Nature Morte aux asphodèles, of 1907. The key components, the jug of flowers set on an angled table, are present in both, but Avery pares back on both detail and colour, creating a great sense of simplicity and harmony, the light, subtly toned paint bringing a lambent quality to the composition.

His highly sophisticated understanding of colour was passed on, in particular, to Rothko and Newman.

The curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Avery retrospective of 1982, Barbara Haskell, notes in the exhibition catalogue that the 1940s saw a distinct shift in Avery’s approach to colour – “he consistently introduced colors into his compositions which, while related to reality, were not necessarily naturalistic”[9] – suggesting that Avery’s increasing use of “non-associative color” moved his work closer towards abstraction. This can be clearly traced through the late landscape works, where Avery’s typically prosaic descriptive titles such as French Landscape, 1953, and Boathouse by the Sea, 1959, become an essential tool in deciphering the work’s increasingly abstracted imagery.


The development of Avery’s sophisticated and profound understanding of colour can be traced across his career, culminating in the late paintings’ remarkable ability to employ colour to give coherence to form, intimate perspective and evoke mood. Avery’s juxtaposing of colour planes creates a cohesion in his compositions, affording them a sense of resolution, serenity and beauty. It is not only his ability to balance colour fields in order to create harmony which is of note, but also the subtlety with which he paints each of those colours. The colour planes appear at first glance to be one solid tone, but are in fact highly modulated layers of subtly graded thinned paint which creates luminous textures. His mastery of watercolour trained him to work in a medium with less viscosity, to control the application of layers of fluid oil paint.


Avery’s approach to colour would also undoubtedly have been subjected to the ideas coming from the younger Abstract Expressionist artists and in particular those who had become close friends and associates, namely Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman – all later labelled in 1961 by Clement Greenberg as “color field painters”. Avery first met Mark Rothko in 1929, with Gottlieb and Newman being introduced soon after. For the next decade Rothko and Gottlieb, in particular, were regular visitors to Avery’s home, where they would discuss painting and look at his latest work. Nearly twenty years their senior, Avery was admired by the younger artists. They valued his assessment of their work and were inspired by his, and indeed by his work ethic, sometimes producing a painting a day. It is clear from the development of their  painting style soon after meeting Avery, that the younger artists absorbed much from him. The subject matter, palette, composition and handling of paint owe much to Avery’s influence, as can be seen in Rothko’s Untitled (Seated Woman with Crossed Legs), c.1935, and Gottlieb’s Seated Nude, 1934.

Avery’s juxtaposing of colour planes creates a cohesion in his compositions, affording them a sense of resolution, serenity and beauty.

These friendships continued for thirty years – until Avery’s death. He was therefore not on the periphery of the developing phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism, but could be more accurately described as being an adjunct member of the movement. Indeed, his highly sophisticated understanding of colour was passed on, in particular, to Rothko and Newman. Rothko’s multiform work, No 1 (No 18, 1948), 1948-9, although fully abstracted, has a similarity of form to Avery’s landscapes from the same period. Influence can of course work in  both directions, and in Avery’s late landscapes – of which Ten Pound Island (Sea and Rocks), 1956, is a good example – there is a strong sense of his younger artistic friends influencing his work. The scale of the paintings increases, and in the semi-abstracted forms – thinly painted in several layers, with more blurring around the edges – the colours run into each other, much as in Rothko’s paintings. Like Matisse, Avery was on a journey of constant artistic growth, with an open mind, looking, with equal focus, back at those who had gone before and the new generations coming up behind him.


The early fascination of working from the motif, in the landscape, suggests Avery’s concern in capturing nature’s changing seasons and light. This was an enduring interest as can be seen from Avery’s time in Mexico in 1946 where, enchanted by the city and landscape, he filled notebooks with watercolours and drawings. The paintings he developed from the sketches are full of vibrant hues and clearly defined outlines, perfectly capturing the saturated colour and brilliantly sharp light of Mexico.


Avery’s summers spent in Provincetown, on Cape  Cod, from 1957 to 1961 confirm this sensitive response to his environment. Here the vast expanse of beach and sea find expression in his paintings, bringing an even more profound sensitivity to the works, with the colour and evocation of light pushing form to the very edges of abstraction. But the work of his friends, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, who were also spending the summers in the popular artists’ colony, would have played a part in this development too. With their studios in immediate proximity, they had plenty of opportunity to spend time together, to contemplate the light and the landscape and discuss how it affected their work. By this stage Rothko was painting his large-scale rectangles of floating colour, and Gottlieb his classic “Burst” series. And so the three artists continued to play a part in each other’s creative output. The balance of influence had by this stage tipped in the other direction, with the larger and more abstracted works of his friends giving Avery permission to push his own boundaries. Painting on a larger scale, Avery’s works become simultaneously bolder and increasingly ethereal. Yacht Race in Fog, 1959, for example, refines and reinterprets nature to create a composition of great power and beauty. Here the subject is subsumed by the colour, with a single modulated tone dominating the canvas – the colour becoming both the form and the subject.

Yacht Race in Fog refines and reinterprets nature to create a composition of great power and beauty.

Although never reaching the same levels of fame and celebration as some of the younger Abstract Expressionist artists during his lifetime, Avery did enjoy the focus of some attention in the last decades of his life. In 1957 the critic and writer Clement Greenberg, who had been the champion of Jackson Pollock from the late 1940s, wrote a long article in praise of Avery, in which he tackled the question we are still considering today: why, given the “sublime lightness” of his hand and the “morality of his eye” has Avery’s work not received the attention it commands? He concluded that it was most likely the “subtleness to which his exactness is so important”. By “exactness” Greenberg is referring to all the elements which Avery presents in perfect balance – form, colour, depth. Of course, all successful art confronts us with this factor of exactness, but rarely does the necessity of exactness cover as much as it does in Avery’s case.[10] Falling under the spotlight of arguably the most important art critic and tastemaker of the time must have played some part in the American Federation of Arts touring a major museum retrospective exhibition of Avery’s work three years later in 1960. It was both well received and reviewed. There followed the first monograph on Avery’s work by Hilton Kramer in 1962,  which considered his work and practice across his entire career. Sadly, by this stage, Avery’s health was in decline, and by 1964 he had completed what was to be his final painting. 


Since his death, Milton Avery’s work has continued to be reassessed and appraised, and his position in the history of American art considered. As Dore Ashton so accurately wrote, Avery is a “painters’ painter” – a natural and gifted artist who was devoted to the creation of work, of capturing life; and whose art was, and continues to be, held in the highest regard by other painters. Mark Rothko ended his memorial address to Avery in 1965, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, by articulating his personal grief for the loss of this “great man”, and spoke for the many present and those yet to come in his concluding remark:


I rejoice for what he has left us.

This essay was originally published to accompany the exhibition Milton Avery held at Victoria Miro Mayfair in 2017, and appears in the accompanying book. The exhibition featured paintings and works on paper from throughout Avery's career with a focus on important paintings created as a result of Avery’s sole trip to Europe in 1952, when he visited London, Paris and the South of France. 


Edith Devaney is Contemporary Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

About Milton Avery


Twentieth-century American master Milton Avery (1885–1965) is renowned for his luminous paintings of landscapes, figures, and still lifes.


Milton Avery’s work is represented in major museums and private collections worldwide including the Art Institute of Chicago; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; LACMA; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts Boston; MoMA; National Gallery of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Phillips Collection; SFMOMA; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Tate; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art and the Whitney.


1. Milton Avery quoted in Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harper & Row Publishers, 1982) pp. 13 and 53

2. Mark Rothko, Memorial Address, delivered 7 January 1965, in Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, 1982, p. 181 

3. Adolph Gottlieb, Interview with Charlotte Willard, The New York Post (January 10, 1965), quoted in Mary Davis McNaughton, ‘Adolph Gottlieb: The Early Work’, in Adolph Gottlieb, A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue (New York: The Arts Publisher, in association with the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, 1981)

4. Barnett Newman, 1945, in John P. O’Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990) pp. 77–80

5. John Graham, “What is Art?”, from System and Dialectics in Art (1937), in Ellen G. Landau, ed., Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005)

6. Milton Avery quoted in Contemporary American Painting, exhibition catalogue (Urbana, Illinois: College of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Illinois, 1951) p. 159, quoted in Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, 1982,p. 156

7. Mark Rothko, “Notes from a conversation with Selden Rodman, 1956” in Miguel López-Remiro, ed., Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) p. 119

8. Dore Ashton essay from Milton Avery: Mexico, exhibition catalogue (New York: Grace Borgenicht Gallery, 1983) n.p.

9. Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, 1982, p. 72

10. Clement Greenberg in his essay ‘Milton Avery’ of 1961 (revised from original of 1957),

in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993) pp 39-44


Images from top:


Excursion on the Thames (detail), 1953

Seaside, 1931

Choppy Harbor, c.1930s

Female Artist, 1945

Still Life with Skull, 1946

Grazing Brahmins, 1952

Boathouse by the Sea, 1959

Yacht Race in Fog, 1959

Excursion on the Thames, 1953

Young Couple (Husband and Wife), 1963


All works © 2020 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2020

Text © Edith Devaney


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