Milton Avery’s unique American modernism. By Matthew Sperling
‘Why talk when you can paint?’, Milton Avery (1885–1965) would say when asked to make statements about his work. The quality of settled calm confidence that underlies this remark shines through equally in the 16 paintings and works on paper in Victoria Miro’s new exhibition of Avery’s work, the first to be held in London for a decade. The works included in the exhibition span more than 30 years of enchanted lyricism and painterly deftness, and they confirm Avery as one of the under-regarded heroes of American modernism.
Consider Wader (1963), a painting made in Avery’s eighth decade. A blonde-haired woman in a red bikini walks towards the viewer, standing calf-deep in a gently running river which recedes to an invisible vanishing point behind her back. Behind her, the wooded mountains of the Catskills rise up against a red sky. It is an image of luminous energy and longing, at once dreamy and commonplace. It is also a masterpiece of improvised variety in mark-making: the surface of the water is built up in thick, loose brushstrokes, the river’s banks are decisively marked in long lines, and the texture of the canvas board is liberally allowed to show through the muted layer of red that makes up the sky, so that form and matter seem to be magically at one.