ON VIEW AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS
A major retrospective investigating the works of an artist who, in allowing the influence of others, carved his own “staunchly independent path”.
Fulfilled by the stimulus of both European modernism and the practice of his avant-garde American contemporaries, this show unwinds a vast collation of Milton Avery’s most celebrated works.
Where the height of his career landed on this transitional period between the two historical discourses, it was truly a delight to see the variation of his experimentation. He remained wonderfully untethered by any particular formula and rather allowed the scenes of everyday life and loved ones to impress into the pores of his canvases.
Avery’s brilliance lies in his non associative colours and confidence in heavy abstraction that remain to “never invent what his eye did not witness”Royal Academy of Arts
Whilst some works visited the en plein air compositional approach, others teetered onto the richer seductive pallet, perhaps hinting towards that of Parisian modernism. His Coney Island piece in particular was suggestive of this influence. That rather vivacious debauchery found in the work of Toulouse-Lautrec for example, is presenting its influence in the obscured angle of this active scene.
The confidently striking ‘Man with Pipe’ was a personal favourite.
The secret sauce to Avery’s fascinating trajectory was this trans-Atlantic middle ground that wavers from what was initially deeply euro-centric to then an unquestionable immersion into abstract expressionism and colour field painting, akin to that of Rothko.
The bold lines that carve through his subjects remains a confident element throughout his practice, although this is not to negate from the balanced sensibility of his earthy colour pallet. His ability to impress layers of evocative depth becomes a more refined element over time, as we see with the perfectly symmetrical March in Babushka.
The winter green against the barely-there etching of the face brings out a light delicacy unseen in his bolder colour field focused portraits that emerged later on.
As we enter the latter end of his career the figures become more languid and indifferent in their confrontation to the viewer. His focus begins to lean more into the harmony of colour and composition, as opposed to detail and form.
We’re in cape cod here where he spent the summer with Rothko and Gottlieb. The reduced human form and simplified flattened planes of colour bring us to the hallmark of his visual practice. We start to lose the figurative presence completely as his confidence and finesse in abstraction progresses.
This piece reminds me of the topographical landscape practices we see from Helen Frankenthaler.
The warmth in these works highlight a final shift in dialogue from where he once marvelled on the figuration of Matisse and Lautrec, here he is absorbing the younger style of the incoming abstract expressionists.
Such strength in dialogue through the configuration of colour and shape is what framed this exhibit to truly so captivating.
As the poet Kelly Grovier suggests in a feature for the RA magazine,
“If you want to hear Avery … listen closely to the canvases themselves – to the exquisite colloquies they strike, deliberately or subconsciously, with everyone from Ernest Lawson to Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse to Mark Rothko.”Royal Academy of Arts