The title of this lovely and succinct survey of Milton Avery’s career might strike the visitor, at first blush, as a bit shopworn and predictable. But it is entirely apt and gets right to the point in insisting that the expression—or, better still, the capturing—of a sense of place is essential to understanding what Avery was trying to achieve. This is perhaps most easily seen, and felt, in the landscapes he painted in the 1920s and 1930s, during which he summered first in Gloucester for over a ten-year period and later in the Green Mountains in Vermont and on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec.
Not surprisingly, these artworks bear the stamp of the regionalist aesthetic that became one of the dominant strains of American painting between the two world wars. Even so they also clearly reflect Milton Avery’s growing embrace of modernism as he continued to mature as a colorist and to simplify his pictorial compositions into arrangements of flat shapes in contrasting colors and tones.
The outcome of this process as it unfolded over the course of the 1940s and thereafter is the Avery that we know best and admire the most today. It is tempting to say that works like Hint of Autumn, painted in 1954 in New Hampshire, or Dark Pool, painted a few years earlier in Provincetown, although inspired by these specific locales, also transcended them by virtue of their abstraction, which imbues them with an iconic, almost universal character.
It was Avery’s great gift to make the part stand for the whole and to invest a simple detail with the capacity to tell us far more than we assume it might a first glance. And it is what continues to endear his work to us today.
Avery’s unique place in the history of American art in the 20th century continues to be a source of fascination. Although his work has never truly fallen out of fashion with collectors, it is time for another look. This exhibition, curated by the artist’s grandson, Sean Avery Cavanaugh, and Waqas Wajahat, is a welcome sign of things to come, with an ambitious retrospective, organized by Edith Devaney and the Royal Academy in London, scheduled to open at The Modern in Fort Worth this November. It will then travel to the Wadsworth in Hartford and finally at the Royal Academy next summer. For those who have not yet had an opportunity to take the full measure of Avery’s achievement, it is not to be missed.
The George D. Widener Director & Chief Executive Officer Philadelphia Museum of Art