The Telegraph reviews Milton Avery


Milton Avery: American Colourist, review:
The 20th-century 
colossus you’ve probably never heard of

By Cal Revely-Calder 12 July 2022 • 1:08pm

An Impressionist at the start, an Abstract Expressionist by the end. In between came 50 years of protean style, swept around on eddies from the currents of Western art. Milton Avery (18851965) was a colossus of 20th-century painting, in his native America and beyond, yet his flexible brilliance, you feel, was also his handicap. As visitors to American Colourist enter the Royal Academy, too few will have a sense of him, much less rank him with Rothko and Newman his admirers, peers and friends. Those visitors should leave, if they’ve paid attention, with a new star in their firmament.

There are 67 pieces here, mostly paintings, hung across three rooms. It’s the first solo show of Avery’s work in a European public gallery, and it sweeps you through a half- century of flux: we move from scrupulous little landscapes, made outdoors in Connecticut, to towering colour-field canvases with nearly all detail abstracted away.

This is a man who ate art like air. Avery took classes of various forms from the early 1900s to the 1930s, by which time he’d decamped to New York, and was spending his nights with other painters and Saturdays in galleries. From the mid-1920s on, his landscapes abandon the regular, and grow increasingly rich and strange. They’re stripped-back, brooding and torqued; they bow as if pressurised, with trees punching into the sky and oceans cutting into the land.

As the exhibition moves into portraits, both human and animal, as well as a range of indoor scenes, you spot the blend of rudiment and sophistication that marks the influence of Matisse. (The connection was noticed during Avery’s life, though he wouldn’t be drawn himself. Only two comments on Matisse are recorded; one was “I like the way he puts the paint on”, the other was a disavowal.)

There are plenty more artists at this feast students can hunt for ghosts but more curious is Avery’s refusal to be himself. In the second gallery, look at Husband and Wife: the clothes are chamfered down to blocks, as if Miró had turned to couture, and the faces are drawn with ridge-thin lines, like Futurist hieroglyphs. Yet several feet away is the art dealer Dikran G Kelekian, in which shadows are pooling in the depths of the subject’s thinly-painted cheeks. Avery painted these portraits in 1945 and 1943, only two years apart and in the year between, he gave us Seated Girl With Dog, in which the face is a formless shield, bisected, in panels of pink and red.

You might say, by way of summary, that the motor of Avery’s pictures changed from detail to colour, and static, precise fidelity became a rhythm of forms and hues. The late seascapes would bear this out: a boat leaves a right-angled wake, the swell is advancing in jagged blocks. The Speedboat in a Choppy Sea (1960) could be crossing a woven mat: waves were never so ochre, nor their crests so turquoise-lit. And the final work is Boathouse By the Sea (1959), a beautiful tripartite painting in red, yellow and blue, with a black form a roof? – cutting diagonally through the frame. If that’s meant to be a bathhouse, you think, he wound up fluent in Rothko, not Derain or Van Gogh. Yet it’s not as straightforward as that: nearby is Sails in Sunset Sea, dated one year later, in which jubilant loops of pink surround two cursory, but recognisable, boats.

The Royal Academy, to its credit, doesn't push the coherence of the show. Its subtitle, American Colourist, is good: “colourist” meant different things over Avery’s life (as did “American”). And the mood, though vivacious, is far from demonstrative: almost none of the pictures are crowd-grabbers, few seize a room or wall, and a handful are slightly dull.

But you’re looking at forays, steps through the 20th century. Avery’s career seems forever elusive, always untrue to itself. To sum him up wouldn’t be the most rewarding way to approach this show. I just know that I like the way he puts the paint on that, and plenty more.

Friday July 15-October 16. Tickets: 020 7300 8090;

July 12, 2022
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