The WSJ reviews Milton Avery

‘Milton Avery’ Review: A Luminary Outside the Mainstream

The painter’s first retrospective since 1982 reveals the genius in his formal economy and use of color.

Fort Worth, Texas


Most of the reviews and discussions of the work of 20th-century American painter Milton Avery (1885-1965) employ many of the same phrases. He was an “outlier,” a gifted painter out of tune with his times, a man swimming against the tide of art history. 


Many artists have a well-worn biographical narrative, of course, but Avery’s story was tragic. Born into a poor family in upstate New York, he became the breadwinner after the deaths of his father and brother-in-law. Throughout his career, he worked blisteringly hard for modest fame and watched as younger artists and friends like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman rose. Dismissed by the primary art critic of his time ( Clement Greenberg, who later reversed his decision), Avery did achieve gallery representation—until a dealer liquidated his work at fire-sale prices. Today, among painters, Avery is revered as something of a cult figure, an American Matisse, in his understanding of color. But his misfortunes and exclusion have become almost as legendary as his work.

Almost, but not quite. A sweeping new 70-plus-work exhibition seeks to rewrite that narrative and grant him a more specific place in art history. It, not incidentally, will bring the breadth of his achievements to a European museum audience for the first time.


The exhibition “Milton Avery,” the painter’s first retrospective since 1982, is at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through Jan. 30, 2022. It was curated by Edith Devaney, who worked for years at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, as a modern and contemporary art curator. The show moves there July 15, 2022, adding the explanatory subtitle “American Colourist.” Between those engagements, it will be at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn.


Milton Avery’s ‘Boathouse by the Sea’ (1959)



This is a quiet, persuasive exhibition. Avery primarily painted portraits, seascapes and domestic scenes of his wife and daughter. But that benign description belies how radical his art was. He pared down an image to its essential planes of color, using flat shapes much like puzzle pieces. Diluting his oils watercolor-thin, Avery juxtaposed clashing and complementary hues, soft and tart, until they resolved into scenes.

In “The Dessert” (1939), Avery paints a dinner with friends. A tilted oval of green marks the face of one guest, popping out her smile from the rest of a pink-and-tan group that seems to recede. Over time, Avery started subtracting more and more. In “Boathouse by the Sea” (1959), with only a few bands of color the artist telegraphs location, time of day, the temperature and a potent, lyrical serenity. In “Breaking Wave” (1959), a burst of water strikes a long, thin, green pier as night falls, and there is an almost photographic immediacy and a curious sense of loneliness. His paintings might be considered minimalist if they were not so rich in mood and emotion. Except for Matisse, no one else had done anything quite like this.


So why did this prolific artist, whose career spanned world wars and beyond, never become a Jackson Pollock-size celebrity? Avery missed the 20th century’s artistic movements like people miss buses. His work was too apolitical for the Social Realists of the 1930s, too American for European modernists, too abstract to be Impressionist. His paintings’ delicacy and sense of place didn’t fit with the triumphant cowboy rise of Abstract Expressionism. He got his first major retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, late in life in 1960. It came as the world’s attention turned to Pop Art.

Ironically, it was Ms. Devaney’s immersion in the work of living artists—for decades she curated the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition—that flagged Avery’s enduring impact. She cites Peter Doig, Barkley L. Hendricks and Gary Hume among artists influenced by Avery. They follow Rothko, who acknowledged his own reverence in a 1965 eulogy: “poetry penetrated every pore of [his] canvas to the very last touch of the brush.”

View of Milton Avery’s ‘Two Figures on Beach’ (1950)



Here, Ms. Devaney writes a happier story for Avery than he’s been granted in the past: a man in a joyous marriage who believed fiercely in what he was doing. He spent a lifetime of summers by the sea making preparatory sketches for his paintings and not giving a fig that he was never seated at the art world’s head table. (“Am I crazy, or is everyone else?” he famously asked.)

Milton Avery’s ‘March in Brown’ (1954)




The exhibition is not without a false start. Early galleries feature too many experimentations Avery later abandoned, leading the casual museum-goer to initially wonder what the fuss is about. That question is swiftly answered in subsequent rooms, as loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, along with Fort Worth’s own holdings, unite to make a case for greatness.


Strikingly, Avery did his breakthrough and best work in his 60s and 70s. At this time, he brought his flat painting techniques to big canvases, a move to more ambitious art that was influenced by his Abstract Expressionist colleagues. Paintings such as “Black Sea”and “Speedboat’s Wake,” both 1959, were once defined by their exclusion from art’s current fashions. They have aged particularly well as a result.


Ms. Devaney argues that, far from being left out, Avery became a link from American Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism, taking lessons from one era and movement and passing them on to another—not an outlier but a bridge in 20th-century art.

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Appeared in the December 9, 2021, print edition as 'A Luminary Outside the Mainstream.'

December 9, 2021
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