There is a portrait by Milton Avery in this bewitching survey with the title Husband and Wife. It shows a couple who have dropped by his apartment in Greenwich Village for the evening. Against subtle mauve walls, the man leans back in his armchair, face a brilliant orange as he raises his hand to make a point, clothes several close-toned browns. His wife is all cool blues and teals, arms folded as she retreats into a mustard-yellow couch.
The forms are flattened, the faces barely indicated except for a few marks scratched into the paint with the end of the brush. But somehow, everything from time and space to mood is palpable. The mauve speaks of shadow the browns indicate the corduroy and tweed that seem to go with the husband’s vigorous pontifications; the various blues indicate quietude to the point of withdrawal. Everything is spoken through colour.
Modest, taciturn, unassuming, with his outstanding gift for color and his simplified grace, Milton Avery (1885-1965) is a singular master of American art. He is also the most exemplary of late starters. Raised in blue-collar Connecticut, he left school at 16 and worked in factories for 20 years to support the women of his family after his father’s sudden death, attending night school to study art throughout.
Avery was 40 before he began to paint full-time, 60 when he painted the pivotal Husband and Wife, and almost 70 before he embarked on the large-scale landscapes that are generally held to be the summit of his career. These paintings are world-famous by now; hymns to Connecticut in spring and Vermont in the autumn, to the architecture of spiraling firs and trees clustering like sheep, while cows pattern the soft green fields like bright, scattered pebbles.
The Royal Academy’s show (with around 70 works, the most comprehensive ever held in Europe) is rich in every period and resonantly uplifting. Avery’s palette works on you in mysterious ways. A 1957 painting of two female figures on a sofa, an open book between them, ought to dispirit, with its drap browns and ochres relieved only by a gray table bearing a darker gray jug. But it sings and it soothes the eye, its curvaceous forms interlocking like a gentle rhyme scheme. The painting is called Poetry Reading.
The two women in his art are generally those in his life: Avery’s wife and daughter, both of them artists. Photographs of their final apartment, on the Upper West Side, show works in progress by all three. Mark Rothko, like Barnett Newman so profoundly influenced by their older friend and mentor, remembered the scene in an address at Avery’s memorial service: “The walls were always covered with an endless and changing array of poetry and light”; which might stand as a description of this show.
Avery thinned his oil paint to the diaphanous consistency of watercolor so that it lay on the surface in floating patches and veils. Sometimes he scribbled upon it – the outline of a pencil or a pipe, a fleet of horizontal nicks that somehow manifest as leaves on a rust-colored autumn tree. Sometimes the brushstrokes of one color merge into those of another to produce a soft frisson, as in the snow-white nude against a black background, where the overlap glimmers.
Though he creates the illusion of space almost entirely through colour, a conspicuously learned lesson from Matisse, there is always a fascination with underlying notation. How to describe the arc of a speedboat’s wake as both churning the water and incising its surface (a marvelous hybrid of drawing and painting). How to tell the wood from the trees, by painting the branches with all the parsimony of a Chinese watercolour beneath clouds of sumptuous colour. How to indicate the shine of a bathroom mirror with an almost imperceptible zigzagging of the brushstrokes.
Drawings made in summer, on the beaches off Maine, became paintings in the long Manhattan winters. A sense of sustained heat is latent in so many of these scenes. The beach is like a canvas, for him; all the figures, towels and deckchairs laid out like abstract forms upon a sand of many colours. Eventually these forms vanish altogether and horizontal the seaside becomes a flag of bands – yellow, blue, and radiant orange at the top for the hot sky. It is not hard to find the parallel in these paintings with Rothko’s numinous oblongs.
But Avery never invented anything that he had not seen. No matter that they hover on the verge of abstraction, his paintings are always figurative. Friends reading, talking, eating; the Avery apartment was always crowded with fellow painters, although he himself is said to have sat quietly apart with his sketchbook. His daughter’s toy alligator appears in one interior; the view through the window to a neighbor brownstone in another. Color very often has a special presence all of its own – the yellow of a dress, the damson of a wall – like another character in the apartment.
Knowledge is everything. The patient work of Avery’s day generally started at 6am, looking again and again at the same world seven days a week. It is only when he strays into unfamiliar places, at least in this show, that the art goes awry. There are three surprisingly clumsy early scenes here from the 1930s, including an awful painting of what appears to be a strip show.
The Averys left America only once, to visit Europe in 1952. The paintings that derived from that trip are effulgent in their low-toned palette of mauves, grays and muted greens, the shapes balanced in the most elegant compositions. A boat on the River Thames is described in two horizontal bars of pale pink and mint green glowing out of a voluminous black river. London is suddenly as mystically beautiful as Cape Cod.
The smallest painting here is a self-portrait from 1958, made when Avery was 73 and in very poor health. It is typically joyous and self-effacing. A handful of pencil strokes stands for brushes, his signature is written on his trousers, one name on each leg, and the body is a haze of pink jersey with a flame of red for a head. Nothing else. Exactly what Avery is: a man of pure, exultant colour.