It doesn’t take long to start seeing the Rothkos hidden in Milton Avery’s beach scenes and landscapes. They loom as eerie empty vistas of sea and sky, turning what seem to be figurative compositions into abstract masterpieces. Man With a Pipe, for instance, is a deliberately bizarre scene painted in 1935. But remove the people and you would have three layers of abstract colour: a blackish sky over a gray ocean over a yellow beach. Exactly the kind of sublime vertical stack of colors Rothko painted.
The resemblance is not accidental. Mark Rothko first met Avery in the late-1920s New York and hugely admired the older man: Avery was born in 1885, Rothko in 1903. Rothko’s generation would shake modern art and make New York the art capital of the world, painting huge canvases with no apparent subject matter, just colour, yet whose intense expressiveness got them named the abstract expressionists. Avery never made the same leap as Rothko, Barnett Newman or Jackson Pollock into pure abstraction but this brilliant exhibition proves he didn’t need to. This idiosyncratic, experimental American dreamer was already anticipating their poetic use of color years earlier, in canvases that find abstraction hidden inside nature itself.
American nature may actually be more abstract than the cosy fields and little hills we have in Europe. The sheer scale of the North American continent was even more daunting because it didn’t have a long history of landscape painters like Claude to familiarize it. When Avery started painting New England, where he grew up in a working-class family, it was still possible to see its sea and woods as new to art, a terra incognita.
Anyway that might explain the moving freshness of his early landscapes. Even in his first canvases, hugely influenced by European art, there is an American romantic vastness: Big Sky, painted in 1918, has impressionistic trees but they are dwarfed by a glowing void of blue and gold air. It is the big sky of a big country but there’s nothing triumphal about Avery’s America. It is a place of troubling mystery where even the fun of a day at the beach is dwarfed by intimations of the abyss.
Speedboat’s Wake, painted four decades after that apprentice landscape, depicts a small white boat and the line of spume behind it swallowed by a vast dark ocean. The minute figure in the boat may feel like a hero, but Avery shows how small human endeavor is against the Atlantic ocean. A Rothko-esque strip of deep blue sky hangs obliviously over the little sailor.
Avery is sometimes hypod as an American Matisse but he is much stranger, and better, than that. Far from simply emulating Matisse, he translates the pleasures of beach life and summer days the French fauve painted into the brooding land and seascapes of America with wild results. Little Fox River, from 1942, seems joyous and summery at first sight, with its butter-yellow landscape surrounded by blue waves, but then you notice how big and inhuman the waves are, how tiny the swell of the sea makes the frail houses and church look. Avery sees the sublime everywhere in nature: his depictions of birds, such as his 1940s paintings Oyster Catcher and Sooty Terns, are modernist reckonings with America’s first great artist John James Audubon, capturing birds on the wing just as accurately as this 19th-century avian painter but seeing them as mythical and foreboding.
To see this art so closely related to abstract expressionism yet rooted in nature opens a new vista on American art itself. Avery is a missing link between landscape and abstraction. It isn’t just Rothko’s rectangles of moody color you see in his scenes: take the memento mori objects out of his 1946 painting Still Life with Skull and you see the vertical lines that Barnett Newman made his trademarks.
Abstract expressionist art always hints at realities hidden within its walls of colour. That’s what makes it feel so meaningful. “I choose to veil the imagery,” said Pollock. This exhibition makes it apparent that Avery was not merely a predecessor of this great art movement, or even its godparent. He is a true abstract expressionist who happens not to “veil” the imagery. That makes this exhibition much more than a celebration of an American artist you may not have heard of before. You’ll never be able to see a Rothko again without picturing a seashore at dusk where the red blazing sky is layered above the dark sea wine, in an apocalyptic revelation.