The Poetry of Sheer Loveliness: Milton Avery, Sally Michel and March Avery
By: Joan Boykoff Baron and Reuben M. Baron
Our love affair with Milton Avery’s work began in 1967 when Donald Morris and his wife Florence introduced us to his paintings in their gallery in Northwest Detroit. Today, after seeing more than two dozen exhibitions of his work over these fifty plus years, our attachment remains strong. So we lost no time in driving to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut (less than an hour from New York City,) to see this unusual show that brings together a dozen paintings each and numerous sketches by three members of the Avery family: Milton, his wife Sally Michel, and their daughter March. This triple treat was curated by Kenneth Silver with Stephanie Guyet.
The Averys spent virtually all of their summers together in favored locations in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire as well as in more distant destinations in Mexico, Canada, and Europe. In each place they sketched the mountains and the seas, the forests and the beaches as well as family members and friends. Often, they were able to complete watercolors of those scenes while still on vacation. They would then take their drawings back to New York where Milton would develop many of his into oil paintings during the winter months. Why this show is so significant is that it provides an opportunity to appreciate what Robert Hobbs has called “the Avery style”, common to the three artists.
First and foremost, Milton, Sally and March are outstanding colorists. Milton was called, early on, “the American Matisse” because of his use of extremely vivid, often unnamable colors. Whether subtle and serene like Sea Gazers (1956) from the Whitney Museum or agitated and restless like Breaking Wave (1959) from the Neuberger Museum, Milton’s colors range from strikingly vivid to peacefully harmonious. Other characteristics of this family’s style are the flat picture plane, often interlocking simple shapes and over time, greater simplicity of forms. The Avery Style was far more than charming. As Milton grew older and more frail, one could see in his solitary figures or animals his acceptance of isolation and his recognition of impending death. But then, each of the artists seemed comfortable with painting figures who did not communicate with each other.
On the occasion of Milton Avery’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1982, Hilton Kramer suggested that Avery was slow to receive his deserved reputation partly because his work was “Too realistic for the avant-garde during his lifetime and too abstract for the realists.” Milton came as close to total abstraction as possible, but never wanted his paintings to depart from nature. He left it to his friends, Adolf Gottlieb and Mark Rothko to make the complete break.
Milton grew up near Hartford, Connecticut and in 1920, at the age of 35, he spent the first of several summers in Gloucester in order to be able to sketch from nature. Four years later, while there, he met Sally Michel, an aspiring painter and illustrator who was almost 20 years his junior, and followed her to New York City in 1925. They married the next year and Milton painted every weekday for close to forty years, reserving their weekends for galleries, museums and trips to friends. Seeing Matisse and Picasso opened up new options for Milton in color and form and he continued to experiment with flattened surfaces, interlocking forms and both bold and muted colors throughout his career. Taciturn by nature, Milton’s sketches and his paintings often provided an outlet for his wit and humor. Milton belonged to no art movement or art school and continually forged his own path, a trait greatly admired by Gottlieb and Rothko.
As March was growing up, absolutely everyone she knew, and not just her parents, was an artist. She explains in a lengthy catalogue interview that she thought that making art was the only thing people did. And so, from an early age, each summer modeling her parents’ behavior, she sketched and painted alongside them without paying attention to the content of their work. Aware that “the most important thing was my father’s painting”, March served as his model. Milton exhibited many of these paintings in a 1947 show entitled My Daughter March.
Today, at age 87, March is still painting six days a week. Twelve of her paintings and numerous drawings from 1967 to 2017 are included at the Bruce. Her work, like Sally’s, reflected many of the characteristics of an Avery style while also showing her unique vision. The Dead Sea (2009) contains a reductive seascape of vivid and unusual color combinations emanating from the light purple sea, the aqua sky and the deep gold beach. As in many of her parents’ works, the sea is thinly painted with several white areas of blank canvas visible, perhaps in this case representing salt. However, the mix of both abstracted and more defined black mud-clad figures, demonstrates the particularity of her own vision. Whereas the segmented uppermost floating figure is as abstract as the orange swimmer in Milton’s Swimmers and Bathers, the two more realistic lowermost figures entering and leaving the water appear to have been captured with a stop-action camera. In fact, March acknowledged that in addition to using sketches like her parents , she departs from them in both using a camera to help her remember scenes she might like to paint and sometimes even working from her imagination.
Luckily, March is the subject of a concurrent show in New York at the Blum & Poe Gallery with more than two dozen paintings done between 1963 and 2018. It provides several examples of the mature Avery style in her domestic scenes, still lives and landscapes. Several reveal the simple interlocking shapes and bold colors of Milton’s advanced paintings such as her Family Tea (1965), Ruth in a Sling Chair (1985), and Card Players (1983), but they are clearly her own. For example, Family Tea (1965) is perfectly balanced with a series of subtly combined colors in the mother’s jacket, lap, and seat. But, the facial features of both the mother and the older child as well as the pitcher and tea set are more realistically drawn.
Since Milton Avery’s death at the age of 80 in 1965 his reputation has continued to grow. His decision to hold onto reality is no longer seen as a drawback and his simple forms and quirky and imaginative use of color have been a source of inspiration to many beyond Sally and March.
At Avery’s Memorial Service, Rothko described him as “a great poet …. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty. This alone took great courage in a generation which felt that it could be heard only through clamor, force, and a show of power. But, Avery had that inner power in which gentleness and silence proved more audible and poignant.”