Trees by Southern Sea, 1959, Oil on canvas, 30 x 38 inches, 76.2 x 96.5 cm, MMG#32455
MILTON AVERY was born in Sand Bank, New York in 1885 and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, with his family in 1898. Avery worked as an assembler and mechanic before enrolling in a lettering class at the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford in 1905. In 1918, Avery transferred to the School of Art at the Society of Hartford and exhibited his work while working as a clerk and construction worker. In 1924, Avery became a member of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, and a year later moved to New Jersey.
Avery’s early training had prepared him for a career as an academic painter. He also sought outside inspiration and frequented New York galleries that exhibited modernist European art. The prestigious Valentine Gallery, which held a retrospective of Matisse’s work in 1927, had particular influence. By 1930, references to Matisse and Picasso can be discerned in Avery’s paintings.
He was invited to join the Valentine Gallery in 1935, which exhibited Matisse, Picasso, Miró, Derain, Braque, Kandinsky, Davis, and others, had a vitalizing effect on his painting and his outlook.
Also during the 1930s, Avery’s apartment became a meeting ground for young painters. Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman were frequent visitors. Despite this socializing Avery was a quiet man who constantly sketched — landscapes, people, interiors — whatever was at hand.
In 1943, Avery joined the New York gallery of Paul Rosenberg, an important dealer who had been forced to flee Paris in 1939. His affiliation with Rosenberg, coupled with a retrospective exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in 1944, brought Avery national acclaim. In spite of this, sales remained few, and New York museums, for the most part, showed little enthusiasm for his work. Avery persisted nonetheless, refining form and clarifying color. In 1946 he spent time in Mexico which served as inspiration for new subject matter.
In 1949, Avery suffered a heart attack from which he never fully recovered. Prevented by his health from working outdoors, Avery began making monotypes, a medium that requires rapid execution. These monotypes affected his painting style, and after 1950 Avery increasingly eliminated detail from his work and began to focus on the harmony of the overall canvas rather than the interrelation of its parts. By late in the decade he had achieved recognition as one of the most subtly powerful artists in mid-century America.
Among the many places that exhibited Avery’s work were the Phillips Memorial Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York. In his last twenty years of life, the harmonious colors and perfect calm of his paintings reflected his desire to distill everything in his art—as in his life—that was not absolutely necessary.