Milton Avery (1885–1965), whose paintings are widely appreciated for their unique interplay of abstracted shapes from nature and lyrical color harmonies, was one of the twentieth century’s foremost American artists. Born in Altmar, New York, Avery spent his early years in or near East Hartford, Connecticut, where he began a lengthy apprenticeship as a painter in search of an individual style. In 1925 he moved to New York and first became fully aware of modernist masters such as Picasso, Braque, and especially Matisse, from whom he probably adapted his own new ways of dispensing with illusionistic modeling as well as with literally descriptive colors. With growing success, Avery patiently developed his art over the course of his long career. He finally arrived at what has come to be seen as a grand late style, characterized in his paintings by an extreme paring down to the most essential forms, carefully constructed within perfectly balanced, large-scale compositions.
Avery’s art has also long been acknowledged as influential for the creation of certain styles by the younger generation of Abstract Expressionists, perhaps most evident in paintings by Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, and for the examples his heightened, luminous colors may have provided in the formation of Color Field painting in the 1950s and 1960s. In the eulogy he delivered at his friend’s memorial service in 1965, Mark Rothko said, “Avery is first a great poet…. There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrates every pore of the canvas to the very last tip of the brush.”
This exhibition presents two far-too-little-known aspects of Milton Avery’s art, in a selection of twelve of his drypoints and woodcuts, acquired by the Library’s Print Collection from 1948 to 2004, and in a set of gouache paintings made for a children’s book in 1946, acquired by the Spencer Collection in 2001. These illustrations remained unpublished during Avery’s lifetime and are shown here publicly for the first time.