Milton Avery

Artist Biography

Leading American modern painter.

By Tiffany Win

Known as one of the primary American modernists, Avery is most praised for his powerful yet simple designs. His use of abstracted, flat shapes and luminous yet subtle color imbues a monumental presence to his compositions.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VIII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Born in Altmar, New York on March 7, 1885, Milton Avery lived and expressed purely in paint, leaving no significant written autobiographical remnants. His often quoted remark “Why talk when you can paint?” sums up his passion and worldview through his artwork. The youngest of four children, Milton grew up in Sand Bank, a provincial and remote community in New York near Lake Ontario. In 1898, the Avery family moved the village of Wilson Station, Connecticut, a rural suburb near East Hartford.[1] Russell and the eldest Avery son both died during Milton’s youth, forcing Milton to begin working in local factories by the time he was sixteen. He held several positions, including aligner, assembler, lathe-man, and mechanic, without any evident career ambition.

Between 1905 and 1911, Avery enrolled in a lettering course at the Connecticut League of Art Students, an informally organized night school for men founded in 1888. Rather than formal classes, instruction consisted of drawing from models or casts and receiving individual criticism several times a week from founder Charles Noel Flagg. Flagg encouraged Avery to enroll in a life-drawing class, and by 1911, at the age of twenty-six, Avery was listed in the Hartford City Directories as an artist employed by the League. Once committed, Avery remained resolute in his career as an artist and his will to paint was irreversible.

In 1915, Avery’s remaining brother died, leaving Milton as the sole adult male in a household of nine women, comprised of his mother, sister, sister in law, and nieces. The death of his father, two brothers, and brother-in-law, created a sense of the ephemeral, uncertainty of life, which Avery combated through rigorous artistic training. Treating painting as a duty, Avery rose early every morning and painted and sketched most of the day. Despite his family’s further strained economic situation and Avery’s need to work, Avery’s commitment to painting never wavered. Avery found additional employment at the Travelers Insurance Companies, where he worked the night shift as a file clerk from 1917 to 1922.[2] Working the night shift allowed Avery to transfer to the School of the Art Society of Hartford in 1918 where daytime formal instruction honed Avery’s skills. The results of his progress were evident in 1919, when he won two top awards from the school.

Avery was exposed to the academic artists of the National Academy of Design but totally ignorant of European modernism, and his earliest paintings are influenced by the plein air landscape paintings of George Inness and the American impressionists. Under the influence of the American impressionists, Avery pursued painting a group of landscape paintings between 1920 and 1925 of the Hartford countryside. Using the light, sun drenched palette of the impressionists, Avery adapted a technique of applying colors with both a brush and a palette knife to create shiny, enamel-like surfaces. He was able to sensitively capture place and atmosphere as well as a precise moment in nature using this technique. His fascination and concentration on color was overshadowed, however, by the thick impasto of the surface paint. Gradually, Avery abandoned the palette-knife technique in favor of broadly painted areas of color. This focus on color and the development of color harmonies became Avery’s life long preoccupation in his art.

While still a student, Avery summered in the art colony of Gloucester, Massachusetts. By the summer of 1924, he was offered free studio space and met fellow artist Sally Michel. Avery followed Michel to New York City in 1925, and on May 1, 1926 the two eloped. This marriage was the most decisive event in Avery’s life and career. Sally recognized Avery’s genius and as his staunchest supporter strove to encourage her husband in any way possible, including by becoming a freelance illustrator to give them economic stability.

Due to his initial schooling in Hartford, Avery was drawn to more conservative artists at the Art Students League, but eventually the contemporary artistic styles of New York City began to affect his works. The most immediate change was an adaptation of somber tones and less dense surfaces. Avery’s thin application of pigment revealed bits of the canvas ground, allowing the bare canvas to function as color. Another change was Avery’s decision to start painting from sketches rather than directly from nature. After adding gouache and watercolor painting to his skill set in 1927, Avery’s working procedure became more elaborate. Thereafter, he generally made an assortment of sketches on location, and then pursued a drawing in watercolor back at the studio. Finally, he would select from his set of watercolors one to transcribe onto the canvas. Often, years would elapse between the original watercolor idea and the finished painting. Due to this lifelong habit, his sketchbooks became diaries, capturing portraits of friends, social gatherings, and his travels.

By 1930, Avery incorporated aspects of Picasso and Matisse’s styles into his own, previously academic, work. Avery’s Nude Ironing #2 (1931, Milton Avery Trust, NY) was influenced by the 1931 Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Avery’s work shows strongly modeled forms against a dark unadorned background, similar to the compositions by Matisse that he had recently seen. Throughout the thirties, Avery focused on Matisse’s exploitation of arbitrary color, which became the mainstay of Avery’s own art.

Avery’s first chance to exhibit in New York came in 1927, in the Independents exhibition, an open salon established by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. In the fall of 1928, Avery submitted work to the newly opened Opportunity Gallery, a non-profit organization to help young artists gain exposure. Milton Avery and a young unknown artist who would soon shorten his name to Mark Rothko were chosen for the November 1928 exhibition. These two artists began an enduring friendship that contributed to the development of color field painting in America.

A coterie of artists supported Avery’s production, which was always growing given his habit of painting at least one canvas each day. Among them, the young artists Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb frequently visited Avery’s apartment to socialize and ask for his evaluations of their work. Gottlieb acknowledged Avery’s importance as an artist by pointing out his steadfast vision, counter to the prevailing artistic styles of the time: “When Social Realism and American Scene were considered the important thing, he took an aesthetic stand as opposed to regional subject matter. His attitude helped reinforce me in my chosen direction. I always regarded him as a brilliant colorist and draftsman, a solitary figure working against the stream.”[3] Yet Avery’s boldness and steadfast dedication to simple color arrangements was slow to gain popularity. Eventually, his unique style caught the attention of Valentine Dudensing, who asked him to join his gallery in 1935.

His first one-man show at the gallery, in March 1935, attracted a dealer who committed to supporting his work throughout the year. The confidence and economic gain of this event encouraged Avery to develop his painting style over the next seven years, displaying an increased devotion to abstraction and color nuance. His color harmonies developed further in 1938, after he and his family summered on the Gaspé Peninsula in southeastern Canada, where the landscape is bathed in an almost white light. Avery attempted to capture this light, and in effect, achieved a unique luminosity of color that was distinct from that of any American art being produced at the time.

In Avery’s mature style he moved towards increasingly flattened abstractions, painting broad areas of even tones of color and treating each shape as a single color area. He even treated negative space as forms in themselves, creating a pictorial dynamic between the positive and negative, the subject matter and shapes. Interestingly, however, despite this abstraction, Avery had a single, firm rule for his painting: never invent imagery. Avery simplified, distorted, or chromatically abstracted a landscape, portrait, or interior, but never introduced fictitious elements. By 1940, Avery’s palette was even brighter and more saturated than it had previously been, with expressionistic colors unrelated to nature.

Though Dudensing’s gallery gave Avery much exposure, when Paul Rosenberg asked Avery to join his gallery in 1943, he agreed because Rosenberg was associated with the most renowned members of the European avant-garde. Also, Rosenberg proposed buying fifty paintings a year, which would relieve Avery’s constant economic strains. Avery had his first show at Paul Rosenberg & Co. in June 1943. His prestige grew throughout the year, and in 1944 his first one-man museum exhibition opened at the Philips Memorial Gallery in Washington D.C. With an extra boost of confidence and the freedom of monetary support, Avery produced the largest number of works in that year as any his career. His style evolved more rapidly, leading to the mature works for which he is best known.

His sudden arrival at his mature style was stimulated not only by Rosenberg, but also by the work of Picasso, who was exclusively represented by Rosenberg in Paris. Studying Picasso’s technique, Avery’s subsequent works feature modulation of color and the geometrification of figures. Eventually, however, he heightened his awareness of color by stripping his design to essentials. Avery’s landscapes, still-lifes, and figure compositions derive their expressive power from their abstracted, flat shapes and luminous color. His subjects seem unremarkable, but the manner in which he treats them is exceptional, for through his strong, simple designs, his intimate scenes take on monumental presence.[4]

Between 1940 and 1950, Avery’s landscapes derived from various summer travels, made possible by his increase in income. Trips to Mexico, California, the Canadian Northwest, and Maine became source material. The family’s three-month trip to Mexico in 1946 generated a distinct body of work which features dense, monochromatic planes of color which capture moods of specific locales.

Unfortunately, Avery suffered a heart attack in January 1949 at the age of sixty-three. Though he would live for another sixteen years, he never fully recovered and his health deteriorated. In December 1949, Sally and Milton Avery went to the Research Art Colony in Maitland, Florida, where Avery began to make monotypes. The simplicity of the medium spoke to Avery and he made 200 prints over the next two years.[5]

A few months after their return to New York from Florida, the Avery family set out for the summer art colony of Woodstock, New York. Avery’s stamina gradually returned, and the experience of his heart attack convinced him to focus not on individual details, but rather on interconnections and universalities.[6] This pictorial shift resulted in overall tonal harmonies and diffused boundaries between forms, producing the sensation of an inner color emanating from between abutting forms.

In the summer of 1952, Avery and his family traveled to Europe for the first time, spending three weeks in London, Paris, and the French Riviera. Five years later, under the influence of the Abstract Expressionists, Avery enlarged the scale of his work and reduced compositional elements further, creating more potential for the impact of color. He pushed to the farthest limits of pure abstraction in his late paintings, but without abandoning the traditional convention of working from nature.

While Avery’s landscapes retain a reverence for nature, his treatment of later figures and still-lifes are more detach. His goal was to create harmonious compositions rather than capture an emotional relationship between his abstracted subjects. His works capture universal situations and generalized experiences, and bestow upon his figures a suspended calm. In Avery’s late paintings, he favored pastel colors to create harmonies and retain poignancy. Due to his increasing awareness of death, his late works evoke a tender nostalgia. In Avery’s case, he did not look back on specific events and memories, but upon life itself.

In 1957, the American Federation of Arts chose Avery as one of twelve artists to honor with retrospectives; Avery’s was scheduled for three years later at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The 1960 retrospective was well-received and Avery continued to execute as many pieces as he could, despite his increasingly poor health, until the winter of 1964.[7] Avery died peacefully in his sleep on January 3, 1965 after ten months in intensive care.

II. Chronology

1885 Born in Sand Bank (later Altmar), New York on March 7.
1898 Family moves to Wilson Station, Connecticut.
1901 Begins work at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company.
1905 Avery’s father, Russell N. Avery, dies.
1905-11 Briefly enrolls in a lettering class at the Connecticut League of Art Students.
1911 Commits to becoming an artist.
1915 Exhibits for the first time at Fifth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture, Annex Gallery, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; shows Glimpse of Farmington (ca. 1914, whereabouts unknown).
1916 Resumes job as assembler at the Underwood Manufacturing Company.
1917 Begins working as file clerk at the Travelers Insurance Companies in May.
1918 Transfers to School of the Art Society of Hartford.
1919 Wins top honors in portrait and life-drawing classes at the School of the Art Society of Hartford.
1920 Visits Gloucester, Massachusetts, for the first time.
1921 Returns to Gloucester in the summer.
1924 Becomes member of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts. Meets Sally Michel in Gloucester in the summer.
1925 Moves to New York City.
1926 Marries Sally Michel on May 1. Attends Art Students League sketch class several evenings a week.
1927 Included in Independents exhibition in May. Executes watercolors and gouaches on half sheets of dark construction paper in summer.
1928 Has two paintings selected for an Opportunity Gallery group show in November. Friendship with Mark Rothko begins.
1929 Awarded the Atheneum Prize for Brooklyn Bridge (1929; whereabouts unknown) in the annual Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts Exhibition in March. Duncan Philips purchases Winter Riders (1929) for the Philips Memorial Gallery, Washington D.C. in October. Meets Adolph Gottlieb.
1930 Awarded Mr. And Mrs. Frank G. Logan Prize for White Horse (1930; whereabouts unknown) in the annual watercolor exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in December.
1931 Summers in Gloucester.
1932 Birth of daughter March Avery on October 12. Vacations with Gottlieb, Rothko, and Barrett Newman in Gloucester for the summer. Makes drypoints with discarded copper plates.
1935 Joins the Valentine Gallery. First one man show in March. Dr. Albert Barnes purchases The Nursemaid (1934; Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA) out of the exhibition.
1938 Works briefly for the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project. Travels to the Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec, Canada in the summer. Stops attending the Art Students League
1941 Drives cross-country to California for the summer, stopping in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks on the way. Spends one month in Laguna Beach, California.
1942 Last show with the Valentine Gallery in November.
1943 Joins Paul Rosenberg & Co., first show there in June. Valentine Gallery sells inventory of thirty-five Avery paintings to Roy Neuberger.
1944 First one man museum exhibition at the Philips Memorial Gallery, Washington D.C. in January.
1945 Concurrent exhibitions at the Rosenberg and Durand-Ruel Galleries.
1946 Travels in Mexico for three months.
1947 Exhibition My Daughter, March opens at the Durand-Ruel Galleries, his first retrospective survey.
1948 Laurel Gallery publishes portfolio of five Avery drypoints in an edition of 100. In December, receives first prize for the watercolor Sea and Rocks (1944; whereabouts unknown) in the Baltimore National Watercolor Exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
1949 Suffers major heart attack in January. Last show with Paul Rosenberg & Co. in the same month. Spends winter at the Research Art Colony in Maitland, Florida. Experiments with monotypes, executing 200 over the next two years.
1950 Returns to New York in April. Rosenberg and Avery terminate their association. Rosenberg sells his fifty Avery paintings to Neuberger. Summers in Woodstock, NY. Returns to Research Art Colony in Florida in winter. Makes lithographs sponsored by Artists Equity Association of New York.
1951 Joins newly opened Grace Borgenicht Gallery, first exhibition there in October. Summers in Woodstock.
1952 Visits Europe for the first time, traveling to London, Paris, and the French Riviera during the summer. Executes woodcuts. Retrospective exhibition opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art in December.
1953 Residency at the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, New Hampshire in the summer.
1954 Daughter March graduates from college and marries Philip Cavanaugh. Summers at the MacDowell Colony.
1955 Summered at Yaddo, an art colony near Saratoga Springs, New York.
1956 Summers at MacDowell Colony.
1957 Summers at Provincetown, Massachusetts. Executes first large scale canvases. Clement Greenberg publishes major article on Avery in Arts in December.
1958 Exhibits large scale paintings at the HCE Gallery in Provincetown.
1959 Health deteriorates further, moves to Central Park West apartment in November. Moves to a house in Key West, Florida for the winter.
1960 Retrospective exhibition opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts in February. Suffers second heart attack in October.
1961 Remains in New York due to health.
1962 Hilton Kramer writes first book on Avery, entitled Milton Avery: Paintings, 1930–1960. Summers in Lake Hill, New York.
1964 Executes last painting in February. Enters Montefiore Hospital, New York City, on March 6.
1965 Dies on January 3; memorial service held on January 7 at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York. Buried in Artists Cemetery in Woodstock, NY.

III. Collections

Ackland Art Museum, NC
Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Block Museum of Art, IL
Brauer Museum of Art, IN
Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Cape Ann Historical Museum, MA
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Columbia Museum of Art, SC
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Davistown Museum, ME
Harvard University Art Museum, MA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
Hunter Museum of American Art, TN
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, MS
Maier Museum of Art, VA
Mattatuck Museum, CT
Memorial Art Gallery, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Modern Art, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC
Neuberger Museum of Art, NY
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, OK
Palm Springs Desert Museum, CA
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
Reading Public Museum, PA
San Antonio Art League Museum, TX
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
Sheldon Museum of Art, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Tate Gallery, London, UK
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The Phillips Collection, Washington DC
University of Kentucky Art Museum, KY
Vero Beach Museum of Art, FL
Walker Art Center, MN
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, PA
Wichita Art Museum, KS

IV. Exhibitions

1915 Connecticut Academy of the Fine Arts (February 15–28)
1917 Connecticut Academy of the Fine Arts (February 16–26)
1920 Connecticut Academy of the Fine Arts (November 5–19)
1923 Connecticut Academy of the Fine Arts (March 10–18)
Gloucester Society of Artists (July 7–30)
Wiley Gallery (October)
1924 Connecticut Academy of the Fine Arts (April 14–30)
Green Gate Studio (November)
1927 Society of Independent Artists
1928 Morgan Gallery
Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery
Opportunity Gallery
1929 College Art Association
1930 Murai Gallery
The Art Institute of Chicago
1932 Dudensing Gallery
Gallery 144 West 13th Street
1933 Grand Central Palace
1934 Rockefeller Center
1935 Valentine Gallery
1936 Whitney Museum of American Art
1937 The Detroit Institute of Arts
1938 League of Art Students
1939 Portland Art Museum
1940 Society of Independent Artists
1942 Philips Memorial Gallery
1943 Rosenberg & Co.
1943 Whitney Museum of American Art
1944 Durand-Ruel Galleries.
Carnegie Institute
Whitney Museum of American Art
1945 Institute of Contemporary Art
1946 Tate Gallery
Walker Art Center
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1947 Durand-Ruel Galleries, Retrospective.
Portland Art Museum
1948 The Baltimore Museum of Art
The Jewish Museum
1949 The United Nations Art Club
1950 Laurel Gallery
1951 The Brooklyn Museum
Grace Borgenicht Gallery
1952 Whitney Museum of American Art
The Baltimore Museum of Art
1952–69 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1953 American Federation of Arts (traveling exhibition)
1956 The Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1957 The Minneapolis Institute of Art
1958 HCE Gallery
1959 Art Alliance
1960 Whitney Museum of American Art. Retrospective.
1961–73 National Academy of Design
1961–84 Brooklyn Art Association
1962 The Carillon
Milwaukee Art Center
The Waddington Galleries, Ltd.
1963 Museum of Modern Art (traveling exhibition)
1964 The High Museum of Art
1965 Museum of Modern Art
Woodstock Artists Association. Memorial Exhibition.
1968 Birmingham Museum of Art
1969 Storm King Art Center
Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts
1973 The Corcoran Gallery of Art
National Academy of Design, Memorial Exhibition
1974–76 Boston Art Club
1976 The William Benton Museum of Art
1977 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
The John and Marble Ringling Museum of Art. Retrospective
1982 Whitney Museum of Art
1986 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Retrospective
1987 Art Gallery of Ontario
1989–90 Fresno Art Msuseum

V. Memberships

Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts
Grace Borgenicht Gallery
Paul Rosenberg & Co.
Valentine Gallery

VI. Notes

1. Barbara Haskell and Milton Avery, Milton Avery (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harper & Row, 1982), 15.
2. Ibid, 17.
3. Ibid, 56.
5. Carlotta J. Owens and Milton Avery, Milton Avery: Works on Paper (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 24.
6. Haskell, 116.
7. Robert Carleton Hobbs, Milton Avery (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), 223.

VII. Suggested Resources

Avery, Milton, and Adelyn Dohme Breeskin. Milton Avery. Washington: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution; distributed by the New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, Conn., 1969.

Haskell, Barbara, and Milton Avery. Milton Avery. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harper & Row, 1982.

Hobbs, Robert Carleton. Milton Avery. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990.

"Milton Avery - Bio.” The Phillips Collection. (accessed April 12, 2012).

Owens, Carlotta J., and Milton Avery. Milton Avery: Works on Paper. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1994.

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