Milton Avery, who linked American Impressionism with Abstract Expressionism, gets his first major European exhibition
“You always feel better after looking at a painting by Milton Avery”, explains Edith Devaney, curator of the first comprehensive exhibition in Europe devoted to the American painter (1885-1965). “He is one of those artists – and there are not many of them – for whom there is a part of joy in each work. There is something life-affirming about them, and I hope people will respond to it.
Devaney felt compelled to introduce Avery’s work to a wider audience while co-hosting the Royal Academy of Arts. Abstract Expressionism show in 2016; she was surprised by how often her name came up in her background readings on Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb. As soon as this exhibition was over, she gave Avery her full attention and got to know his family and his foundation. She also discovered how prolific Avery was. He regularly produced one painting a day – understated works seemingly simple but in fact intricately orchestrated.
The exhibition opens at the Royal Academy of Arts in London after stints at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. “The most important thing for us is that, although he is well known in America, he is very new to London audiences,” says Devaney. Unlike Avery’s last American retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982, this new survey will include his early landscapes of the 1910s, bright and out of focus. It will bring together 70 oil paintings and will retrace his evolution as an artist and his inventiveness. Two beach scenes painted the same year will be hung side by side: Coney Island (1931) is full of excursionists, the sand barely visible under the bodies, while Sea side (1931) is stripped upside down, canvas divided into sea and shore, distorted figures.
Avery bridged the gap between American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. “He took from one and gave to another,” says Devaney, who in the accompanying catalog describes his art training in Connecticut and the lessons he learned about painting. in full air and the materiality of light. His early works testify to his instinct for color: not Henri Matisse’s primaries, but veiled browns, creamy mustards, faded lilacs. After moving to New York in 1925, where he encountered modern and contemporary art, he replaced traditional linear perspective with a sense of depth and atmosphere evoked by his choice and application of palette.
He also, Devaney says, bridged the gap between Europe and America, continuing to engage with European modernism as his contemporaries in the United States lost interest. Truly, he engaged with everything around him. “I think that’s what makes his job so joyful,” Devaney says. “It speaks to all of us.”
• Milton Avery: American coloristRoyal Academy of Arts, London, 15 July-16 October