Contemplating Milton Avery

As L.A.’s summer of underwhelming Warholmania winds down, a small retrospective on the far side of town from MOCA continues to draw a steady audience of painters and other highly evolved aficionados with its considerably more subdued charms. Milton Avery has been occasionally linked to Pop Art, in fact, although his roots are more obviously in the European colorism of Matisse and the Fauves. But just as he was gaining widespread recognition for his ultrasimplified landscapes and domestic scenes, Avery was stricken by a series of massive heart attacks that left him unable even to attend his own 1960 retrospective at the Whitney. And as Pop was breaking the art-world stranglehold of Clement Greenberg‘s critical doctrine of flatness, which disdained Avery’s refusal to abandon pictorial content (in spite of the qualified support of Greenberg himself), Avery took himself out of the picture, puttering away in seclusion before checking out for good in ‘65.

As a result, Avery got locked in as a quaint, even naive Modernist who was unable to make the break from the depiction of people, places and things in order to explore the rarefied sphere of pure abstraction. His work has been conventionally perceived as pandering to public intolerance for nonrepresentational art, and his role in the evolution of American painting has been downplayed for its failure to jibe with the Known Facts. Even those who are familiar with Avery’s work are often surprised to learn that he was an influential mentor to Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko — the original holy trinity of American Abstract Expressionism (before Pollock, de Kooning and Kline) — who remained respectful and supportive of Avery‘s vision to the end. Forearmed with this knowledge, though, you begin seeing it everywhere in ”The Late Paintings“ — many passages in Avery’s canvases echo the shimmering profundity of Rothko‘s soft rectangles, and a number of works are clearly ripostes to the formal underpinnings of his colleagues’ wholly abstract canvases. Black Night (1959), for example, mimics Gottlieb‘s signature Burst compositions of the same period, but resolves readily into a moonlit seascape, raising the question: Is this a less formally or conceptually accomplished artwork solely because it refers to a sensual encounter with the ”outside“ world?

Surprisingly, in spite of decades of postmodern pluralism and cannibalistic tomb-raiding appropriation, for many the answer remains Yes. What such stalwart champions of the faith fail to recognize is that every painting refers to something other than itself (even if it’s just the idea of the designation of itself as an artwork), that this gap is unbridgeable, and that while reducing the elements of an artwork to those that address this gap most unequivocally is a productive and enlightening exercise, it is not an end in itself. It serves to educate the eye. Once you can appreciate pure nonrepresentational abstraction, you start to recognize the same tendency at play throughout the entire history of painting, and begin to see the world with new eyes. In this sense, the teleological brouhaha of endgame Modernism holds water, but when every work of art has to function as an illustration of this truism, everybody loses. To deny oneself the deep pleasures of Milton Avery‘s paintings because they don’t fit the doctrine means it‘s time for a new doctrine. Or preferably no doctrine.

Once the ax grinding endeth, and we regard Avery apart from internecine historical squabbles, the remarkable strengths of his work emerge into the foreground and stand on their own. The predominant first impression is simplicity of composition and speed of execution, as evidenced by the thinness of the paint and the sketchy, gestural brushwork. It is this superficial slightness that has given rise to the mistaken perception of Avery as glib and shallow. Certainly these paintings, once conceived, must have been executed very quickly — but the longer you look at them, the clearer it becomes that their seemingly tranquil surfaces veil a profound and complex formal and emotional reservoir. His colors are unbelievable — subtle, unpredictable and effortlessly gorgeous, every bit as masterful as those of Matisse, whom he emulated, or Rothko, whom he influenced.

The same goes for his compositions. Many contemporary artists fancy themselves to be dissolving the conceptual barriers between design and fine art — a conceit that overlooks the fact that many of the great designers of the 20th century were fine artists. Avery was one of these, and his facility in garnering the popular approbation that great design invariably elicits was another nail in his art-critical coffin. The celebrated influence of 19th-century Japanese printmaking on modern Western painting reaches something of a culmination in Avery’s work, and paintings like Black Sea (1959) or The White Wave (1956), which tremble on the brink of pure abstraction, wind up making a better case for ”paint as paint“ than any geometric color field. In spite of its apparent formal deliberation, Avery‘s work — like much postwar abstraction — conveys a marked sense of improvisational spontaneity, grounded in a lifetime of intense looking. The thinness of his paintings masks their function as a narrow fulcrum between the artist’s and viewer‘s experience — mirror realms of contemplative breadth hinging on the record of a sure hand acting in the here and now.

MILTON AVERY: The Late Paintings | At the UCLA HAMMER MUSEUM, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Through September 8

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