Exploring the Character of Color
(Page 2 of 2)
So where does Milton Avery fit into this particular jigsaw of disparate artists?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
First, he was a kind of mentor for Rothko when Rothko was a young artist. Rothko continued to admire Avery throughout his life. It has been suggested that the young Rothko found it easier to come to terms with the giant of the Paris School, Matisse, as distilled or modified in the work of Avery. Perhaps it was more a matter of Avery having Americanized Matisse.
While Avery never hid his "debt" to Matisse, he still did not at all like being thought of as some sort of clone. And he wasn't.
According to Robert Hobbs in the most recent study of Avery, Avery's relationship with other admired artists was never a question of yielding to imitation. It was instead a "witty dialogue with European modernists, with his American peers, and with fine and folk art traditions."
Avery carries on, according to Hobbs' thesis, two or three conversations with other artists in a single work. It is an appealing assessment of Avery's work - a rather post-modernist assessment perhaps - because it makes Avery's eclecticism acceptable, and neatly side steps the "American Matisse" oversimplification. In other words, Avery knew consciously and humorously what he was doing when he brought together as unlikely bedfellows the simple color shapes of the French modernist Matisse and the simple c olor shapes of vernacular American folk art.
Looking once more at Avery's work does at least half persuade one that Hobbs might be right. There is a down-to-earth quality which Avery brings to his homage to Matisse that is completely foreign to the French artist; and a quirky awkwardness as well. And then Avery's colors, like Rothko's, are not generally the pure hues Matisse often uses to such luminous effect, but soft harmonies of secondary and tertiary hues - violets, peaches, beiges, sand yellows, and warm grays. In fact, the character of the co lor used by these three colorists, is, at root, precisely what makes them most different from each other.
Avery's wife, Sally, observed that in his work "every color loves every other color," while in Fauve painting - which was the early, astonishingly free foundation of Matisse's sense of color, "colors compete with each other for attention." Another writer trying to point up differences between the two painters - Maud Riley - said: "Where(as) Matisse's simplicity is elegant, Avery's is often imprudent."
AVERY'S response to Rothko's work is even more complex. On the one hand, Avery was extremely open to the idea that a painting is essentially an arrangement of color, form, line, and so on. But on the other, he insisted, and in his work showed, that he was always a painter from nature, an observer of the outside world. Rothko wasn't "abstract" either, but his paintings, if they can be sometimes made to suggest landscape, are really color icons or mythic signs prompted by, and prompting, states of mind.
Avery was never prepared to go that far.
But in his late paintings, where the favored subject was the traditionally Romantic one of sky, sea, and land meeting, he allowed the color-shape simplicity he brought to all his subject matter to come closer to abstraction than at any other period in his life. It is not particularly clear to what extent Rothko owed his strong images to Avery, or the degree to which Avery saw the younger artist's images and, in his own quiet way, made paintings that found in observed nature bold arrangements of color, li ght, and shadow that seem at first sight similar. But, although they were no less representative of states of mind than Rothko's, they were also representative of the state of the sun, the water, and the air. He wanted, as he had always done, to "have his cake and eat it." And in such a reduced, concentrated picture as "Boat House by the Sea" he managed to carry on what Hobbs calls an "aesthetic discourse" with both Matisse and Rothko. Yet his painting is, in the event, entirely an "Avery."