Exploring the Character of Color

AN art "of balance, of purity, and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be ... like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue."

This is how French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) summarized his aims on a number of occasions. It is the kind of unassuming comment that might be expected from a modest man. It hardly hints at his seriousness or justifies the conviction of Matisse's greatness that many other artists and writers about art have had. But the potency of his work has been evident in this century by its widespread liberating effect. And this effect, given the particularly French character of his paintings, with their sunli t joie de vivre, and even their hedonism, has turned up in surprising quarters.

It could not have been entirely expected, for instance, that a tanner's son, "a Connecticut yankee" who was still only a Sunday painter at the age of 39, might before the end of his late-flowering career, be dubbed "the American Matisse." This was Milton Avery (1885-1965).

Perhaps an even more surprising admirer of both Avery and Matisse was the Latvian-born emigre artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), who became one of the "names" of the so-called Abstract Expressionist period of American art (1940s-60s). But the intense solemnity of this painter, instilling the heroic presence of his apparently simple, gentle-edge bands and rectangular areas of resonant color with deep currents of feeling, would seem a far cry from Matisse's light touch and domestic subject-matter.

Rothko, for all his admiration of the French master, wanted very much to distance his art from Matisse's - which would suggest, perversely, that he knew very well his debt to him. In fact, according to art critic and curator William Rubin, he "was always anxious lest he be taken for a painter in the vein of Matisse, whom he nonetheless dearly loved." And in no way would Rothko have called his art "an armchair"!

The problem was that the language both painters used was saturated color. Both asked of color expressive possibilities hardly imagined before. Color was their principal means of conveying what Matisse called his emotion. "My purpose," he said, "is to render my emotion."

But color had always traditionally been considered the flighty, unpredictable, and even the trivial part of a painter's means. Color was the Romantic as opposed to the Classic, the sensuous as opposed to the intellectual, something belonging to surface rather than depth, both factually and metaphorically. But color also has an intangibility that can, in inspired hands, be transcendent.

CERTAINLY Matisse, and later Rothko in his scrupulously reduced ordering of his paintings, knew that for color to be transcendent, it had to have some basic structure underlying it - but not a straitjacket, or some elaborate complexity of lines. Color must be allowed to breathe, to expand easily into the space or depth of a painting. It must be able to follow its own rules - or lack of rules. And it must be "simple."

Both Matisse and Rothko were not afraid of simplicity. As early as 1943, in the manifesto he wrote with Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko advocated "the simple expression of the complex thought" and the "unequivocal large shape." And Matisse stated, "I use the simplest colors. I don't transform them myself, it is the relationships which take charge of them. It is only a matter of enhancing the differences, of revealing them. Nothing prevents composition with a few colors, like music which is built on only seven no tes."

Rothko was sensitive about the understanding of his color paintings in a way that Matisse never was. Once (as recorded by critic and poet Selden Rodman) he disclaimed not only any desire to make "abstract" paintings, but added: "I'm not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else.... I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on - and the fact that ... people ... cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate human emotions." A ll the same, color, carefully related and placed, was Rothko's indisputable means of expression.

So where does Milton Avery fit into this particular jigsaw of disparate artists?

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."

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