Not a superstar, but still a revolutionary artist

In an era dominated by television and film, it's refreshing to know that a painter from half a century ago can still stir up passions.

Milton Avery has long been known within art circles as "a painter's painter." It is clear that he has always been less well known than his superstar contemporaries, such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

But what is less clear is how connected his work was to the important art trends of his day. One issue that still gets art critics hot under the collar: What was his real impact on the artists who helped define American art in the second half of the 20th century?

The current exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, "Milton Avery: The Late Paintings," features works from 1947 to 1963. The exhibition shows that his work represented a bridge between American traditionalists, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Marsden Hartley, and the Abstract Expressionists Pollock and Rothko. "He started the revolution with a newer voice," says exhibition curator Robert Hobbs.

Avery was influenced by French painters such as Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, whose vivid use of color made its way into Avery's paintings. But although he helped bring this profound exploration of color to his peers, Avery wasn't ready to give up on recognizable imagery, Mr. Hobbs says.

Avery was also influenced by American folk-art traditions, which were rooted in realism, albeit naive. The next generation of American artists was committed to going totally abstract, even in their imagery. "He was eclipsed by what he created," Hobbs says.

Paintings such as "Sailfish in Fog" and "The Haircut," with their strong use of color, are good examples of the transitional material his work provided to other artists, Hobbs says. In the first, the entire canvas is a saturated red with the merest hint of a boat's outline.

"This is a good example of his connection with the work later done by Mark Rothko," says Hobbs, describing the work of the pioneer in pure color-field theory. There's good reason to believe Avery influenced Rothko: The younger artist was one of a handful of influential painters living in New York City in the mid-century who met regularly with Avery to have him critique their work.

But just as art of the 20th century showed that there are many ways to depict the same experience, art criticism shows that one person's masterpiece is another's shallow decoration. When the show opened several weeks ago, Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, clearly enjoyed knocking down the view of Avery as an important figure.

Mr. Knight called Avery's work "old-fashioned sentiment given a veneer of experimental adventure. It's avant-garde lite." Further, he said, the show "flogs his 1950s work in a tortured effort to assert its illuminating relevance to the period."

Other critics have been more expansive. Avery "contributed to the triumph of abstract-expressionism, through the impact he had on its major practitioners," writes James Auer, art critic for the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal. The exhibition previously visited Milwaukee.

Curator Hobbs says one thing is clear: "Avery's work has always been pleasing to look at. That, in the eyes of many modernists, who tend to think what we consider good art has to be difficult, has always made him easy to dismiss."

• 'Milton Avery: The Late Paintings' is on display at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through Sept. 8.

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