Avery's family life, distilled on canvas

American modernist Milton Avery (1885-1965) - a taciturn New Englander - embodied still waters running deep. An artist of economy, he was known for saying little and painting much. His austere compositions of simplified forms rendered in innovative color often hint at the influence of Matisse and Picasso but ultimately stand alone as original.

The simplicity, order, and serenity of Avery's work proved a counterpoint to the contemporaneous Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s epitomized by Jackson Pollock. As Avery's friend and disciple, Mark Rothko, observed: "... in a generation which felt that it could be heard only through clamor, force, and a show of power ... Avery had that inner power in which gentleness and silence proved more audible and poignant."

In what is perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition of Avery's work ever mounted, the Phillips Collection has brought together works from the two most important collections of Avery paintings and prints. "Discovering Milton Avery" is devoted to works from the collections of Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, and Louis and Annette Kaufman, who were first to purchase an Avery oil painting.

Avery was born in the small town of Altmar, N.Y., but raised in Hartford, Conn. At the time he married, Avery moved to Manhattan yet continued to inhabit a New England state of mind that was bolstered by summer trips to Massachusetts and rural Vermont, whence he drew his subject matter.

Much of Avery's work expresses a naive sophistication evident in "Chinese Checkers (March Avery and Vincenzo Spagna)," above. Rendered in the cool palette Avery favored, family friend Spagna is captured in a meditative pose hulking above the slight figure of Avery's much-painted daughter, March. All eyes, including those of the viewer, are drawn to the bright game board in the center of the canvas. But overall, the painting conveys Avery's love of family life.

As Avery himself described his artistic quest in one of his few recorded statements: "I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather the purity and essence of the idea expressed in its simplest form." The visually eloquent work of this quiet artist speaks for itself.

'Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips' is on view until May 16 at the Phillips Collection, Washington.

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