“I never have any rules to follow,” Milton Avery stated in 1952, “I follow myself.” (the artist cited in Chris Ritter, “A Milton Avery Profile,” Art Digest, Vol. 27, December 1, 1952, p. 12) With these words, Avery summarizes the complexity that pervades his oeuvre. He is above all an artist who resists categorization: his wholly unique aesthetic is too representational to consider his work non-objective, yet simultaneously it is too abstract to situate him among the painters of the American Scene. Instead, his work achieves a balance between realism and abstraction, and indeed it is this elegant synthesis that has earned Avery a reputation as a bold innovator and significant influencer within the canon of twentieth-century American art. Belonging to the last and arguably most important phase of Avery’s career, Sea & Sand Dunes exemplifies the daring ambition and inventiveness the artist’s work achieved between 1947 and 1963. The paintings from this period demonstrate an evolution in style, technique and intent that serves to position Avery as one of the earliest American practitioners of chromatic abstraction, and thus a vital precursor to such iconic Post-War painters as Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and the proponents of Color Field painting, who would go on to push these ideas fully into the non-objective.
A work of great sophistication in both content and form, Sea & Sand Dunes is equally remarkable as a visual testament to the milieu of Provincetown, Massachusetts. The stunning scenery and crystalline quality of light found at Provincetown attracted American artists for decades; this period was no exception as Avery and his beloved family vacationed there for the first time in 1954, to be joined in 1957 by Rothko and Gottlieb—both of whom Avery had befriended in New York in the late 1920s. The painting’s current owner, Marc Futter, met his wife, Joy Stuttman, an abstract expressionist painter, in Provincetown during this period. Joy was also immersed in the contemporary art scene of the 1950s. She had studied with Hans Hofmann in New York and Provincetown and, like Rothko and Gottlieb, had developed a close friendship with Avery and his wife, Sally. The Futters were married at Hans Hofmann’s Provincetown home in 1958, with Milton and Sally Avery present. Avery served as a mentor to Joy, encouraging her and supporting her dedication to her own work. Over time, the Futters acquired exceptional works by their artist friends. Marc, a lifelong collector and passionate supporter of the arts, acquired the present painting from Grace Borgenicht Gallery in 1978. Marc’s devotion to the arts took many forms, such as in his position on the Governor-appointed Board of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (and its predecessor) for over two decades.
Avery painted Sea & Sand Dunes in 1955, by which time he had already enjoyed public recognition and garnered critical acclaim as the “American Fauve.” After experimenting with a darker, more subdued palette and painterly manner of execution in the 1930s, Avery cultivated a new style in the following decade, soon after he left his dealer Valentine Dudensig to join Paul Rosenberg at his New York gallery in 1943. With encouragement from Rosenberg, who also represented modern European painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Avery intensified his early, tentative experiments with non-associative color and simplified forms. While Avery remained firmly committed to representational imagery, he abandoned many pictorial conventions and began to employ color as his primary means of expression, using it to organize space and indicate depth within the picture plane. His work from the period is characterized by vibrant areas of contrasting and nearly opaque color that frequently drew comparisons with the paintings of Picasso, as well as the French masters of Fauvism, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain.
Avery always maintained a strong commitment to reworking and refining his vision, however, and by 1950 was moving in a new and important aesthetic direction, as is exemplified by Sea & Sand Dunes. Here Avery depicts the beach near Provincetown as ablaze with riotous color. The sea always held a particular place of importance for him, and in the present work he deconstructs his subject into dramatically simplified components of sea, sky and earth; three horizontal color areas contrast dynamically with the large biomorphic shape of the sand dune, which suggests only a degree of illusionistic recession. This horizontal division of the canvas would become Avery’s favored compositional device in this period, replacing the slanted diagonal planes he had previously privileged in the 1930s and 1940s. Though he had long been concerned with rendering the figures and forms of the world around him as simplified shapes, in the 1950s Avery pushed this tendency even further, omitting nearly all extraneous detail and modeling to leave only what he considered the core of his subject. “I always take something out of my pictures,” Avery explained of this mounting impulse. “I strip the design to essentials; the facts do not interest me as much as the essence of nature” (Ibid.).
As Avery continued to pursue the aesthetic effects of the reduction of form, he simultaneously applied increasingly lyrical color and explored a new handling of surface. Glowing with luminous hues of blazing red and deep purple, Sea & Sand Dunes demonstrates Avery’s celebration of color as the foundation of visual communication, and its more refined and atmospheric palette is a hallmark of his work of the period. He achieves this new, lustrous effect by delicately applying large, thin washes of diluted pigment, at times also rubbing the surface of the canvas with a rag to modulate the layers of color within each shape, strengthening their translucency and luminosity. In Sea & Sand Dunes, he utilizes soft hues of lilac and cream as an underpainting that unites the hot and cool tones demarcating sky and earth and simultaneously imbues them with an equal intensity. He further enlivens the composition by employing passages of dashes and dots within color areas, a stylistic quality he retained in his work from the previous decade. Leaving behind the chromatic opacity and dissonance of his earlier work, however, Avery begins to liberate color from the physical boundaries of material space, generating an illusion of boundless depth and projecting a sense of radiant, meditative calm.
Indeed, Avery’s reconsideration of his technique and medium in turn affected his understanding of his own art and its purpose: by limiting the number of shapes and details in his compositions, he now sought to transcend the specificity of a particular place and time to instead present a vision of the representational world that is universal and timeless. In this mature phase of his artistic production, explains Barbara Haskell, Avery forged a new awareness of, “how relatively insignificant were the specific details that distinguish one object from another, and how important were interconnections and universalities. As a result, his pictorial focus shifted from the description of individual parts within a composition to the harmony of the whole.” (Barbara Haskell in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Milton Avery, 1982, pp. 116-117)
In paintings such as Sea & Sand Dunes, the forms of the landscape are so simplified that the compressed pictorial space emerges as a pattern of interlocking, balanced color fields. Though Avery does not entirely abandon his representational reference, by reinventing a traditional seascape as a complex arrangement of shape and color, he makes his closest approach to pure abstraction. Eliminating the contrasting chromatic juxtapositions that once defined his aesthetic, Avery creates expansive, shimmering zones of color that appear to float on the picture plane and contribute to the unity of composition. This technique, which he cultivated after working extensively with monotype prints at the end of the 1940s, imbues works like Sea & Sand Dunes with a new ethereal richness that foreshadows the ambient washes of color he would continue to expand through the remainder of his career. Aspects of his approach were concurrently explored by Color Field painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, whose “soak-stain” technique of pouring diluted paint directly onto unprimed canvas created vast expanses of lambent color that similarly reinforced the two-dimensionality of the object.
Avery returned to Provincetown each summer between 1957 and 1960 and, reunited with his friends Rothko and Gottlieb, among others, continued his investigation into the emotive and structural function of color on a progressively bigger scale. Though Avery had known and painted beside the artists associated with the New York School for decades, the summers at Provincetown provided an especially close period of working proximity, thus it is not surprising that the paintings he produced in this period share striking similarities in both aesthetic and intent with the works of this younger generation. Many of these artists spoke explicitly of their admiration for Avery’s singular vision and the role he played in shaping their nascent aesthetics, particularly his understanding of color and its immense, multi-sensory power.
“There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them,” Rothko eloquently eulogized of Avery and his work in 1965, “but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush. For Avery was a great poet-inventor who had invented sonorities never seen nor heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come.” (Mark Rothko cited in Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 181)
Gottlieb, who shared a close friendship with Avery and his family and valued him as a mentor, particularly during the 1930s, later articulated of him, “I have always thought he was a great artist. When Social Realism and the American scene were considered the important thing, he took an aesthetic stand opposed to regional subject matter. I shared his point of view; and since he was ten years my senior and an artist I respected, his attitude helped to reinforce me in my chosen direction. I always regarded him as a brilliant colorist and draftsman, a solitary figure working against the stream." (Adolph Gottlieb cited in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, 1981, p. 17)
Though Avery’s lifelong commitment to engaging with the representational world as subject matter prevented him from ever fully embracing the pure abstraction espoused by the New York School, works like Sea & Sand Dunes reveal an artist seriously considering that a painting’s meaning could exist solely in its formal qualities for the first time. Reinterpreting the Provincetown landscape through a lens of the timeless and indefinite, Avery leaves the realm of pure representation and thus compels his viewer to consider form, surface, texture and color above subject. Emanating a tangible energetic intensity, Sea & Sand Dunes is extraordinary in its bridging of traditional dichotomies: simultaneously vibrant and diaphanous, realistic and abstract, conventional yet forward-thinking, it is a highly complex and ambitious work that foreshadows the complete merging of content and form that would come to dominate American aesthetics in the Post-War era.