Painted in 1960, Meditation belongs to the last and arguably most important phase of Milton Avery’s career and exemplifies the daring ambition and inventiveness the artist’s work achieved between 1947 and 1963. Indeed, 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.
By the end of the 1940s, Avery had shifted his attention away from the heavily saturated and vibrant planes of color that defined his aesthetic in earlier decades. This distinctive style had previously earned Avery the title of the “American Fauve” and drawn parallels to the work of Henri Matisse, whose work he became familiar with through their shared affiliation with the French art dealer Paul Rosenberg. While Avery continued to employ non-associative color to indicate depth and space within his compositions as he had done in previous decades, he now adopted a more refined palette primarily concerned with evoking emotion, while also focusing on reducing figural and landscape elements to their most simplified forms.
In Meditation, Avery reinterprets the iconic pose of the seated thinker with his unique version of modernism. He has simplified the female nude to only the purest lines and volumes of her form, rejecting all extraneous details or embellishments. Here Avery eschews conventional notions of both color and compositional design: the picture plane is largely flat, and each element is delineated as an independent area of color. Rendering his subject through a two-dimensional design, Avery leaves the realm of purely realistic representation to distill the abstract qualities he saw as inherently present in the forms and figures of the world around him. He is not concerned with portraying the physical likeness of his subject but instead aims to capture her very essence.
The striking luminosity Avery achieves in Meditation is fully representative of the new consideration and application of color the artist also adopted in this pivotal period. In 1949, Avery began to experiment with monotype, a technical form of printmaking, while staying at the Research Colony in Maitland, Florida. Inspired by his extensive work with monotype and the sponging of wet, heavily diluted paint onto plate glass that the process required, he began to layer pigment in delicate washes on his canvases, creating large chromatically nuanced areas of color. In Meditation, Avery applies tones of deep blue and cool green to the canvas, layering the hues at times so that the disparate components of the composition seem to radiate on the picture plane with their own energy yet are simultaneously chromatically and harmoniously united. Ultimately, works such as Meditation attest to Avery’s belief in both the structural function as well as the expressive power of color, as here Avery’s chromatic program evokes a strong sense of tranquil contemplation, underscoring the meaning that lies at the very heart of the painting. Avery shared this concern for the primacy of color in his work with many Post-War painters such as Rothko and Gottlieb, who he befriended in New York in the late 1920s when all three artists were exhibiting at the Opportunity Gallery on 56th Street.
However, unlike these painters, Avery was unwilling to completely abandon figurative elements or a chosen subject. He wrote in 1951, "I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather the purity and essence of the idea—expressed in its simplest form" (Robert Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York 1990, p. 166). Throughout the decade, he worked on maintaining the emotional impact of the subject within an increasingly pared down composition. "I work on two levels. I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, colors form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter. At the same time I try to capture and translate the excitement and emotion aroused in me by the impact with the original idea" (Ibid, p. 172).
In the summers between 1957 and 1960, Avery reunited with Rothko and Gottlieb in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they worked in close proximity and each embarked in new directions with their art. Gottlieb continued to work on his series of paintings referred to as bursts, which he began in 1957 with Blast I (Fig. 1), Rothko embraced a radically darker palette than he had previously worked with, and Avery abandoned his watercolors for larger canvases. Gottlieb, who valued Avery as mentor, 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” (as quoted in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, New York 1981, p. 17).
Avery’s work also had a distinct impact on Rothko, who ultimately pushed the older artist’s ideas about the expressive power of color fully into abstraction (Fig. 2). Edward Albee, who knew both painters, writes of this influence: “Mark Rothko used to visit me from time to time, and we would talk of many things or merely listen to music. Mark would always place himself so he was seated facing a wall of Averys. That was fine with me knowing how much Mark admired Avery’s work. It was also fine because there was yet another Avery on a wall behind Rothko’s chair, so I would have the two of them to look at while we talked” (Stretching My Mind, New York 2005, p. 69).