In the summer of 1953, Milton Avery and his family escaped the heat of New York City and spent the season at Brydcliffe, an artist’s colony near Woodstock, New York. In Dancing Trees, Avery depicts the dense blue-green forest, lemon yellow sky and pink ground as one flat plane whose layers dynamically convey a sense of the panoramic view. Though many of these works lack a specificity of place, even when based on a particular location, Avery’s “landscapes are not just any landscapes but have the bewitching quality of recalling to each observer a particular landscape” (Una Johnson, Milton Avery, Prints and Drawings, 1930-1964, 1966, p. 14).
In early 1949, Avery suffered a heart attack which led his art in new directions over the ensuing decade. As Barbara Haskell writes, “The experience of his heart attack had convinced him 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. Overall tonal harmonies replaced the contrasting color areas typical of his work of the preceding decades. Moreover, although Avery had begun to simplify shape and reduce detail as early as 1944, he now saw such a paring down as a means to express the more universal qualities of experience” (Milton Avery, New York, 1982, pp. 116-117).
As a result of this new intent, the bathers and beach umbrellas of the artist’s earlier scenes gradually disappeared as his compositions became increasingly spare, devoid of any sign of human presence. Rather than depicting the natural world faithfully, Avery was more interested in synthesizing this simplified design with expressive, evocative color. His skies, for instance, are rarely blue. The striking yellow sky in Dancing Trees acts as a foil to the pink foreground as it frames the row of green and blue evergreens. Simplified bands of color are typical of Avery’s landscapes, as he worked toward his goal of reducing elements to their purest forms. “I always take something out of my pictures,” the artist once remarked. “I strip the design to essentials; the facts do not interest me so much as the essence of nature.” Though Avery pushed the limits of abstraction, he always included some detail, such as the slender, lyrical trees in the foreground, to keep his paintings from becoming fully abstract color-fields. While Avery was not interested in taking his works entirely beyond representation, these landscapes, with their emphasis on bands of pulsing color, had a distinct impact on Mark Rothko, who pushed Avery’s ideas fully into abstraction in his paintings.