Painted in 1950, Milton Avery’s radiant, March and Sally Outdoors, belongs to a remarkably innovative and productive period in the artist’s nearly 50-year career. Known as a particularly reserved personality, Avery preferred the company of his family and close friends. Because of his penchant for sketching the world around him, these people figure prominently in his prolific body of work. March and Sally Outdoors is one of the most sophisticated and intimate renderings Avery executed of his beloved wife and daughter, his two most important companions and muses (Fig. 1). He married fellow artist Sally Michel in 1926, an event described by scholars as, “the most decisive in Avery’s life and career” (Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 26). Their only daughter, March, was born in 1932, and became a frequent source of inspiration for her father throughout her childhood and adolescence. While images of both women pervade Avery’s oeuvre, March and Sally Outdoors is an outstanding example of this iconic imagery, expressively capturing the close and unique bond the family shared.
March and Sally Outdoors was likely painted at Byrdcliffe, an artist’s colony near Woodstock, New York where the Avery family spent the summer of 1950. With their bodies positioned closely together, the two women are depicted relaxing outdoors in a scene that emanates leisure and tranquility. Although the primary elements of the scene are instantly recognizable, the artist deconstructs both the figurative and landscape components into simplified biomorphic areas of color. He strives to maintain a flattened pictorial plane, suggesting illusionistic recession primarily through the areas of texture applied to the floor of the porch and strings of the hammock, which he created by scratching into the paint layer with the end of a tool such as a fork. Within this compressed space, the reduced elements of the composition exude a striking sense of harmony and balance, illustrating Avery’s ability to reinvent a representational, domestic scene as a complex arrangement of color and pattern.
March and Sally Outdoors thus exemplifies the distinctive blend of realism and abstraction that defines Avery’s most celebrated aesthetic. This mature style emerged in the 1940s, soon after Avery left the dealer Valentine Dudensig to join Paul Rosenberg at his illustrious New York gallery. Encouraged by Rosenberg, Avery intensified his earlier tentative experiments with the application of non-associative color and the simplification of forms. While he remained firmly committed to representational imagery, Avery abandoned many conventional pictorial devices and instead employed color to indicate depth, space and even mood. By 1950, however, Avery shifted his attention from the heavily saturated and vibrant planes of contrasting color similar to those used by painters such as André Derain and Henri Matisse, as illustrated in Open Window, Collioure (Fig. 2). Previously known as the “American Fauve," Avery now adopted a more refined and atmospheric palette. This change was engendered in large part by the serious heart attack the artist experienced early in 1949, after which he spent the next several months in recovery, unable to undertake any major oil paintings.
Avery’s energy and desire to paint returned gradually, and he felt particularly restored by a long sojourn at the Research Art Colony in Maitland, Florida, where he and Sally stayed from December 1949 through the following mid-April. With his health still compromised, Avery began to work with monotype, a form of printmaking that involved a technical process he found less physically strenuous. Over the next two years, Avery executed nearly 200 prints. Encouraged by this prolific output and having recovered a degree of strength, he began to paint with ambition once again throughout the 1950s but shifted his attention to achieving an overall sense of tonal harmony within his canvases.
March and Sally Outdoors is characterized by a more subtle and fluid application of paint, a new technique inspired by Avery’s 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 delicately applied washes, creating large and chromatically nuanced planes of color. Here Avery has replaced the brighter tones of his earlier work with softer hues of rosy pink, rich burgundy and pale green. The central compositional elements of the women are rendered with varying tones of pink, uniting them aesthetically and visually underscoring their closeness. Avery constructs the background with three horizontal bands of contrasting color, but has applied a light green underpainting beneath the more prominent tones of blue, darker green and mauve. The effect creates a more diffuse, atmospheric quality that ultimately contributes to the unity of the composition and foreshadows the ambient fields of color he would continue to expand through the remainder of his career.
Today Avery is considered among the earliest American practitioners of chromatic abstraction. March and Sally Outdoors illustrates Avery’s experiments with the expressive power and structural function of color and positions him as the precursor to such iconic American painters as Adolph Gottleib, Mark Rothko and the proponents of the Color Field movement, who would go on to push his innovative ideas fully into the non-objective (Fig. 3).