American Art

The Riotous Colour of Milton Avery's Seascape

By Liza Pisano

A work of great sophistication in both content and form, Milton Avery’s Sea & Sand Dunes is equally remarkable as a visual testament to the milieu of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Avery and his beloved family vacationed there for the first time in 1954, to be joined in 1957 by fellow painters Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb – both of whom Avery had befriended in New York in the late 1920s. In Sea & Sand Dunes, Avery depicts the beach near Provincetown as ablaze with riotous colour. The sea always held a particular place of importance for the artist and here he deconstructs his subject into dramatically simplified components of sea, sky and earth; three horizontal colour areas contrast dynamically with the large biomorphic shape of the dune, which suggests only a degree of illusionistic recession.  

I have always thought [Milton Avery] was a great artist… 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

During his summers at Provincetown and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Avery continued his deep investigation into the emotive and structural function of colour on a progressively bigger scale. Though Avery had known Rothko, Gottlieb and many other artists associated with the New York School for decades, this latter period of his career initiated an especially close period of working proximity, thus it is not surprising that the paintings he produced, such as Sea & Sand Dunes, 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 own art, particularly his understanding of colour and its immense, multi-sensory power. 

MILTON AVERY, SEA & SAND DUNES , 1955. ESTIMATE $3,000,000–5,000,000.

Glowing with luminous hues of blazing red and deep purple, Sea & Sand Dunes demonstrates Avery’s celebration of colour 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 colour within each shape, strengthening their translucency and luminosity. He utilises soft hues of lilac and cream as underpainting, uniting the hot and cool tones demarcating sky and earth and simultaneously imbuing them with an equal intensity. He further enlivens the composition by employing passages of dashes and dots within colour areas, a stylistic quality he retained from his work of the previous decade. Leaving behind the chromatic opacity and dissonance of his earlier work, however, Avery begins to liberate colour from the physical boundaries of material space, generating an illusion of boundless depth and projecting a sense of radiant, meditative calm.   

The forms of the landscape are so simplified that the compressed pictorial space emerges as a pattern of interlocking, balanced colour fields. Though Avery does not entirely abandon his representational reference, by reinventing a traditional seascape as a complex arrangement of shape and colour, 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 colour he would continue to expand through the remainder of his career.

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