Milton Avery’s distinctive vision of modernism strikes an ideal balance between the realism of pre-war American painting and the pure abstraction of the Post-War period, forging the path for many prominent nonobjective artists such as Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and the proponents of Color Field painting. Indeed, his work from the last and most important period of his career, demonstrates an evolution in style, technique and intent that serve to position Avery as one of the earliest American practitioners of chromatic abstraction. Painted in 1960, Sunset Sea strikingly displays the distilled compositional elements and simplified areas of color and texture for which Avery is widely acclaimed today.
Defined early in his career for his use of deeply saturated hues and distinct planes of color, Avery gained critical and popular recognition as the “American Fauve.” In 1943, the artist left his art dealer Valentine Dudensig to join Paul Rosenberg’s renowned New York gallery, which also represented European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Avery’s close proximity to these artists of the post-Impressionist era and their champion fueled his experimentation with non-associative color and simplified forms. While the artist always 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 this period is characterized by vibrant areas of contrasting, nearly opaque color that demand comparisons with the work of Picasso, and French masters of Fauvism, Henri Matisse and André Derain.
Throughout the 1950s, Avery continued to refine the compositional elements of his subjects and simultaneously explored the handling of the paint surface as is demonstrated in Sunset Sea. Eliminating the contrasting chromatic juxtapositions that once defined his aesthetic, Avery creates expansive zones of color that appear to float on the picture plane and contribute to the unity of composition. Gone are the bright, contrasting color planes of his early career, replaced shimmering luminosity. Avery achieved this radiant 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, emphasizing their translucency and depth. This technique, which he cultivated after working extensively with monotype prints in the later 1940s, imbues the works of this phase with a new ethereal richness that foreshadows the ambient washes of color he would continue to expand through the remainder of his career. In Sunset Sea, the red drybrush ocean further enlivens the surface as Avery embraces texture to differentiate planes and express a sense of place. Though he does not entirely abandon his representational reference in the present work, by reinventing a traditional seascape as a complex arrangement of shape and color, he makes his closest approach to pure abstraction.
The deconstructed and dramatically simplified elements of land, sea, and sky are suggested by flattened planes of color, but Avery also maintains the illusion of depth by implementing a horizon line. This horizontal division of the canvas was one of the artist’s preferred compositional devices in the 1950s and 1960s, replacing the slanted diagonal planes he favored in earlier decades. 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, “I strip the design to essentials; the facts do not interest me as much as the essence of nature” (as quoted in Chris Ritter, “A Milton Avery Profile,” Art Digest, vol. 27, December 1, 1952, p. 12.).
In its subject, Sunset Sea shows the clear influence of the artist’s summers spent in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a seaside town on the northern tip of Cape Cod. The picturesque scenery provided Avery with endless inspiration and opportunity: tonal variation between the land, sea and sky; textural variation between the sandy or rocky shoreline and turbulent ocean waters; and finally, the relationship of all three elements during varying weather conditions and times of day. Avery returned to Provincetown each summer between 1957 and 1960 and, reunited with his friends and fellow artists Mark Rothko and Adolph 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 his younger colleagues (figs. 1 & 2). Likewise, 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.
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" (as quoted in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 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 Sunset Sea reveal an artist seriously considering that a painting’s meaning could exist solely in its formal qualities. Here he 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, Sunset Sea 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.