Milton Avery: American Colourist at the Royal Academy
Milton Avery is not a familiar name in Europe. Born in 1885 in Connecticut, his was a poor family. He left school at 16 to work in a factory. Following his father’s death in an industrial accident when he was 20, he began a night course in lettering to increase his earning potential, which led to drawing and then painting. This exhibition covers a lifetime of artistic development in three rooms.
The first shows early landscapes that are indebted to French Impressionists. With his landscapes, though, he captures a certain desolation behind the bright colours; this could be called “outsider art”. A move to New York in 1926 finds him courting the mainstream, with his influences broadening with his social circle. Studio View (Chop Suey) has an immediacy in evoking the 1930s New York Avery looked out on. Hors D’Oeuvres (1943) renders that most aspirational plate of nibbles into something playful and graphic. The strange cacophony of Chariot Race (1933) with its eyeless horses, trapeze artists and eerie clowns recalls Toulouse-Lautrec’s circus-scapes.
There are portraits of himself and his wife, Sally that thrum with strangeness, and their daughter March (born, of course, in October) also features.
Two bird pictures are especially full of life: Oyster Catcher (1944) shows the bird scurrying to take off, beak like an arrowhead, Sooty Terns (1945) is a tumble of wings, beaks and necks.
The pictures offer unexpected quirks away from realism. A spare reclining nude in white is abstracted to form and colour but is somehow brought to life by the dip in the palm of the hand supporting her head (Reclining Blonde, 1959). Hint of Autumn (1954) and Speedboat in a Choppy Sea (1960) are two of the most arresting images, showing that the peripatetic Avery has wandered from American Impressionism into Abstract Expressionism. The room of his later work owes a debt to Avery’s friend Mark Rothko – or perhaps the other way round: landscapes become distilled into pure colour in Black Sea. It is interesting to see the experimentation throughout his career, the magpie-like picking up of different influences. Mostly we think of artists as being driven by a singular vision from the start, but others develop and it is interesting to see that across the 70 paintings on display here.
Milton Avery: American Colourist is at the Royal Academy from 15th July until 16th October 2022. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.