IIt doesn’t take long to start seeing the hidden Rothkos in Milton Avery’s beach scenes and landscapes. They stand like eerie empty panoramas of sea and sky, transforming what appear to be figurative compositions into abstract masterpieces. The Man with a Pipe, for example, is a deliberately bizarre scene painted in 1935. But remove the people and you’d have three layers of abstract color: a blackish sky over a gray ocean over a yellow beach. Exactly the kind of sublime vertical stacking of colors painted by Rothko.
The resemblance is not accidental. Mark Rothko first met Avery in the late 1920s in New York and greatly admired the older man: Avery was born in 1885, Rothko in 1903. Rothko’s generation would shake up modern art and make of New York the world capital of art, painting huge canvases without apparent subject, just color, but whose intense expressiveness made them name the abstract expressionists. Avery never took the leap into pure abstraction that Rothko, Barnett Newman or Jackson Pollock did, but this brilliant exhibition proves he didn’t need to. This idiosyncratic and experimental American dreamer already anticipated their poetic use of color years earlier, in canvases that find hidden abstraction in nature itself.
American nature may actually be more abstract than the cozy fields and small hills we have in Europe. The sheer magnitude of the North American continent was even more daunting because it did not have a long history of landscape painters like Claude to familiarize it with. When Avery began painting New England, where he grew up in a working-class family, it was still possible to see its sea and woods as new to art, a terra incognita.
Be that as it may, this could explain the moving freshness of his early landscapes. Even in his early canvases, heavily influenced by European art, there is an American romantic vastness: Big Sky, painted in 1918, has impressionistic trees but they are overshadowed by a glowing void of blue and gold air. It’s the big sky of a big country, but there’s nothing triumphant about Avery’s America. It’s a place of unsettling mystery where even the fun of a day at the beach is overshadowed by hints of the abyss.
Speedboat’s Wake, painted four decades after this apprentice landscape, depicts a small white boat and the line of foam behind it being swallowed by a vast dark ocean. The tiny figure in the boat may seem like a hero, but Avery shows how small human effort is against the Atlantic Ocean. A Rothko-esque band of deep blue sky hangs obliviously above the little sailor.
Avery is sometimes presented as an American Matisse, but he is much stranger and better than that. Far from being content to imitate Matisse, he translates the pleasures of the beach and French summer days Wildcat painted in the dark land and seascapes of America with wild results. Little Fox River, from 1942, looks cheerful and summery at first glance, with its buttery yellow landscape surrounded by blue waves, but then you notice how big and inhumane the waves are, how sea swell makes the frail houses and the appearance of a church. Avery sees the sublime everywhere in nature: his depictions of birds, such as his 1940s paintings Oyster Catcher and Sooty Terns, are modernist accounts with the first major American artist John James Audubon, capturing birds in flight with the same precision as this 19th century bird. painter but seeing them as mythical and disturbing.
Seeing this art so closely tied to Abstract Expressionism yet rooted in nature opens up a new perspective on American art itself. Avery is a missing link between landscape and abstraction. It’s not just Rothko’s moody colored rectangles you see in his scenes: pull out the memento mori objects from his 1946 painting Still Life with Skull and you see the vertical lines that Barnett Newman made his trademark. .
Abstract Expressionist art always alludes to the realities hidden within its colored walls. That’s what makes it so significant. “I choose to veil the images,” Pollock said. This exhibition shows that Avery was not simply a predecessor of this great artistic movement, nor even its godfather. He is a true abstract expressionist who does not manage to “veil” the imagery. It makes this exhibition more than a celebration of an American artist you may never have heard of before. You can never see a Rothko again without imagining a seashore at dusk where the blazing red sky sets over the dark wine sea, in an apocalyptic revelation.