Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Milton Avery (1885-1965)

Figure by Pool

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Figure by Pool
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1945' (lower right)--signed and dated again and inscribed with title (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
28 x 36 in. (71.1 x 91.4 cm.)
Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1982.


Painted in 1945, Figure by Pool was executed during the most critical period of Milton Avery's career. Indeed, Avery's work from the mid-40s has the distinctive character of simplified forms and blocks of color that we have come to associate with the artist's most notable works. In addition to their broad popular appeal, Avery's bold abstractions exerted a highly important influence on Post-War American painting and have been seen as critical forerunners to the works of Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, among others.

Many scholars attribute the important characteristics of Avery's style to his professional affiliation with the gallery of Paul Rosenberg who exposed him to modern European artists and their abstract ideals. When Rosenberg arrived in America in 1940, he brought a cache of great works by important European artists, many of whom provided Avery with a new understanding of abstract representation.

Barbara Haskell discusses these influences, noting that "Rosenberg's proclivity for taut structure and architectonic solidity encouraged Avery to emphasize these aspects of his work. He replaced the brushy paint application and graphic detailing that had informed his previous efforts with denser more evenly modulated areas of flattened color contained with crisply delineated forms. The result was a more abstract interlocking of shapes and a shallower pictorial space than he had previously employed. Avery retained color as the primary vehicle of feeling and expression, but achieved a greater degree of abstraction by increasing the parity between recognizable forms and abstract shapes." ("Milton Avery: The Metaphysics of Color," Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, 1994, pp. 8-9)

As typical of his style from the 1940s, the artist creates in Figure by Pool a tension and balance through his selection of complimentary and contrasting colors and shapes. While he simplifies the scene to the broadest possible forms, he invigorates these shapes through his sophisticated use of variegated hues. Avery sets the cool light green and pink against the much darker green of the pool. The shapes of color in the painting are balanced by the hard lines of the rocks and figure juxtaposed with the smooth, curving lines of the pool and tree line. Avery interrupts the flow of the horizontal, undulating shapes of land with the vertical jagged lines of the trees and dashes of color on the rocks. Here, Avery uses blocks of color both as expression and as a way to modulate space as he suggests recession through the planes of color and their arrangement on the two-dimensional surface. Avery discussed this use color, "I do not use linear perspective, but achieve depth by color--the function of one color with another. I strip the design to the essentials; the facts do not interest me as much as the essence of nature." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 51)

In Figure by Pool, Avery characteristically renders his figure through a strict, plastic two-dimensional design. By simplifying the woman and landscape, he invigorates these forms through his sophisticated use of highly saturated colors. Here, Avery uses blocks of color both as expression and as a way to modulate space, as he suggests recession through the planes of color and their arrangement on the two-dimensional surface. "There are hazards in this approach to the figure," writes Hilton Kramer, "but Avery has somehow side-stepped the greatest of these, namely, a sense of fixity that would deprive his figures of animation. The characteristic attitude of Avery's figures is one of relaxation and repose. His women--most of his figures are female--read, carry on conversation, talk on the telephone, lie on the beach, or sit around daydreaming. They project a presence that, however disinterested, is far removed from the pictorial stasis that the artist's method might seem to hold in store for them. The reason, of course, is that Avery's color imparts an emotional drama, a weight of emphasis and nuance, that recapitulates on the level of retinal sensation whatever graphic complexities have eliminated in the process." (Milton Avery: Paintings 1920-1960, New York, 1962, pp. 17-19)

Though Avery discounted the influence of Henri Matisse on his work, it seems undeniable that he was inspired by the French artist's use of broad, interlocking shapes to create depth and his preference for flat color over blended shades. Matisse described an approach to painting which could equally serve to define Avery's own technique: "Fit your parts into one another and build up your figures as a carpenter does a house. Everything must be constructed--built up of parts that make a unit..." Matisse further states, "The mechanics of construction is the establishment of the oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions." (as quoted in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, pp. 50, 53) In Figure by Pool, it seems Avery has assembled his composition according to this method.

Figure by Pool is exemplary of Avery's paintings from the 1940s and includes all of the hallmarks that are distinctive of the artist's works from the period. "I like to seize the one sharp instant in Nature," wrote Avery, "to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving apparently nothing but color and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea--expressed in its simplest form" (as quoted in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, p. 53)