Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Christie's is honored to present Self Portrait by Milton Avery from the Estate of John V.A. Murray. The late owner's grandfather, William H. Weintraub, founded Esquire Magazine in October 1933 with partners David Smart and Arnold Gingrich. The magazine set contemporary editorial and stylistic standards, featuring writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Mailer and enlisting the artistic talents of George Lois, Jean-Paul Goude and Abner Dean. Girded by Esquire's success, Mr. Weintraub formed an eponymous advertising agency in 1942, notable early art directors included Paul Rand and William Bernbach. Mr. and Mrs. Weintraub purchased Self Portrait by 1966 and passing by descent, the work has remained in the family since. Property from the Estate of John V.A. Murray
Milton Avery (1885-1965)

Self Portrait

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Self Portrait
signed, dated and inscribed 'SELF/PORTRA/by/Milton/Avery/1947' (center right)
oil on canvas
49 x 28 in. (124.5 x 71.1 cm.)
The artist.
Estate of the above.
Mr. and Mrs. William H. Weintraub, Jr., (probably) acquired from the above, by 1966.
By descent to the present owner.



The success of Milton Avery's art lies in his ability to modernize a familiar domestic scene by transforming it into a carefully orchestrated arrangement of color and pattern. He translates his subjects, whether objects or people, into a unique lexicon of shapes and forms that fit together into a cohesive composition. Using this basic format, Avery produced oils and watercolors for over three decades. "Throughout the thirty-five years of Avery's mature career--from 1930 to 1965--his work was largely divided between quiet, contemplative scenes of the natural world and depictions of family and friends playing games, making music, painting, reading, and relaxing at the beach. Regarding Avery's consistent focus on these familiar subjects, Hilton Kramer wrote: 'His wit preserves their freshness, while his elegance confers on them a kind of lyric beauty one normally expects to find in a subject encountered for the first time.'" (B.L. Grad, Milton Avery, Royal Oak, Michigan, 1981, p. 1) In the present work, Avery uses his wit by presenting himself in unassuming surroundings with his face painted pale green and his prominent ears rendered orange while playing with forms and lines.

Painted in 1947, Self Portrait 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" in Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, 1994, pp. 8-9)

As typical of Avery's style, in Self Portrait, the artist creates tension and balance through his selection of complimentary and contrasting colors and shapes. While he simplifies the scene into the broadest possible forms, he invigorates these shapes through his sophisticated use of variegated hues. Avery sets highly saturated palettes against muted tones: the wall at left in hues of pink and orange set next to the walls at right in beige and gray while his black and gray coat are contrasted with his lilac pants and yellow shirt. 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. In 1952, Avery discussed his use of 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 Self Portrait the shapes of color are balanced by the hard lines of the background and coat pattern juxtaposed with the smooth, curving lines of the table and objects as well as the artist's figure. The artist has also used his technique of scratching the surface of the paint and building impasto for patterning and texture. Most noticeable is his incised signature set against the smoothness of the walls, he also scratches patterns on the duck and shell and sets it against the smoothness of the table. The overall surface is contrasted as the artist paints the walls thinly while his own figure is painted thickly with impasto.

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 Self Portrait, it seems Avery has assembled his composition according to this method.

Self Portrait 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)