Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Andy Williams: An American Legend
Milton Avery (1885-1965)

The Musicians

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
The Musicians
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1949' (lower right)
oil on canvasboard
18 x 23¾ in. (45.7 x 60.3 cm.)
M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1950.
Mrs. Stauffer Sigall, San Francisco, California, 1951.
John Stauffer Charitable Trust, Los Angeles, California, 1973.
Private collection, Minnesota, 1985.
ACA Galleries, New York.
Private collection, New York, acquired from the above, 1987.
Christie's, New York, 29 November 2001, lot 80.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
San Francisco, California, California Palace of the Legion of Honor and DeYoung Memorial Museum, 1951-85, on extended loan.


Milton Avery's The Musicians exhibits all of the hallmarks of the artist's best work from the 1940s. Through daring use of color and a network of patterns and shapes, Avery transforms a familiar domestic scene into a thoroughly modern composition. As Avery noted, "I work on two levels. I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, colors form a set of unique relationships independent of any subject matter. At the same time I try to capture and translate the excitement and emotion aroused in me by the impact with the original idea." (as quoted in B.L. Grad, Milton Avery, Royal Oak, Michigan, 1981, p. 8) Indeed, The Musicians, is exemplary of Avery's unique ability to convey a mellifluous narrative through adept sequencing of color and form.

In the present work, the two figures, who are practicing in what appears to be an informal interior setting, are rendered in a contained two-dimensional design, fundamental to Avery's style. As Hilton Kramer notes of Avery's work, "Figures and the objects around them are divested of identifying detail and simplified to flat, cutout forms, which are then reinvested with the strength of Avery's color, which, in turn, can generate its peculiar plastic force only because every part of the canvas is locked into a position of maximum expressive balance." (Milton Avery: Paintings, 1930-1960, New York, 1962, p. 17) Although the objects and subjects are reduced to their simplest forms, through his use of negative space and harmonious palette, Avery imbues the canvas with a lyrical sense of music. This is further achieved through his textured surface. Discussing his technique of the 1940s, Barbara Haskell writes, "Multiple layers of pigment were blended together into evenly toned areas marked by Avery's unmistakable color sense. Within these barely modulated color planes Avery created textures by scratching into the paint with a fork or razor, a process which reduced illusionistic recession by calling attention to the two-dimensional surface of the canvas." (Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1982, pp. 92, 108) In the present work Avery uses this scouring technique to depict the wallpaper behind the figures in an orderly yet whimsical motif that mimics staccato musical notes and simulates sound. A similar effect is achieved by the same technique in his outlining of the furniture. The result is a pulsing sense of rhythm that permeates the canvas.

The interconnectedness of music and the formal components of visual art had been explored by American Modernists such as Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe in the 1910s and 1920s and were championed by European abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky. Avery had likely been exposed to Kandinsky's work while exhibiting at the Valentine Gallery on 57th Street in 1935. Amid the range of artists the owner Valentine Dudensing exhibited at that time was Kandinsky. Avery explored the topic in a more literal approach, demonstrating his ability to blend modern themes and broader European influences while remaining committed to a familiar subject, thus creating his own style.

Beyond their commanding presence and widespread 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. Indeed, in a commemorative essay on the artist from 1965, Rothko commented, "There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush. For Avery was a great poet-inventor who had invented sonorities never seen nor heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come." (as quoted in A.D. Breeskin, Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue, 1969, n.p.)

The Musicians manifests all of the most celebrated components of Avery's work during the most critical period of his career and wonderfully manifests Hans Hofmann's comment: "Avery was one of the first to understand color as a creative means. He knew how to relate colors in a plastic way. His color actually achieves a life of its own, sometimes lovely and gentle, at other times startlingly tart, yet always subtle and eloquent." (as quoted in Milton Avery, Manchester, Vermont, 1990, p. 1)