Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Property from an Important Private Trust
Milton Avery (1885-1965)

California Beach

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
California Beach
signed 'Milton Avery' (lower left)
oil on canvas
28 x 36 in. (71.1 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1942.
The artist.
Milton Avery Trust, New York.
Waddington Custot Galleries, London, England.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1981.


Each summer the Avery family would leave the crowded streets of New York City and seek refuge in a coastal area. In the summer of 1941, the family drove cross-country to California, stopping at Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks before settling in Laguna Beach, California for a month. It is this seaside sojourn that inspired the composition for California Beach.

In addition to escaping the bustle of urban life, these seasonal voyages also provided new surroundings that served as inspiration for Avery. "Avery's access to these fresh visual environments was significant, for at the core of his approach to painting was a single firm rule: never invent imagery. He would simplify, flatten, distort, or chromatically abstract a landscape, portrait, or interior, but he never introduced elements into the composition which did not exist in the physical world. He would not invent what was not there." (B. Haskell, Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1982, p. 60)

In the present work, Avery depicts a tranquil beach scene where bathers are parked on the sand enjoying the warm sunshine and each other's company. In the foreground, a group of three figures has congregated near the shore, apparently undisturbed by the presence of other sun worshipers that are hinted at by colorful beach umbrellas in the distance. Other beach goers make their way up the steep slope to return to their cars and homes after a long day by the seashore. In typical fashion, the composition is geographically accurate, as Avery has successfully captured the topography of the surrounding landscape that rises quickly from the shoreline into the hills and canyons of the San Joaquin Hills.

Although Avery had been portraying figures in landscapes well before 1942, the early part of the decade proved to be a transformative time for his approach to painting. "As Avery sharply reduced the number of elements in his compositions, shape came to play a role equal in importance to color. Given the nature of his subjects and the sparseness of his formal means, Avery's work might easily have become banal were it not for his highly developed pictorial logic--his impeccable and precise arrangements of forms on the canvas...To suggest space, Avery relied on such depth cues as diagonally thrusting lines and overlapping planes, which he ordered to create a typically shallow space of steep perspective and tilted planes. His vocabulary of shapes continued to be derived from the external world, but in the process of manipulating images for the sake of formal relationships, he transformed them. Although he subjected the human form to the same flattening as landscape motifs, his figure distortions remained more restrained because of the obligation to maintain recognizable association with human anatomy." (Milton Avery, p. 108)

In California Beach, the flattened picture plane is quite apparent and Avery has layered the rolling hills in the background so dramatically that it has become difficult to determine their proximity to the beach and also to each other. The undulating organic mounds of burgundy and blue are placed directly in front of one another, imbuing the work with a sense of two-dimensional design. Avery has also noticeably simplified the figures in the foreground. Broad strokes of white delineate the legs, shirt, and hat of the woman standing on the left. Her face, a slightly warmer shade of white, is denoted by a quick vertical brushstroke. The bronzed form of the figure on the right is handled similarly, her white bathing suit breaking up the monotony of the large expanse of simplified tanned limbs that constitute her body.

California Beach includes all of the hallmarks of Avery's works from the 1940s. "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 R. Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 53)