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

The Orange Shirt

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
The Orange Shirt
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1950' (lower left)
oil on canvas
36 x 28 in. (91.4 x 71.1 cm.)
The artist.
Milton Avery Trust.
[With]The Waddington Galleries, London.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1970.


Milton Avery's work from the 1950s has the distinctive character of simplified forms and blocks of color that we have come to associate with the artist's mature paintings. Avery's daring color juxtapositions and abstracted depictions of classic subject matter exerted a highly important influence on Post-War American painting and anticipated the works of Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, among others. Clement Greenberg even pronounced Avery the leader of a new artistic phase after the status of Abstract Expressionism was thrown into question following Jackson Pollock's death. Painted in 1950, Orange Shirt exhibits all of the hallmarks of Avery’s daring and modern approach to the long standing tradition of figurative painting.

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 Avery's style, in Orange Shirt, the artist creates 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 highly saturated palette of orange and pink against bright shades of blue and green. 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) Avery constructed the simplified background with five approximately horizontal bands of contrasting color. To emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas, Avery used a fork or razor to scratch texture into the blue pine tree behind the sitter. The dark blue rolling hills obscure the horizon line and push our focus forward to the figure. The lower half of the painting is particularly sparse, comprised merely of the stool and the sitter’s legs on a greyish-brown ground. The line separating this color from the blue of the pine tree and the green of the bushes is the only hint of depth in this remarkably modern work. 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." (quoted in B.L. Grad, Milton Avery, Royal Oak, Michigan, 1981, p. 8)

Orange Shirt depicts John Galert, a friend of Avery’s and a fellow artist. The location is likely invented, but could possibly be somewhere in Connecticut where Galert had a home. While Avery’s figures from the 1940s had limited facial features, the artist’s work from the 1950s saw further simplification. In Orange Shirt, the figures face, shown in profile, is completely blank, void of any elements. Art historian Robert Hobbs observes, “…in his quest for purity of formal means and the essence of expression, facial features became too dominant as focal points and too illustrative, thus interrupting the viewer’s understanding of an entire composition as the embodiment of a mood expressed in terms of the medium of paint.” (R. Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York, 1990, p. 129)

Though one of the best practitioners of this device, Avery was not the only painter to implement it. Henri Matisse, whose influence on Avery’s work is undeniable, also painted blank faces, as seen in Plum Blossoms, Green Background. When asked why he gave many of his figures blank faces, Matisse explained, “Because the expression is carried by the whole picture….If you put in eyes, nose, mouth, it doesn’t serve for much; on the contrary, doing so paralyzes the imagination of the spectator and obliges him to see a specific person, a certain resemblance....” (quoted in “Interview with Georges Charbonnier,” in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Los Angeles, 1995, p. 194) While Matisse aimed for true anonymity, Avery’s blank-faced figures, like Galert in Orange Shirt, remain individuals. As Hobbs notes, “What is surprising is the degree to which intimacy is joined with anonymity in his art: the figures are distinct personalities even though their faces are blank.” (R. Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York, 1990, p. 130)

Similarly, while Avery was interested in abstraction, he remained committed to representational imagery. “Avery recognized that his art could never lose its human quotient if it were to be successful,” notes Robert Hobbs (Milton Avery, p. 166). Indeed Avery wrote, "I like to seize the one sharp instant in nature, 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)

Works like Orange Shirt are indicative of Avery’s role as a father of the Color Field movement. Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and other color field artists would take Avery’s color experiments further into the non-objective realm. 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." (quoted in A.D. Breeskin, Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue, 1969, n.p.)

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