Milton Avery (1885-1965)
The Collection of Joan and Preston Robert Tisch
Milton Avery (1885-1965)

Red Nude

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Red Nude
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1954' (lower left)
oil on canvas
48 x 29 ¾ in. (121.9 x 74.3 cm.)
Painted in 1954.
The artist.
The Waddington Galleries, London, acquired from the above, 1964.
Edward Albee, New York, by 1982.
Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1985.
D.G. Seckler, “Gallery Notes: Season’s Landmarks,” Art in America, vol. 44, no. 2, Spring 1956, p. 59.
N. Gosling, “Opposite World in the West End,” The Observer, September 30, 1962, p. 25.
New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Inc., Milton Avery, April 16-May 5, 1956, no. 8.
Houston, Texas, Texas National Bank, Milton Avery, June 12-July 6, 1956, no. 7.
Detroit, Michigan, Park Gallery, Milton Avery, April 24-May 7, 1960.
Dallas, Texas, Haydon Calhoun Galleries, Milton Avery, September 11-October 9, 1960.
London, The Waddington Galleries, Milton Avery, September 25-October 20, 1962, no. 4, illustrated.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art; Fort Worth, Texas, Fort Worth Art Museum; Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Denver, Colorado, Denver Art Museum; Minneapolis, Minnesota, Walker Art Center, Milton Avery, September 16, 1982-October 30, 1983, p. 168, fig. 136, illustrated.


Milton Avery's work is instantly recognizable for its distinctive hallmarks of simplified representational forms executed in blocks of color designed to convey the essence of his subject in an unquestionably original, and distinctly poetic, manner. The artist’s commitment to representational painting while also embracing a type of bold abstraction of form, as exhibited in Red Nude, has not only attracted broad popular appeal from a diverse audience over the course of his career, but has also exerted a highly important influence on generations of Post-War American painters. Red Nude is a characteristically powerful example of Avery’s best efforts in his celebrated figural subject, especially in its vivid use of color.

In 1952, Avery discussed his now celebrated use of color, declaring, "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 Red Nude, Avery depicts a woman seated upright in a nonspecific outdoor setting. He sets the highly-saturated figure on top of a cool blue and dark grey form, within an expansive grey background with a high horizon line. Using broad swaths of color to delineate his familiar subject, Avery reduces the composition and achieves a harmonious puzzle of abstract forms arranged on the two-dimensional surface.

In Red Nude, Avery uses color fields as both a method to modulate space and suggest recession as well as a means of artistic expression. Artist Hans Hofmann maintained that “Avery was one of the first to understand color as a creative means. He was one of the first 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) Hilton Kramer similarly 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)

Avery’s commitment to his two-dimensional surface, to color blocking and to always simplifying and subtracting not only paved the way for the Color Field painters of the 1960s, but was also influential on Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. Each was close with Avery and his wife Sally, often visiting with them late into the evening for sketching sessions or readings. Recalling summers spent together, Sally stated "…Rothko and Gottlieb would come around and study his paintings and just absorb them by osmosis. One summer in Gloucester, Milton refused to show them what he was doing, because he felt they were becoming too dependent upon him." (as quoted in K.E. Willers, Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, Roslyn Harbor, New York, 2011, p. 32) These two emerging abstract painters, together with Newman, William Baziotes, Theodoros Stamos and others, seized upon Avery’s large-scale canvases, like Red Nude, which emphasized form and color in a distinctly cohesive manner, as inspiration to reduce their own arrangements towards pure abstraction. In a statement which could also refer to their entirely abstract works, Avery remarked of his own goals, “the canvas must be completely organized through the perfect arrangement of form, line, color and space. Objects in the subject matter, therefore, cannot be painted representatively, but they must take their place in the whole design.” (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York, 1990, p. 56) This desired emphasis on design is achieved in Red Nude, as in Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada), through the collation of the figure’s strong lines and a dramatic arrangement of contrasting colors and space along a distinctly vertical axis. The results are immaculate, elongated, carefully orchestrated arrangements of color and pattern that are markedly different but equally powerful.

By the 1950s, many artists were denying representational images in favor of pure abstraction. However, Avery clearly remained dedicated to his practice, refusing to give in to fads or ‘isms.’ Robert Hobbs notes, “Avery recognized that his art could never lose its human quotient if it were to be successful.” (Milton Avery, p. 166) In part it was Avery’s commitment to his subject that restrained any abstract tendencies. Avery wrote, "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) The gentle nature of his representational painting, however, ran counter to an increasingly progressive mainstream art world in which the younger generation of Abstract Expressionists were both increasingly abstract and outspoken. Avery, by contrast, shied away from public life and the spotlight, remaining notably silent throughout his career. Eventually, however, any dismissal of his representation style was counteracted later in his career by a regular rediscovery of his art. British painter and art critic Patrick Heron, himself a great proponent of the Abstract Expressionist movement, proclaimed upon encountered Avery’s paintings for the first time, ''Why hasn't anyone ever told us about this marvelous painter?'' (H. Kramer, “Milton Avery,” New York Times, November 4, 1982) Heron promptly arranged for his own London representation, dealer Leslie Waddington, to begin showing Avery's work abroad. Red Nude was among those works by the American painter to be represented across the Atlantic, representing American art on the world’s stage and unquestionably contributing to the artist’s reputation.

In reality, throughout his career, as today, the commitment to his practice that Avery expresses in Red Nude is celebrated for its singular originality, with some of the greatest recognition coming from the abstract artists who may have moved on in a different direction. Rothko notably remarked, “Avery is first a great poet. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty. Thanks to him this kind of poetry has been able to survive in our time. This--alone--took great courage in a generation which felt that it could be heard only through clamor, force and a show of power. But Avery had that inner power in which gentleness and silence proved more audible and poignant.” (as quoted in Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, p. 34) In addition to the respect that it garnered from such important abstract artists, Avery’s unapologetic practice in representational painting, exhibited in the present work, also paved the way for an entire generation of post-War American figure painters, including Alex Katz, Alice Neel, John Currin and George Condo. Indeed, it is Avery’s powerful yet subtle representational pictures, accomplished through his use of dynamic colors in arrangements of simplified forms, that have been instantly recognizable and immediately appreciated by generations of diverse artists and collectors.

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