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

Yellow Robe

Milton Avery (1885-1965)
Yellow Robe
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1960' (lower left)
oil on canvas
59 ½ x 49 ¾ in. (151.1 x 126.4 cm.)
Painted in 1960.
The artist
Donald Morris Gallery, Birmingham, Michigan
Acquired from the above by the present owner, circa 1989
C. Willard, “In the Art Galleries, The New York Post, 10 January 1965, n.p. (illustrated).
J.C. Hakanson, "Canvas Rife with Quirky Yankee Vision," Detroit News, February 1979.
H. Zucker, “Recognition Builds Slowly: A Quiet Artist, Avery Captured Everything’s Essence,” The Eccentric, 1 February 1979, n.p. (illustrated).
B. Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 165, no. 133 (illustrated).
New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Milton Avery: Figure Paintings 1960, January 1961.
Vienna, Galerie Würthle; Salzburg, Zwerglgarten; Belgrade, Kalemegdan Pavilion; Skoplje, Umetnicki Pavillion; Zagreb, Moderna Galerija; Maribo, Umetnostna Galerija; Ljubljana, Moderna Galerija, Rijeka; London, American Embassy; Darmstadt, Landesmuseum, Vanguard American Painting, June 1961-May 1962, no. 6.
Birmingham Museum of Art, Milton Avery: 1893-1965, October-November 1968, no. 21 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, The National Collection of Fine Arts; The Brooklyn Museum and The Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Milton Avery, December 1969-May 1970, no. 115 (illustrated).
Detroit, Donald Morris Gallery, Milton Avery, January 1979.


Executed in sweeping blocks of color, Yellow Robe epitomizes Milton Avery’s distinctive hallmarks of simplified representational forms designed to contemplate the psychology of the subject at hand. His superior stylistic and conceptual sensibilities granted him critical acclaim not only for his own thoughtful and visually striking aesthetic, but also for his valuable impact on a new generation of important post war and contemporary painters.
In 1952, Avery discussed his approach to employing color blocks in his work: “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 Yellow Robe, Avery employs this technique to celebrate his subject—likely his wife Sally, whom he often depicted—by executing her in bright tones of white, yellow and red juxtaposed against the muted darker shades of the background. As a result, the illuminated figure stands proudly at the forefront of the canvas, creating a sense of depth and dimensionality without the conventional application of shading and linear perspective. At the same time, the curvilinear edges of the soft, organic form, coupled with the contrasting color block technique, create a sense of harmony throughout the composition.
In Yellow Robe, Avery avoids falling into a reductive stylistic experimentation by maintaining his quintessential grounding in experience and the personality of his subject. Evoking his core fascination with color and abstraction, the painting exudes strength through its dramatically contrasting single-tone hues. The assertiveness of his subject is further underscored by Sally’s stance with hands on hips, a classic power pose. Indeed, Avery almost overemphasizes her monumentality through his play with proportion and striking color; as Barbara Haskell explains, the artist often “introduced elements of humor into [his] self-portraits and early genre scenes through scale distortion, exaggerated color, and caricature” (as quoted in Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 33).
By fusing color block techniques with simplified two-dimensional abstraction, Avery’s work forms a compelling dialogue with both the Color Field and Abstract Expressionists working in the post-war period, including artists such as Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler. Many of these artists attributed to Avery their understanding and appreciation for the power that color has on the artistic experience and would anchor their work around this central idea to push their own aesthetics.
Avery and his wife Sally enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, who often visited the Averys 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” (as quoted in K.E. Willers, Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, Rosyln Harbor, New York, 2011, p. 32). Indeed, before Rothko developed his own signature style, he employed figurative painting quite similar to Avery, such as Woman in a Hat Shop, c. 1936. Even later in his hallmark aesthetic, Rothko uses Avery’s technique of thinly applying pigment to reveal bits of the white canvas underneath.
Both Abstract Expressionists were not hesitant to speak publicly about Avery’s prolific talents. Gottlieb acknowledged his admiration for the conceptual thought behind Avery’s approach: “I have always thought he was a great artist. When Social Realism and the American Scene were considered the important thing, he took an aesthetic stand as opposed to regional subject matter” (as quoted in B. Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, New York, 1982, pg. 56). Rothko discussed in his commemorative essay upon Avery’s passing the older artist’s ability to evoke a certain quietude and poetry in his art through his domestic subjects and landscapes. As illustrated by Yellow Robe, Rothko acknowledged how Avery “fashioned great canvases, that far from the casual and transitory implications of the subjects, have always gripped lyricism, and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt” (as quoted in B. Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, New York, 1982, pg. 181).

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