MILTON AVERY (1885-1965)
MILTON AVERY (1885-1965)
MILTON AVERY (1885-1965)
MILTON AVERY (1885-1965)
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MILTON AVERY (1885-1965)

Woman by the Sea

MILTON AVERY (1885-1965)
Woman by the Sea
signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1944' (lower right)
oil on canvas
35 1/4 x 49 3/4 in. (89.5 x 126.4 cm.)
Painted in 1944.
Harry N. Abrams family, New York, by 1960.
Private collection, by descent.
Adelson Galleries, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2002.
H. Kramer, Milton Avery: Paintings 1930-1960, New York, 1962, p. 29, pl. 68, illustrated (as Sketcher by the Sea).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Milton Avery Retrospective, February 2-March 13, 1960.
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Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art


Woman by the Sea is a stunning marriage of Milton Avery’s two most important subjects, the figure and the landscape, into one captivating image of a beautiful summer day along the coast. Painted in 1944, arguably the most important year of Avery’s career, the large-scale work depicts his wife and fellow artist Sally Michel Avery painting at a makeshift easel—her form distilled to its most basic geometry, highlighted with bright orange and pink hues. Behind her is a dramatic cliffside seascape dotted with waves which dissolves along the horizon to the point of pure color field painting. As exemplified by Woman by the Sea, this elegant balance of representation and abstraction, peaceful landscape and bold figure, established Avery not only among the most important modernists of the early twentieth century but also as a key influence on Post-War American art.

Widely acknowledged as a key peak in his career, the year 1944 was an important turning point for Avery as he began to work with famed gallery owner Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg had arrived in the United States four years earlier with a cache of great works by important European artists that provided Avery a new perspective on abstract representation. The new access to avant-garde ideas and the financial security from this business relationship inspired Avery to paint voraciously, and the year became his most prolific as he first articulated his iconic mature style. Barbara Haskell explains, “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 within 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)

In Woman by the Sea, Avery applies this approach to the most familiar of subjects—his wife Sally—in a way that the figure feels at once anonymous and completely individual. Placed at the very front of the picture plane, with her form elided to its most basic shapes, Avery elevates her to a type of monumental archetype. A quality in Avery’s best works, her face in profile is completely blank. Though one of the finest practitioners of this device, Avery was not the only painter to implement it. Henri Matisse, for example, also painted blank faces and once explained, “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....” (as quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Los Angeles, 1995, p. 194) While Matisse aimed for true anonymity, Avery’s blank-faced figures carry an individual essence. In Woman by the Sea, the figure’s boldly colored clothing and striking hat add to her identity as a female artist. As Robert 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.” (Milton Avery, New York, 1990, p. 130) It is perhaps Avery’s success in striking this special balance between portraiture and prototype that has paved the way for many of the great post-War American figure painters, including Alex Katz, Alice Neel, Eric Fischl, John Currin and George Condo.

Avery pushes further toward pure abstraction in his depiction of the seascape in Woman by the Sea. Creating a field of a consistent pastel tone, with surface wave patterning only in the lower half, the work clearly anticipates some of Avery’s most iconic seascapes of his later career, including Sea Grasses and Blue Sea (1958, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Speedboat’s Wake (1959, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Dunes and Sea II (1960, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). In a description which also applies to the landscape in the current work, Hobbs writes of these later seascapes, “Detail is held to a minimum, and the relationships between land, sea, and sky are carefully balanced…Avery’s forms are soft and his surfaces are matte. The softness of the forms transforms each flat painting into an environment with a distinct atmosphere, an effect enhanced by the soft edges suggestive of intimacy.” (Milton Avery, p. 202)

These large-scale abstracted landscapes, which reference the environment yet hinge on the edge of abstraction, exerted a highly important influence on Post-War American artists, including Mark Rothko as well as Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. According to Avery’s wife Sally Michel, these three artists often spent summers with the Averys in Massachusetts, and “Rothko and Gottlieb would come around and study his paintings and just absorb them by osmosis.” (quoted in Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, Roslyn Harbor, New York, 2011, p. 32) Andrew Hudson furthers, “It was from Avery that Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, two members of the postwar New York School whose large, flat paintings anticipated and were a strong influence behind the emergence of ‘Color [Field] Painting,’ got the idea of muffling, staining and washing thin paint onto the canvas in large areas of a single color. Avery, a representational painter, influenced the future development of abstract art.” (Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, p. 32)

Yet, Hobbs well notes, “Avery recognized that his art could never lose its human quotient if it were to be successful.” (Milton Avery, p. 166) Woman by the Sea exemplifies this unique quality of Avery’s most successful paintings—immediately familiar and relatable, yet also a strikingly inventive play of color, pattern and form. As Rothko reflected, “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.” (quoted in Milton Avery & The End of Modernism, Roslyn Harbor, New York, 2011, p. 34)

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