Milton Avery could too easily be considered a mediocre painter of landscapes and figures.
His early works often reveal that the artist is looking for a type of painting that he may not have been able to achieve. They are not uninteresting but only occasionally reveal the spark of assurance and vision present in his later works.
A comprehensive exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art brings together a selection of around 70 of the influential artist’s works from the 1910s to the mid-1960s that show his growth as a painter.
In a painting like Hills (circa 1930) Avery depicts a handful of awkwardly rendered trees along a grayish-yellow hill. The ham fist representation seems inexperienced, even amateurish. In Little Fox River (1942), however, we begin to see Avery adapt his unsightly pictorial inclinations towards a stylization of branding that portends clarity and confidence to come.
Look at how he reduces the ocean to a series of marbled blues with black ribbon lines drawn to suggest rippling waves. See how the trees in the foreground are nothing but a scribble of dark markings.
These pictorial decisions highlight how Avery began to change his art by adopting an alphabet of calligraphic patterns and simple shapes.
When viewing Avery’s paintings, it is important to refrain from holding the doctrinal notion that art has value only in its execution and display of technical prowess. It is useful to give oneself to the art that we see, to be slow to criticism, and rather to let the gestalt of the painting saturate us: to absorb the ethos that the artist presents.
If we can put aside our prejudices and demands for a particular type of craft, we can see what lies ahead. This in-depth visualization allows a more precise and complete register of a work of art to materialize.
Avery’s art demands this kind of viewing. When the eyes are open enough, we discover the quirky restraint and crazy manner found in most of Avery’s works. We notice and can appreciate his distinct voice in the rawness of his bill. I think of his art as tense but painfully beautiful musical voices, like that of Tom Waits or Johnny Cash.
Over time, Avery’s reductionist approach to his art becomes more cohesive. In his later works, he uses a shorthand which is not unlike that of the beloved Henri Matisse. Like Matisse, Avery eliminates everything except what he deems essential in his paintings.
Yet where Matisse’s refinements tend to emphasize an elegant line or form, Avery’s are more groping and human in their wobbly attenuations. In Friends (1961), we see two bathers side by side in conversation. The drawing of the two women is spontaneous, caring little for natural proportions or shadowed light. Instead, Avery gives out just enough information to capture the relaxed poses in a carefree moment.
Likewise, in Two digits (1960), the artist reduces visual information to the strict minimum. In this case, two women wearing gray-blue sun hats lean against a railing. They are almost ghostly pale with a fine application of paint. Avery delicately and effectively describes their skin and swimwear with relaxed aplomb.
A magnificent gestural pattern surrounds the figures, organizing a pictorial space while flattening the canvas to highlight the paint floating on the surface. This proves a visual experience that is both simple and complex.
Part of Avery’s charm is undoubtedly the way he draws people almost carelessly or how he clarifies a picture of the natural world.
In A hint of autumn (1954), the artist renders the dead point of a lonely tree in an elongated vertical painting. Rusty foliage clusters and bubbles overlap the stiff trunk and stand out against a beautifully layered background.
Perhaps Avery’s strength lies in his ability to embody the energy seen in the art of young children – an energetic fabrication without constraints or inculturated rules and methods. This does not mean that he is an unlucky scholar, but that within his skills and pictorial approach, the artist allows something unvarnished and direct to be born.
I was amazed at the supernatural perfection Sails in the sea at sunset (1960) feels. It seems to be the culmination of Avery’s lightly touched approach to painting. A dirty pink sea is perfectly suggested by a handful of sinuous lines and two sailboats of elemental shape.
Bucolic, restless and almost casual, this painting is only possible if done by someone who is supremely confident and capable. In his own way, Milton Avery was both.
The Milton Avery exhibit is on view until January 30 at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth. Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with overtime on Thursday until 8 p.m. For more information, visit themodern.org or dial 817-738-9215.