Milton Avery was one of the most unique modern painters with a particular style unlike that of any other modernist. He did not adhere to one specific movement of painting, yet his fluid approach greatly influenced his Color Field successors, Mark Rothko and Alfred Gottlieb. Avery worked in an abstract vein, yet he never abandoned the figure within that abstract framework. Using a muted palette, flattened perspective, and bold shapes, he created a realm for his subject matter – primarily figure studies and marine scenes - somewhere between that of realism and abstraction. As his career progressed, he focused more and more on delineating simple, contoured shapes using solid, concentrated color applied with thin washes of paint to create veiled planes. His works are subtly emotive within their simplicity, ranging from playful to poignant to seductive.
Avery was born in the village of Sand Bank, New York. As a teenager he moved with his family to Hartford, Connecticut. There he took a correspondence course in lettering and studied at the Connecticut League of Art Students with the idea of becoming a commercial artist. The school’s director, Charles Noel Flagg, encouraged the young artist to study drawing with him, and in the course of his instruction taught Avery the importance of shape in all categories of picture-making. During the ensuing years Avery worked at a variety of odd jobs, including as an assembler, leatherman, and factory mechanic, and he painted the local landscape in his free hours.
Avery moved to New York in 1925, and the following year married the commercial illustrator Sally Michel. His wife’s earnings as an illustrator helped him to focus his full attention on painting. By 1930, he began to introduce the simplified forms and flattened space that were to become hallmarks of his art, and which evolved from his study of the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In 1935, he had his first solo exhibition, held at the Valentine Gallery. Avery began to achieve critical success in 1944. That year his first museum exhibition was held at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. During the early 1940s his work was also shown at the prestigious Paul Rosenberg and Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York. Major showings would follow, including his first retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1952. The Whitney Museum organized retrospectives of Avery’s work in 1960 and 1982.