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Shut Up and Paint

An American master leveraged the surf to help change the course of art history.

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“In order to paint, one has to go by the way one does not know. Art is like turning a corner. One does not know what is around the corner until one has made the turn.”

Milton Avery

The story of the development of abstract painting in the United States is a long saga that continues today, and painter Milton Avery figures into the equation in a significant way. Over many years and in many locations, coastal landscapes provided visual inspiration for the artist’s forays into abstraction in both novel and inventive ways that would help push American art into new terrain. The coast offered Avery endless forms, shapes, and colors—a perfect launching point into the sea of abstraction.

The Sea in Gloucester

Milton Avery was born in New York in 1885 and moved to a small town near East Hartford, Connecticut, when he was 13. While working several jobs in factories to support himself, he enrolled in a lettering class at the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford, eventually shifting his focus and transferring to life drawing classes and portraiture at the School of the Art Society. 

At first, inspired by the work of the American Impressionists and French painter Henri Matisse, Avery painted in a rather conventional mode, often making portraits of his closest family and friends. In addition, he worked on landscapes and seascapes, as seen in Tree in Meadow (1921). He remained relatively unknown to critics until 1929, when the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., became the very first museum to purchase his work.

Lone Rock and Surf, 1945
Watercolor and charcoal on paper
22 1⁄2 × 30 1⁄4 inches
Whitney Museum of American Art. Purchased with funds from S. Sidney Kahn and the Drawing Committee

Avery visited Gloucester, a coastal city on rocky Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts, for the first time in 1920. It was most likely there that the sea burned an indelible impression on him, arguably becoming the centerpiece of his art over the ensuing years. Settled by the English in 1623, Gloucester was founded as a fishing and shipping port before emerging as one of the ship-building capitals of New England in the eighteenth century. Later, the light and sea began attracting countless artists to paint there, with Winslow Homer being one of the more famous.

In the twentieth century, it would become not only a haven for artists but surfers as well.

In 1924, Avery met his future wife, artist Sally Michel, on the Cape. The following year, he moved back to New York City and, in 1926, married Michel, who worked as an illustrator. Milton got his feet wet in his first group exhibition in 1927, and continued to attend Art Students League classes in New York until 1938. Throughout this period, he and Michel frequently summered in Gloucester. Over the next two decades, his work began to display an increasingly abstract aesthetic, with highly reduced forms in expansive yet flat planes of color. 

A Silent Mentor

Milton met Mark Rothko (1903–1970) in 1928. Rothko in turn introduced him to Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974) in 1929. They all vacationed in Gloucester together with Barnett Newman (1905–1970) in 1932. Significantly older, Milton assumed the role of mentor to these burgeoning titans of Abstract Expressionism. Famous for saying few words about his art, scholars bemoan the fact that Avery didn’t write much about it either. Tellingly, Avery once said, “Why talk when you can paint?” 

American art historian and curator Robert Hobbs notes in the Autumn 1987/Winter 1988 edition of Woman’s Art Journal that Avery’s “role as a mentor was strange, however, since he was usually taciturn and not given to theorizing about his art.” 

Dawning Sun, 1962
Oil on canvas
20 x 24 inches
Private Collection

Michel, who did much of the talking about Avery’s art, recounted, “He wasn’t very pontifical…And I know some artists were very annoyed, because he would always sort of throw off these wisecracky things…but actually, in his painting he was very serious.” 

Michel gave a glimpse into Milton’s experimental approach to his art—and what may have attracted the younger painters to him—in an interview with Louis Shaeffer at Columbia University in 1980, where she said “nature was his great teacher, and…he would set himself problems. He would do a tender thing in the morning and try to do a strong thing later, or he’d set himself a problem using all blues in one picture.”  

The coming together of land and sea in Gloucester’s myriad bays, rocky coves, and beaches provided Avery with this type of challenge for his abstraction. Waves are especially ephemeral. Their general visual effect is produced by white foam left on the shore after they break. In The White Wave (1956), Avery abstracts the foam into one large shape, indicating how the study of a breaking wave and its resulting foam may have contributed to the development of the soft, amorphous edges of his abstract shapes. Because he could transform it into any shape and form he wanted, surf provided a natural way for him to venture into the realm of abstraction.

Art as Refuge 

Hobbs explains that Milton’s increasingly reductive subject matter in the 1930s was tied to notions of leisure, writing: “Although Avery’s first mature works were made in the midst of the Great Depression, they artfully deal with the concept of play. They provide delightful scenes of relaxation and thus remind people of the simple joys and pleasures still available in the midst of financial upheaval.” 

Michel obliquely confirmed this as an aspect of the Avery style, as well as his mastery of color, when she reflected on the ultimate meaning of his art: “I remember somebody saying…every color loves every other color in [Avery’s] work. There’s no anger. There’s no hate. It’s like a glimpse of heaven. And there’s a tremendous sense of order in his work, and I think people respond to this. They need it. You know, they have enough of the other in their life, and they come to him like a refuge, because you can look at his things over and over again and they just get better, because they really work on the highest level.”

Shells and Fisherman, 1941
The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1943

From 1935 forward, the Averys summered in various places in the United States and abroad, including Mexico, Canada, and France. Avery also spent a summer vacation in Laguna Beach, California, in 1941. The Phillips Collection website aptly describes how the artist used the inspiration he found in these excursions, stating, “Often, Avery’s ideas for paintings came from one of the countless sketches he made on summer travels. His numerous sketchbooks, not to mention quick notations on scraps of paper or the back of an envelope, record his response to pleasures large and small, near and far, from a simple still life to an expanse of sea or hills. Avery would typically choose to focus on a telling detail like the seashells acquired on his trip to California as revealed in Shells and Fishermen. Objects such as seashells, as well as his sketchbooks, allowed Avery to bring nature back with him to the city. They also focused his distillation of the experience into a few chosen mementos.”

Milton’s summer visit to Laguna just preceded the United States entering WWII following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It is possible Milton painted Shells and Fishermen back in his New York studio soon thereafter. A sense of foreboding in the painting is heightened by the rough texture of the rocks and the drab, gray-blue palette, as well as in the menacing shape of the cliff, looking as if it is about to devour one of the fishermen. The spiky conch shells taking center stage in the painting seem like protective shelters, as if the fishermen had just crawled out of them—a fitting metaphor for Avery and Michel, who were hunkered down in their New York studio, unable to travel because of gas rationing.

At Peace with the Land and the Sea

Avery’s paintings from the 1950s until his death in 1965 were predicated on increasingly reductive tendencies that highlighted his use of color. Hobbs notes that the artist took his “own personal environment and showed others how it could become abstract without being totally alienating, strangely distant and yet familiar, modern and still comforting.” 

Rolling Surf, 1958
Oil on canvas
54 × 66 inches
Private collection

In Sea and Sand Dunes (1963), Avery throws out the rules of atmospheric perspective and uses a warm color for the sky and a cool color for the foreground, thereby tilting the picture plane and creating a closed-in, introspective space. When people appear in his beach scenes they are reduced to shapes and colors, and are lost in thought or reverie, as in Walkers by the Sea (1954) and Two Figures by the Sea (1963). In Milton Avery, a catalog that accompanied the Whitney Museum of American Art’s traveling exhibition of the artist’s work, curator and historian Barbara Haskell writes, “One feels looking at an Avery landscape or seascape that the highest human experience is being alone and at peace with the land and the sea.”

With its staccato brushstrokes that texture the shore, and horizontal patches of black and blue paint that describe the sea, Onrushing Wave (1958) is emblematic of Avery’s translation of the seascape into shorthand. Hobbs states, “Most frequently the paintings come across as paintings first and landscapes second, thus following the grand tradition of modern art and perpetuating the disruption it manifests between human beings and nature…He ended up creating pictures of painterly codes that only happen to be pictures of nature.”