Sunday was the last day of the exhibit Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips at the Phillips Collection here in Washington. Fortunately, I did manage finally to see the show on Saturday, and I was very glad I did. This was not without some trepidation: while Terry Teachout, at About Last Night, with the promise that he will blog about the show in detail later, pronounced it "fabulous," Tyler Green's one-word review at Modern Art Notes was "stale." I knew a few of Avery's paintings (most of which I had seen in the Phillips permanent collection, before it went on tour and into storage, during the museum's seemingly endless building project, which I noticed this weekend is in full swing). I have to say that I was very glad to see a few more of the paintings, especially those that were lent by private collections like that of Louis and Annette Kaufman (see the checklist of works in the exhibit).
James Panero, Milton Avery: then & now, in The New Criterion (May 2004)
Katherine Stephen, Avery's family life, distilled on canvas, in the Christian Science Monitor (March 3)
Mark Barry, I Found Milton Avery, for Ionarts (February 22)
Susan Stamberg, 'Discovering Milton Avery', from NPR (February 17)
Blake Gopnik, An Uneasy Brush with Modernism, in the Washington Post (February 15)
Milton Avery (1885–1965), from the Artchive (with other paintings not in this show)
Paintings by Milton Avery, from the Tigertail Virtual Museum
Milton Avery, Self-Portrait (not in the exhibit, but the harried, darkened eyes are similar to other self-portraits)
Milton Avery's paintings in the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Starting with the portraits, if we go through these paintings in chronological order, which is not the way the show was organized, we start with Sally Avery with Still Life (1926, Smithsonian American Art Museum). This was one of my favorite paintings in the show, and I spent a lot of time staring at it where it was hung over one of the fireplace mantels. I was fascinated by the reflection of the fruit bowl in the shiny surface of its table, as well as the beginnings of Avery's strange treatment of the human face, evident in this portrait of his wife. What Avery did, at least in many of the portraits in this show, was to render the face almost as something disconnected from the body, with the eyes especially highlighted with unusual shades or colors. One example is Louis Kaufman with Red Suspenders on White Shirt (1931, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection), a portrait of Avery's friend, who was a violinist and, along with Duncan Phillips (founder of the Phillips Collection), one of the first people to collect Avery's paintings. This disjunction of a portrait face is the most pronounced in Portrait of Louis M. Eilshemius (1942, Smithsonian American Art Museum), an eccentric New York artist who is captured with a most troubling expression on his face.
Another personal portrait is Portrait of Annette Kaufman in a Green Dress (1933, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection), which Louis Kaufman commissioned for his wife, a pianist, to place at the entrance of her performing venues. About 10 years later, Avery did another portrait of Annette, Annette Kaufman in a Black Dress (1944, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection). As shown in this photograph, Louis Kaufman often exchanged musical performances for paintings he admired, a practice that I find interesting. Here is another photograph of Annette Kaufman with her portrait.
Girl Writing (1942, Phillips Collection) was shown prominently over another fireplace mantel, with an interesting preparatory sketch on another wall. Chinese Checkers (March Avery and Vincenzo Spagna) (c. 1941, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection) and March on the Balcony (1952, Phillips Collection), both featuring the painter's daughter March, have the same warm, family-oriented tone, although the latter seems to reveal a close study of Matisse. Portrait of Chaim Gross (c. 1943, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection), the print Mark Rothko with Pipe (1936, National Gallery of Art), and Sally with Skull (1946, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection) struck me as a little stranger, less affecting. The colorful Nude with Guitar (1947, Smithsonian American Art Museum) was hanging in the stairway up to the exhibit, and I found it quite appealing for its sweeping curves and bright colors.
Some of the best paintings in the show, and here I agree with Mark's earlier review of this show, were the landscapes and seascapes, which became increasingly abstracted and colorful. California Landscape/Seascape (1942, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection), made after a driving trip along the California coast, is still somewhat representational, with dramatic swoops of light color added to give contrast to land and sea. By the time we get to Grey Rocks, Black Sea (1956, Milton Avery Trust), Black Sea (1959, Phillips Collection) and Pink Meadow (1963, Milton Avery Trust), Avery is interested less in any specific landscape than in the shapes suggested by all landscapes. One of my other favorite paintings in the show, shown in the upper room of the second floor with the spectacular Study in Blues (1959, Milton Avery Trust), for which I can find no image, was Birds over the Sea (1957, Phillips Collection). This painting has a pattern-like approach to its subject, with the three birds arranged like some sort of heraldic seal above the horizon.
There were several still lifes in the exhibit, but I found an image only for Pine Cones (1940, Phillips Collection), which is not all that inspiring. One of the most unusual paintings in the show is White Horse (1962, Milton Avery Trust), the subject of which reminded me of Gauguin's Le Cheval Blanc (1898, Musée d'Orsay), although visually it's quite different (I saw that painting at the big Gauguin show in Paris last fall, as reviewed here at Ionarts).
|Still Life (1928, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection), oil on masonite, a younger painting, heavy application
Still Life with “Pop” Bottle (1928, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Still Life with Bananas and a Bottle (c. 1928, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Still Life with Iron, Plant, and Bananas (c. 1928, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Portrait of Clara (1929, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Portrait of Thomas Nagai (1929, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Winter Riders (1929, Phillips Collection)
Harbor at Night (1932, Phillips Collection)
Trees (1936, Phillips Collection)
Pink Still Life (1938, Phillips Collection)
Self-Portrait with Red Tam and Scarf (1938, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
|Milton Avery in a Gray Shirt with “The Chariot Race" (c. 1938, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Gladiolus (1940, Phillips Collection)
Shells and Fishermen (1941, Phillips Collection)
Vermont Landscape (1941, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Portrait of Marsden Hartley (1943, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Green Landscape (1945, Watkins Collection, American University)
Leo Lerman in Mitzi Solomon's Studio (1948, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
The Convalescent (Self-Portrait in a Red Sweater) (1949, Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection)
Milk Pitcher (1949, Phillips Collection)
Reflections (1958, Milton Avery Trust)
Rolling Surf (1958, Milton Avery Trust)
Rock and Wave (1959, Milton Avery Trust)
Study in Blues (1959, Milton Avery Trust)