"I came to understand that painters' painter were those for whom painting was meant not just to solve problems, but to be offered for delectation ... Milton Avery ... published no manifestos, indulged in no polemics and followed his bent imperturbably while all around him artists were agonizing over crucial choices amongst the many possible twentieth century modes of vanguardism. For that reason, undoubtedly, he was considered by many as something of a primitive, a kind of Rousseauan pure soul who did what he did out of innocence. That, of course, was a mistaken view. Avery as a painter was nothing if not sophisticated."
- Dore Ashton
Frequently cited as “America’s Matisse” because of his use of broad swaths of color and spatial elements anticipating Color Field painting, Milton Avery has come to be recognized as a significant contributor to American Modernism. Born in upstate New York in 1885, Avery was obliged by various hardships to support his family from an early age. Unlike many of his artistic contemporaries, he came to study art rather late in life and in roundabout fashion. He enrolled in a lettering course at the Connecticut League of Art Students in hopes of increasing his career prospects, but, when the class was abruptly canceled, he opted for a life-drawing class.
In 1925, Avery moved to New York City, where he married fellow artist Sally Michel the following year. Michel was able to support Avery financially, giving him his first opportunity to pursue art full time. His practice developed quickly, and in 1927 he participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. In a 1928 group show at Opportunity Gallery, he met fellow newcomer Marcus Rothkowitz, later known as Mark Rothko. Rothko eventually introduced Avery to Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, and the three began meeting almost daily for drawing sessions.
In 1929, the Phillips Memorial Collection in Washington, DC, became the first museum to acquire one of Avery’s works, and, in 1943, is where his first solo museum show was held. This milestone led to his inclusion in the Whitney’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art the same year.
By the late 1940s Avery was working proficiently in oils, watercolor, and drypoint. The artist’s standing benefited from a seminal editorial that Clement Greenberg wrote for Arts Magazinein 1957, and in turn, the American Federation of Arts (AFA) awarded him a traveling retrospective that opened at the Whitney Museum in 1960. Shortly after the opening of the show, Avery suffered a major heart attack from which he never fully recovered, and he died in New York City in 1965.
Numerous and renowned artists from many generations have cited the invaluable influence of Avery on their own art. As testament to the significance of his oeuvre, his works have been acquired by many major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Tate Modern, London.