‘I like the way he puts on paint,’ Milton Avery said about Matisse in 1953, but that was as much as he was prepared to say. Contemporary critics tried to ‘pin Matisse’ on him as if art criticism were a branch of police work. He resisted, and remains a slippery customer. Post-impressionist or abstract expressionist? Colour field painter with added figures? To those who view art history as the march of progress towards modernism, he looks like a backslider. Clement Greenberg thought as much, dismissing him in 1943 as ‘a “light” modern who can produce offspring of Marie Laurencin and Matisse that are empty and sweet with nice flat areas of colour…’ Ouch.
‘Light’ is a fair description of Avery’s work: light in tonality, in weight of paint and intellectual baggage. Not a product of the art school system, he assimilated rather than learned his trade. A working-class descendant of English immigrants, he worked in Connecticut factories from the age of 16 and fell into art almost by accident. The commercial lettering night class he had joined to improve his prospects was cancelled and he was transferred to life drawing by a sharp-eyed tutor. In some ways he remained a perpetual student, supported by his commercial illustrator wife after his move to New York aged 40 in 1925; he was 50 when her faith in him was rewarded with representation by a New York dealer. He kept up a factory rate of production regardless, sometimes finishing a canvas in a single day. He never knew the meaning of artist’s block, perhaps because he didn’t invent: however far removed from conventional representation his work appeared, it was rooted in reality. He painted from life.
The early Connecticut landscapes in the Royal Academy’s exhibition – the first European survey of Avery’s work – are impressionist paintings in the plein-air tradition dappled with colour. It was in New York, unable to paint in oils on the spot, that he started making watercolour sketches in situ and distilling their essence on to canvas back home. ‘I like to seize a sharp instant in nature, imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships to convey the ecstasy of the moment,’ he said. ‘To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving nothing but colour and pattern.’ Watercolour encouraged simplification and its translucency lightened his oils. Eventually he was painting so thin as to merely stain the canvas in places, while buttering it in others with dabs and streaks suggesting mackerel skies or sun-dazzled seas. He boasted of making a tube of paint last longer than any other artist.
Rapid sketching allowed figures to enter his landscapes. A crush of day trippers clogs the background of ‘Coney Island’ (1931), ogling the bare flesh of the grandes baigneuses whose foreshortened legs project into our space: it’s a scene worthy of Edward Ardizzone, if not Donald McGill. Avery’s daughter March credits him with ‘a New England sense of humour’, but on this side of the pond it looks plain English. ‘In the Spotlight’ (c.1930s), with its nude exotic dancer glowing white and worm-like in the darkness of the auditorium, evokes the humour of an English working-class artist, James Fitton; and the Gaspé landscapes of the late 1930s refract French modernism through the same naive lens as the Brittany paintings of Christopher Wood. In America Avery was a fish out of water: ‘Either I’m crazy,’ he decided, ‘or everyone else is.’
Figures in intimate interiors became a staple, but summers were spent in places of natural beauty storing up landscape sketches to work from in winter. A major heart attack in 1949 hastened the trend towards simplification, clearing away clutter in favour of colour. In the late 1950s the septuagenarian artist was inspired by the wide-open beaches of Provincetown to scale up ‘like the abstract boys’, his younger friends Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb; emptied of everything but the odd beach blanket, these large paintings might be abstract without their titles. You look around for the boathouse in ‘Boathouse by the Sea’, 1959 (see below), until you realise you’re standing in its black shadow. No matter how abstracted his landscapes appear, Avery always puts you in the picture.
I left this show with a feeling of pure wellbeing. If Matisse’s art is a comfortable armchair, Avery’s is a sun-lounger; on a hot day his palate-cleansing palette of colours felt as cool and refreshing as a selection of sorbets. Faced by the Provincetown seascapes, even Greenberg ate his words. ‘If I failed to discern how much there was in these that was not Matisse,’ he recanted in 1957, ‘it was not only because of my own imperceptiveness, but also because the artist himself had not contrived to call enough attention to it.’ Avery wasn’t an attention seeker; in his daughter’s words: ‘He just wanted to paint.’