Milton Avery in Black and White
By Jason Edward Kaufman
The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of more than 80 drawings by the American artist Milton Avery (1885-1965) affords an unusual perspective on the work of this colorist. Although the distinguishing element of Avery’s mature work is color, “Milton Avery in Black and White,” as the title indicates, consists solely of monochromatic images. One might think that without his palette of delicate hues, Avery’s imagery would appear somewhat naked. But, this proves not to be the case.
In the drawings, Avery simply substitutes textures for colors, selecting from a palette of intertwined scribbles, broad swathes of the side of the pencil point, short, rapid touches, and the page left in reserve.
However, more than suggest that Avery’s colorless drawings can stand by themselves, this show further demonstrates just how firmly linked this colorist was to European modernism, and especially to Matisse. Covering the years 1929 to 1959, the survey trails Avery down the standard, early-20th-century path, beginning with academic figuration and proceeding along various avenues of European abstraction.
With their reliance on arabesques, crisp linear patterning, overall spareness of mis en scene, and undramatic subject matter, ink drawings such as Woman Sleeping (1935), Scissors and Paste (1941), and Interior with Nude (1943) seem to make deliberate allusion to Matisse’s etchings. While they maintain Avery’s distinctive compositional equilibrium, the difference is more in the hand than in the mind.
Bonnard seems to have guided Spoonfed Baby (1933), not merely because of the domestic theme, but because of the shaky, almost clumsy description of the sitters.
Nude with Upraised Arms and other sheets from the late 1930s emulate the proportions of Picasso’s bulky classical nudes from the previous decade, and adopt his graphic style as well.
The angular Sleeping Sally (1932) and the shadowy portrait of Belle Gross (c. 1935) seem like German Expressionist prints stripped of their angst. Indeed, all of Avery’s images are imbued with insouciance, a kind of lightness that is the product of his penchant for decorative compositions. His widow, Sally, recounts that he drew constantly, beginning at the breakfast table before he had his morning coffee. These sheets convey the intimacy with which he regarded not only his friends and family, but studio models, landscapes, animals, and objects, as well. His easy facility with pencil, ink, lithographic crayon, and the felt-tip pen enabled him to improvise within the innovative idioms that he adopted.
“Milton Avery in Black and White” continues at The Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, through December 31. For further information call (718) 638-5000.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Oct. 16, 1990, p. 16.