IIt doesn’t take long to discover the Rothkos hidden in Milton Avery’s beach scenes and landscapes. They loom as eerie empty vistas of sea and sky, transforming seemingly figurative compositions into abstract masterpieces. The Man with the Pipe, for example, is an intentionally bizarre scene painted in 1935. But if you leave out the people, you would have three layers of abstract color: a blackish sky over a gray ocean over a yellow beach. Exactly the kind of sublime vertical stack of paint that Rothko painted.
The resemblance is not accidental. Mark Rothko first met Avery in New York in the late 1920s and greatly admired the older man: Avery was born in 1885, Rothko in 1903. Rothko’s generation shook modern art and made New York the art capital of the world Apparent objects, only color, whose intense expressiveness, however, called them abstract expressionists. Avery never made the leap into pure abstraction that Rothko, Barnett Newman or Jackson Pollock did, but this brilliant exhibition proves he didn’t have to. This idiosyncratic, experimental American dreamer anticipated her poetic use of color years earlier in canvases that find the abstraction hidden in nature itself.
Indeed, American nature may be more abstract than the cozy fields and small hills that we have in Europe. The sheer size of the North American continent was even more frightening because there wasn’t a long history for landscape painters like Claude to become familiar with. When Avery began painting New England, where he grew up in a working-class family, it was still possible to view the sea and woods as new to art, as terra incognita.
In any case, this could explain the moving freshness of his early landscapes. Even in his first paintings, heavily influenced by European art, there is an American romantic expanse: Big Sky, painted in 1918, has impressionistic trees, but they are dwarfed by a luminous emptiness of blue and gold air. It’s the big sky of a great country, but there’s nothing triumphant about Avery’s America. It’s a place steeped in unsettling mysteries, where even the fun of a day at the beach is eclipsed by the hints of the abyss.
Speedboat’s Wake, painted four decades after this apprentice landscape, features a small white boat and the line of spray beyond it, swallowed up by a vast dark ocean. The tiny figure in the boat may feel like a hero, but Avery shows how small human efforts are against the Atlantic. A Rothko-style deep blue sky streak obliviously hangs over the little sailor.
Avery is sometimes hyped as an American Matisse, but he’s a lot stranger and better than that. Far from simply emulating Matisse, he translates the joys of beach life and summer days into French fauv painted into the brooding land and seascapes of America with wild results. Little Fox River, from 1942, at first glance seems cheerful and summery with its buttery yellow landscape surrounded by blue waves, but then you realize how big and inhuman the waves are, how small the swell of the sea makes the fragile houses and church look. Avery sees the sublime everywhere in nature: his depictions of birds, like his 1940s paintings Oystercatchers and Sooty Terns, are modernist reckonings with America’s first great artist, John James Audubon, who captured birds in flight as accurately as this 19th-century bird th century painter, but saw them as mythical and foreboding.
To see this art so closely related to abstract expressionism, yet rooted in nature, opens up a new perspective on American art itself. Avery is a missing link between landscape and abstraction. It’s not just Rothko’s rectangles of moody color that you see in his scenes: take the memento mori objects from his 1946 painting Still Life with Skull and you’ll see the vertical lines that Barnett Newman made his trademark.
The art of abstract expressionism always hints at realities hidden behind its walls of color. That’s what makes it so meaningful. “I choose to obfuscate the images,” Pollock said. This exhibition makes it clear that Avery was not just a precursor of this great art movement or even its godfather. He is a true abstract expressionist who doesn’t happen to ‘veil’ the images. That makes this exhibition much more than a celebration of an American artist you may not have heard of. You will never be able to see a Rothko again without imagining, in an apocalyptic revelation, a coast at dusk where the red blazing sky lays over the wine-dark sea.