Harmoniously and distinctively colorful works by Milton Avery are on view at two very different sites this spring, tracing the artist’s career and illustrating his indisputable importance on the American art scene. While both exhibits give well-deserved play to the highly talented Avery and his place in Twentieth Century American painting, they underscore the vital importance of the collector to the artist and to the institutions that hold his work.
“Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art” is on view at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips” is at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Investment banker Roy R. Neuberger trained early for the business world but from his teens he had an equally strong interest in art and began formulating his collection as a young man. He collected the works of a number of artists, but his name was most closely associated with that of Avery, who he considered to be a rising star. But for Neuberger, the unassuming Avery might never have achieved the fame he did.
Neuberger has bought thousands of works of art, donating hundreds of them to museums. He likes to say he collects art and sells stock. As a collector, he has played an important part in the early careers of other artists, such as William Baziotes, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Ben Shahn and David Smith. It has been his habit to exercise his unerring eye, buy the work of living artists and later donate them to museum collections.
“Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art” plays on Avery’s classic compositions: groupings of friends, portraits, still lifes, seascapes and landscapes – all executed in flat colors and simple forms. Over time, his colors intensified and his forms broadened on the canvas. One can look at his 1929 “Sunday Riders,” which is detailed and dimensional, and compare it to the later “Three Friends,” 1944, in which three faceless figures are depicted in flat colors and simple shapes. A mood is conveyed; we are eavesdropping on a conversation among good friends.
In the very late “Walker by the Sea,” 1961, the colors flow into each other in three sections and play off each other. The color construction here is startling.
“Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips” at the Phillips showcases some 80 works that Avery created between 1926 and 1963. Kaufman and Phillips were great fans of Avery and, more important, great collectors. This exhibit juxtaposes the differing tastes of the collectors. Kaufman’s interest lay in the early detailed and fairly traditional still lifes, portraits and self-portraits, while Phillips was taken with the later bolder, more abstract still lifes, landscapes and seascapes. Taken as a whole, it is a grand retrospective of the artist’s work.
Duncan Phillips and his mother opened the Phillips Memorial Gallery Collection in 1918 in two rooms of their Washington, D.C., home as a tribute to his father and brother who had died in 1917 and 1918, respectively. The gallery expanded rapidly, and by 1930 the family moved out, leaving the entire house to become The Phillips Collection, the first American museum of modern art.
The Phillips marked several firsts in Avery’s career. It was the first museum to acquire an Avery work with Phillips’ 1929 acquisition of “Winter Riders” from a New York gallery. The museum continued to buy, ultimately acquiring 11 other Avery works executed between 1932 and 1959. In 1943, it mounted his first museum show, an event that the self-effacing Avery did not attend. In 1949, the Whitney offered an Avery show, and in 1952 the Baltimore Museum of Art offered an Avery show.
In 1928, Louis Kaufman, the most recorded violinist of the Twentieth Century, became the first person to purchase an Avery work, the painting “Still Life with Bananas and Bottles,” for which he paid $25. He eventually purchased 28 additional Avery pieces.
Although described by many as the American Matisse and the man who brought color to America, Avery denied both designations. Kaufman was said to have given voice to American film music. Their friendship was a natural and serendipitous consequence. Kaufman brought many artists and collectors to Avery’s studio and seldom left without himself having purchased a painting. It was he who introduced Avery to Mark Rothko, an event whose impact on American art continues to ripple.
On his first date with his future wife, Kaufman took her to visit the Averys, where he bought a painting of Sally Avery in a slip. On another occasion, Kaufman took Annette Leibole, a concert pianist who became his fiancée, on their third date to Avery’s studio to have her portrait painted. The 1933 “Portrait of Annette in a Green Dress” was the result.
Other paintings on view that attest to the 40-year friendship between the Kaufmans and the Averys (and their daughter, March) include the 1931 “Louis Kaufman with Red Suspenders in White Shirt,” the 1944 “Annette Kaufman in a Black Dress” and the 1938 “Milton Avery in a Gray Shirt With The Chariot Race.”
In Avery’s works, subtle, flat blocks of carefully chosen color spell out the dailiness of life, the mundane and the evocative in two-dimensional renderings. His typically subtle tones and textures suggest space and serenity. An abstractionist, Avery remained true to his early traditional training and never fully abandoned the representational. In his 1930s and 1940s works, he left the faces of his sitters blank. He felt that facial detail distracted from the simplicity of his colors and shapes. For him, the interaction of colors was paramount.
As a young man, Avery held a series of factory and clerical jobs while studying at the Connecticut League of Art Students and the Art Society, both in Hartford, Conn. In 1915, he had his first public exhibit at the Annex Gallery of the Wadsworth Athenaeum when he showed the painting titled “Glimpse of Farmington.”
Throughout his life, Avery worked alone. He sketched and drew constantly, returning to his studio to paint from his drawings and sketches. Many of these preparatory drawings and sketches are on view, along with 12 prints and four sketchbooks containing 235 drawings on loan from the National Gallery of Art and a number of prints from the Kaufman collection.
The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art is offering the Milton Avery show as part of its Hudson Valley Masters Series, which highlights work by artists who have lived and worked in the Hudson Valley and Catskill areas. Avery summered in Woodstock, N.Y., belonged to the Woodstock Art Association and was involved somewhat at Byrdcliffe in Woodstock.
“Milton Avery: Paintings from the Collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art” is on view at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York at New Paltz through May 30. For information, 845-257-3844 or www.newpaltz.edu/museum. “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips” remains on view through May 16 at The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW, Washington, D.C. A special lecture by collector and concert pianist Annette Kaufman is scheduled for April 21 at the Phillips. For information, 202-387-2151 or www. phillipscollection.org.