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February 18, 2009

From the Collection: Milton Avery's Still Life

This regular series offers a glimpse into the Weisman's permanent collection. Each post will feature an object currently on view in the galleries.

1978.21.28 Avery - Still Life.png

Milton Avery’s Still Life is not a window through which we look to find a perfectly realistic scene, and if it were—oh, what a Technicolor world we’d live in! Instead, Avery (1885–1965) composed Still Life with bold blocks of deeply saturated colors that flatten the picture plane, simplify forms, and ultimately create a harmonious, dynamic composition.

A contemporary of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and mentor to Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, Avery worked tirelessly to instill an appreciation of color and form in American art. As art historian Alfred Jensen noted, “Milton Avery brought color to America.” Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Avery developed a style that used broad washes of bright color. He treated each shape as a single color area, flattening and abstracting his images.

The Weisman’s Still Life, painted between 1935 and 1939, demonstrates this. Avery contrasts the flatness of the bananas on the purple plate with the fuller representation of the orange flower blooms. The foreground and background are flat, monochrome blocks of color, making the objects on the table seem to be stuck within the space rather than situated on top of a surface. Harboring a strong opposition to ‘photographic depth,’ Avery instead created his imagery on the surface of one, flat plane.

Although very similar in style to Henri Matisse—both used color to create ambiguous pictorial space—Avery was less interested in his subject matter. Instead, the subject matter was always secondary to color and form. Through his color choices, he created interplay between recognizable shapes and abstract images. This, in particular, contributed to the early ambivalence of many critics to his work. Avery worked in strict opposition to the prevailing American social realist scenes of the time. Through the promotion of his work by galleries supporting modernist ideals, Avery finally gained recognition.

—Katie Johnson

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