20th century expression and spirit at the Phillips Collection

When looking back at early 20th century art, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali are the names that come to mind. Other than the realist images of Grant Wood’s farmers and Henry Whistler’s reclining mother, the American public may remain uninformed about those who pioneered the modernist era here in the United States. So where does New York-born artist Milton Avery fit into the American art circle? Well, take a trip up 21st Street to the Phillips Collection’s “Discovering Milton Avery” exhibit and find out.

For the first time and in one complete collection, museum founder Duncan Phillips and Hollywood violinist and collector Louis Kaufman have collaborated to produce an exhibition of more than 80 works by Milton Avery ranging from 1926 to his death in 1963. Everything from the first painting Kaufman purchased (“Winter Riders,” 1929) to Avery’s pastel on wax paper compositions, produced just a year prior to his death, are included in this comprehensive and influential collection.

Avery, whose work has been described as “poetry” by friend, supporter and fellow artist Mark Rothko, takes chances on inherently simple subject matter in much of his early work, a combination of portraits and landscapes. Deemed “an aristocrat of color,” Avery experiments with hue and shading to create mood and to capture a false reality. In paintings such as “Milton Avery in Gray Shirt with ‘The Chariot Race'” (1938) and “Portrait of Marsden Hartley” (1943), Avery consciously uses shades of green and orange to complete the image and characterize the face. Avery’s use of crayon-sketched line and vivid tone lends itself to comparison with works by Matisse and the Fauves, distinctive for their avant-garde use of color. The elongated facial structures of the subjects are reminiscent of Modigliani’s early 20th century portraits.

“It seems like a lot of his (Avery’s) colors come from observation,” said Fred Markham, GW art professor and Phillips Collection assistant.

Markham also noted that flatness on the canvas and simplified color and form characterize Avery’s works.

The palette plays a part in almost all of Avery’s works in this collection. One of the pieces displayed at the start of the exhibition is a painting of Louis Kaufman’s wife Annette, titled “Annette Kaufman in a Black Dress” (1944). Particularly striking about this painting is the rustic crimson red background that surrounds the figure. The detail is present in the representation of the face but lacks the precision and form of the realistic art of early 20th century American artists. Avery’s message seems to reflect a feeling of expression and spirit rather than a depiction of actual observation.

Annette Kaufman reflected on her life with her husband the collector.

“The third day that we knew each other, Louis asked me to marry him, and shortly after that, he said, ‘I’d like to have Milton paint you,'” she said.

That painting, “Annette in Green Dress,” is also displayed in this exhibit. Kaufman will speak at the Phillips Collection Wednesday, April 21, in a lecture titled “An Artistic Friendship: Collecting the Art of Milton Avery.”

Highlights in the “Discovering Milton Avery” exhibit include “Sally Avery with Still Life” and ” Girl Writing,” a study of the artist’s daughter. Also notable are the black-and-white ink drawings and studies of Avery’s prints.

“Painting in the 20th century is a dialogue between representation and abstraction,” said Eliza Rathbone, chief curator of the Phillips Collection.

Avery used the palette and mediums ranging from canvas and wax to paper and metal plate lithography to create a style that became his own. It was Avery’s brilliance to take out the “inessentials,” as Rathbone described it, that makes this exhibit fresh and well worth seeing.

“Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips” will be displayed at the Phillips Collection through May 16. For more information, visit http://www.phillipscollection.org.

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