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Milton Avery: American Colourist

  • Art
  • Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
A Milton Avery painting of a husband and wife reclining on chairs.
Milton Avery, Husband and Wife, 1945. Photo: Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Art is serious. It’s meant to be experimental, avant-garde, intellectual, rigorous. But Milton Avery is something else: Milton Avery is joyful. Not that the American painter (1885-1965) isn’t avant-garde or intellectual, it’s just that the body of clever, innovative, influential art he left behind is so full of humour and explosive colour that it will make you feel elation as much as mental stimulation.

Maybe it’s because of his non-art background. Avery came from a working-class family, taking a job in a factory from an early age. Art came thanks to evening classes, a separate, late, non-vocational passion, not a serious, careerist pursuit.

His early landscapes here from the late 1910s owe hefty debts to American and French Impressionists. Simple little plein air depictions of trees and rivers. Nice enough, but nothing special. By the 1930s, though, something clicks. Tiny brushstrokes get replaced with big thick daubs, intricate detail with sweeping visions, realism with colourful fantasy. These landscapes are filled with big flat splodges of colour, enormous beige hills, rippling red forests, shimmering blue grasses. Where the Impressionists use colour to capture light, Avery uses light as an excuse to paint colour, to celebrate the endless hues of the world.

It will make you feel elation as much as intellectual stimulation.

Everything here is representational, but only just. Trees aren’t really ultramarine like in ‘Blue trees’, faces aren’t featureless planes like in ‘Poetry Reading’. It’s figuration as a launchpad for experimentation.

You can see why younger peers like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman loved Avery and flocked to his home every day. Avery danced on the very edge of abstraction, always leaving a toe dangling in reality. A swirling miasma of black is just two twisting sooty birds, an undulating white form is a reclining woman, a sharp blue shape is a preening cockerel. 

The last room is the real jaw-dropper, though. Avery eventually just gives in to the big, indulgent, nearly-abstract colourfield approach and lets it run riot with images that sway with summer heat. The brown and yellow blobs are beach towels on a sandy shore, the horizon holding a distant black sea. Three stripes of red, blue and yellow are like Rothko at the seaside. There are sailboats on pink waves, vibrating orange trees, human figures made of smudges, speedboats on juddering water.

It’s all so gorgeous, so colourful, so beautiful, so fun. It’s rare that art can make you feel joy, but Milton Avery will genuinely, actually, properly put a smile on your face.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
Tube: Piccadilly Circus

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