Modestly Thin

The light dossier of a major artist gets a too-careful viewing

Milton Avery: The Kaufman Collection," now at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, is so modest that it's best approached with minimal expectations, or maybe even no expectations at all. There are only 21 pieces in the exhibition, and three of them are greeting cards from Avery to the Kaufmans, Louis and Annette, musicians and collectors who were also friends of the artist. The remaining pieces are paintings and drawings that at best only hint at what Avery was capable of.

"It may be that no major American artist has a thinner dossier than Milton Avery," the Australian critic Robert Hughes wrote in 1982. Avery wasn't especially fashionable then, and he's perhaps less so now, although the contentious but influential Hughes found it difficult to dismiss him outright. Avery may be minor major, but he's still major. He clung, sometimes tenuously, to representation, even as he came close to being swept away by the possibilities of playing with color.

One of the most representative examples of Avery's work — and one of the best pieces in the show — comes early on. California Seascape (1942), with its blocky chunks of land jostling one another, flirts with abstraction but then pulls back. The little squiggles and daubs of pigment that Avery applies almost as an afterthought seem designed as reminders that, even though the artist can't be bothered with the details of the scene, he cares enough about them to suggest them. It's something of an analogy to the curious trajectory of the career of Avery, a low-key, unassuming man who reportedly lied about his birth date by eight years in order to seem younger than he really was. There's a loose, casual feel to this painting that's all but irresistible.

Avery and bit players: It was The Minute Waltz.
Avery and bit players: It was The Minute Waltz.

Around the corner, in Vermont Landscape (1941), Avery gives himself over almost wholly to color. Once again there are perfunctory reminders that this is indeed a landscape, but Avery is so intoxicated by the seemingly endless uses of the color green at his disposal that not much else matters.

And then that's it: one very good seascape and an equally fine landscape, and no more. For anyone familiar with the artistic mileage Avery got out of these milieus, the comedown is enormous. You round each bend expecting, hoping for, another seascape or landscape, only to be denied. I found myself wondering how on earth the Kaufmans could have limited themselves to only two such Avery paintings. And if they owned more, why would Annette (Louis died in 1994) share just two of them for this show?

There are consolations, fortunately. Chief among them is a pair of paintings that, taken together, form a dramatic study in contrasts. Not coincidentally, they are portraits of Annette Kaufman painted a dozen years apart. Portrait of Annette Kaufman in a Green Dress (1932) is representative of the impressionist-influenced portion of Avery's career, before he became a disciple of the Fauvism of Matisse, and, to a lesser extent, pre-Cubism Picasso. With this portrait, he's still susceptible to the power of detail, as seen in the textures of the velvety dress and its ruffled cuffs, not to mention the dark-eyed Mrs. K's severe-looking features.

Cut to Portrait of Annette Kaufman in a Black Velvet Dress (1944), which finds Avery fully under the sway of Matisse. The artist's subject is clear-eyed and straightforward, her secrets laid bare by the planes of flat but expressive color that both surround her and constitute her. (Avery's much-younger wife, Sally, also an artist, is credited with urging him to abandon his impressionist tendencies.)

Portrait of Louis Kaufman with Red Suspenders on White Shirt (1931) is jauntier than the portrait of Annette in the green dress but still its spiritual kin. By the time of Self Portrait in Grey Shirt "Chariot Race" (1948), with its painting-within-the-painting, and The Convalescent Self Portrait in Red Sweater (1949), the transformation into colorist is all but complete. Avery ended up influencing American abstract painting of the 1950s and '60s, particularly that of Mark Rothko, whom he befriended. Avery himself, however, was never much for abstraction in its purest forms.

Sandwiched between the Kaufman portraits and the self-portraits is a trio of 1928 still lifes that are fascinating emblems of what Avery might have become but didn't: a completely competent but thoroughly conventional painter. In any other context they might strike us as the work of an exceptionally gifted craftsman; here, however, they're anomalies, signposts for the road not taken.

This small show is over all too quickly with a pair of paintings that reiterate, in no uncertain terms, the points of contrast already made. Still Life of Bottle, Onions and Oranges, also from 1928, does little more than echo those other still lifes, however beautifully. And the masterful Chinese Checkers Players March Avery & Vincenzo Spagna (1941), a portrait of the artist's daughter and a hulking friend, demonstrates how deftly Avery was able to manipulate his panels of flat color.

Unlike many of the figures he influenced — Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman — Avery was barely able to support himself and his family as an artist. He was, however, extremely prolific, turning out up to a painting a day until about 1949, when the heart ailments that would ultimately claim his life in 1965 slowed him down. That says a great deal about his commitment to his work and vision, as even Robert Hughes agreed: "...to regard Avery as a potentially abstract painter who could not quite summon up the courage to drop content [is] a mistake." This sketchy little exhibition doesn't come close to doing Avery justice, but at least it doesn't diminish his significance.

 
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