The big draw at the Boca Raton Museum of Art right now may be "James McNeill Whistler: Selected Works from the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland," but don't miss a smaller, less flashy exhibition tucked away on the museum's second floor in the Walter and Lucille Rubin Gallery. "Milton Avery: A Retrospective of Nudes" features not quite three dozen works, but they form a fascinating cross section of the long, full career of this American artist. Included are oils, gouaches, and drawings in ink, charcoal, and pencil, covering 1930 to 1963, two years before he died. All come from the sizable Avery collection of the Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples, Florida. Avery's many influences show up here, especially the cubism of Picasso and Braque. As the artist himself neatly sums up: "I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, and colors form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter." Indeed, the fact that the works included here all portray nudes is almost incidental the pull of abstraction is present in most of the pieces, regardless of the artist's style of the moment. As one text panel emphasizes, Avery was something of a workhorse whose motto was "Keep painting - day in, day out. Be absorbed by it." Critic Barbara Haskell writes that Avery "viewed painting as a duty" and "likened himself to a shoemaker working every day, regardless of mood or inspiration." Such dedication to the work is admirable, even if it also guarantees that Avery's output is uneven. Still, this slight show is, in its own way, more satisfying than the Whistler exhibition downstairs. ("Milton Avery: A Retrospective of Nudes" is on display through April 2 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.)
Now on Display
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The notorious Whistler's Mother is not among the dozen oil paintings included in "James McNeill Whistler: Selected Works from the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland," at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. It now belongs to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and it's rarely seen in the artist's native country. And maybe that's a good thing, because without the glaring spotlight of its fame to distract us, we're left to look at Whistler's work in an altogether different light. This exhibition draws on one of the world's most extensive Whistler collections and features items culled from a 40-year period. Along with those 12 oils are dozens of drawings, etchings, and lithographs, a few watercolors, and a smattering of such personal memorabilia as letters, manuscripts, and books. Aside from a couple of the oils, however, we don't get much sense of Whistler's achievement as a painter. That's a shame, because since his death in 1903, he has largely fallen out of favor, overshadowed by, for instance, impressionism, which he arguably anticipated. There's even a pale, ineffable trace of Vermeer's Street in Delft in the 1897 small oil panel The Priest's Lodging, Dieppe. But the portraits here, including a self-portrait circa 1896 and some obscure nudes, aren't of much interest. The show does include one of the series of Nocturnes painted in the mid-1870s, inspired by a favorite subject: London's Thames River at nightfall or in the evening. There's almost no attempt at realism and instead an emphasis on mood, although the artist never gives in to abstraction completely. In A Distant Dome, which he painted during a trip to Corsica near the end of his life, he comes close to suggesting the substance of a real landscape rather than just its feel. Despite Whistler's undeniable technical mastery, his overall cultural contribution seems to have been eclipsed, ultimately, by his flamboyant life and personality. This uneven exhibition from the Hunterian Gallery seeks to reclaim the artist's rightful position in art history and to restore some perspective to his reputation. It's a valiant effort, even if it's only partially successful. His mother, of course, would probably disagree. (Through April 2 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.)