Milton Avery: Industrial Revelations, at Knoedler & Company
February 18 – May 1, 2010
19 East 70 Street at Madison Avenue
New York City, 212 794 0550
Milton Avery (1885-1965) is celebrated primarily for reductive landscapes of flattened, simplified space and elements, coming into his signature style in the late 1940s. Less attention has been given to his early career, which the recent exhibition at Knoedler and Company focused on Avery’s industrial scenes of the 1930s.
If nature was his springboard, as Avery once famously declared, then in this body of work nature is also the lens through which he experienced the city. His treatment of the machine age is paradoxical in many of these paintings. Architecture and bridges suggest organic structures and appendages for what is clearly humanmade and mechanically assembled. The Blue Bridge (ca. 1930), for example, twists and twitches in ways that, severally, recall a root system, insect limbs or bulbous stems; the bridge morphed into these suggestive forms from a more realistic gouache study.
Going against the Precisionist grain of Léger, Scheeler and Demuth who in various ways found mimetic equivalents of the technology they depicted, Avery wistfully and almost mournfully placed nature and the natural order as supreme, a theme that anticipates his later development. These pictures exude a foreboding, deeply gloomy atmosphere in a dismal reaction to industrialization. In the brooding Country Railyards (ca. 1930s) Avery ironically depicts these booming rail intersections under a veil of darkness and absent of people and trains. These depopulated scenes also recall Giorgio de Chirico’s mysterious desolation and solitude. The drab palette in New England Industry (ca. 1930s) suggests a consciousness of imminent environmental damage.
Although the work in this show is not as flat or minimal as his characteristic later work, such as his oceanscapes, the editing of detail and flattening of planes as well as the compressions and distortions of space are all there already. The wavering and overlapping buildings in works like Tugboats in Harbor (ca.1930) and City Harbor (ca. 1930) strikingly anticipate Philip Guston’s late paintings (especially in the muddled pink palette of City Harbor). Remarkable similarities between Avery and Guston are further evident in Drawbridge (1932) in which the tugboats have an anthropomorphic, cartoon-like quality. In this sense, one may also trace Avery’s animate urban landscapes through the individualistic animism of Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings.
“Industrial Revelations” presents not only Avery’s lesser known work but also a perspective on the city that stands in contrast to prevalent views such as the Precisionist’s celebration of the machine and Edward Hopper’s romantic elevation of the everyday. These cityscapes are intensely personal and historical records, yet they also ring true in relation to current New York urban planning. As warehouses are swallowed by residential development and the trucking industry has all but replaced the railroads, Avery’s scenes become meditations for the loss of industry on American soil.
Greg Lindquist is a painter and contributing editor at artcritical.com. He received the Sally and Milton Avery Foundation grant to attend Art Omi International Residency last summer.