by William Corwin
Early Works on Paper + Late Painting
YARES ART | FEBRUARY 24 – APRIL 30, 2018
One. Two. Three. Four. There are four horse stalls in the background of Milton Avery’s Race Horse (1955), represented by four squares with simplified equines, resembling chess-piece knights, inhabiting three of them; one is empty. In the foreground, a dark groom is tending the fourth gray horse. This Gertrude Stein-like logic is pervasive in the nineteen oil paintings on display at Yares Gallery: there is always something to be counted; five waves, four trees, or three seagulls, and everything always has its place. The painter’s choice of tightly defined swathes of smooth color or consistent texture and his stylized representation of objects, architectural details, and geologic forms all embrace this soft poetic logic. Through this methodology, Avery straddles two opposing personalities—representation and abstraction—without seeming psychotic, at least on his canvasses. Abstraction is conferred on figural and representational objects as they gently dissolve into sets of numbers and an artificial cosmic practicality. At the same time, abstract forms such as dunes, waves, shadows, or fields of color become hidden faces or streams of calligraphy and pseudo-hieroglyphic symbols. Avery’s reductionist approach is seductive; he is not a believer in the imponderableness of infinity and instead chooses a localized vision of the world. The viewer is asked to meditate on what would be directly in front of them, the narrowness of vision and visceral experience; what both the spectator and the painter are immediately capable of digesting through their eyes.
Nowhere is the simplicity of human vision and the bite-size morsels of visual data that we can immediately access more on display than in the three shoreline paintings. Rolling Surf (1958), Brown Sea (1958), and Crescent beach (1958) are all representations of distinct landscapes. Rolling Surf depicts waves crashing on a beach from the open ocean, while Brown Sea and Crescent Beach show a cove or bay from two very different vantage points. It is the fact that Avery’s visual formula for ocean and land is the same in all three that define how we read the portrayed landscape. Five rib-like lines move towards a congruent coastline: like chains of vector arrows in a physics problem, static symbols of universal movement. Avery has happened on a universal formula that defines a beachscape rather than depicts it. Gray Rocks, Black Sea (1956) highlights another aspect of Avery’s approach—all zones of differing materials; vegetation, geology, and habitation are carefully packed into irregular but contained precincts of color and texture. This is simplification taken not merely to that of a map, but further distilled to the most fundamental level of flags and the heraldic lingua of chevrons, fillets, and flaunches.
Avery’s works on paper are more of a preserve for the artist to experiment with artifice and texture. He plays with form and pattern in the watercolors of bathers, and texture in his landscape gouaches. In his bathers, thick, fleshy thighs and expanses of back are juxtaposed with solid-color bathing suits and patterned towels, as in Untitled (Reclining Couple by the Sea) and Untitled (Summer House, Sunning Ladies) (both c. 1930s). These reclining figures are pleasant meditations on line and form, while his busier beach scenes of standing and posing figures are a bit overdone and stylized a la Reginald Marsh—the activity distracts from what Avery does best. The landscape gouaches are often a lexicon of differing brushstrokes and methods of laying down paint that tend to be claustrophobic in their density, such as Untitled (Walking in the Woods)/ Untitled (Purple Hills) and Untitled (Wild Purple Mountains)/ Untitled (Valley Floor) (both c. 1930s). The painter achieves a marvelous sweet spot in the Gouache Untitled (Substantial Bather) (c. 1930s), which offers a surreal interpretation of a mountainous lady in a Prussian blue one-piece. The brush-strokes of her bathing suit resonate with the brash gestures defining the clouds in the sky. Meanwhile the feathery locks of her bob-cut are typologically related to the evergreens atop the mountains in the painter’s watercolors of heavily forested Vermont mountains.
While hybridity is built in to all the works by virtue of the fact that Avery deftly straddles both representation and abstraction, it is moments such as in Untitled (Substantial Bather) where abstraction authentically and convincingly blossoms out of a realistic armature: from that we get a sense of the true scope of Avery’s visual practice. In From the Studio (1954), a series of thick bands on the edges of the canvas and as rectangular escutcheon prescribes a view out onto a veranda where a small figure reads. But it is the view into the overwhelming background rectangle of the forest—a wonderful green screen of calligraphic marks reminiscent of the totemic paintings of Richard Pousette-Dart and early Rothko and Pollock which represents the seething spirit-zone of nature. Blue Bay and Dunes (1961) and Study for the Blue Bay and Dunes (1955) further exhibit the artist’s desire to represent the unknowable, this time in the form of the rippling water of the bay, in a concise domain on the canvas. In the case of these two paintings, that zone swallows up eighty percent of the picture plane. Unlike From the Studio, which employs artist-made inflections within this magic space, both the Blue Bay canvasses show Avery ceding control of the color to the randomness of staining and the natural repulsion of oilstick and flatblack paint to define the texture of this pure abstract field. These texture and pattern based works have a similar open-ended interpretation, like the counting-based koan-like paintings such as Birds over Sea (1957). In Birds over Sea, three seagulls hover over five fronds of dune grass: Avery invites meditation but rejects explanation, no matter from which direction we approach him.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.