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”Discovering Milton Avery:

Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman & Duncan Phillips”

As you’d guess from its title, “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman & Duncan Phillips” is ostensibly an exhibition about patronage. Such shows are beloved by curators, because they’re easy to put together, and loathed by critics, because there’s little to say about them. Too often, the collector fête consists of a bunch of nice stuff gathered under the banner of a certain someone’s well-developed eye for nice-stuffness.

But because it goes only partway to being a true collector show, “Discovering Milton Avery” succeeds in being something more. By zooming in on the close of the painter’s career and providing the prism of his print work, curator Eliza E. Rathbone sets aside the focus of Avery loyalists Kaufman—a noted classical and Hollywood violinist who waxed the first recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—and Phillips—oh, come on, does he really need an introduction? Instead, Rathbone allows us to see how a capable modern conservative became a late-blooming master who eventually bent his art to his will.

Still, the exhibition’s premise bears examining. Although Phillips Director Jay Gates credits a show put together by Syracuse University as “an inspiration for our own,” he understates the case somewhat: All 28 works from “Milton Avery Revisited: Works From the Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection,” which made a stop in Annapolis only a year ago, are included in the present hanging. Duncan & Co. do chip in, but the 11 oils and three works on paper from the Phillips Collection’s own holdings are augmented considerably by borrowings from readily accessible local lenders. A few gaps are filled in by Phillips trustee Luther W. Brady and the estate of Avery’s wife, Sally Avery.

So if the Kaufmans have been recently celebrated, and if Phillips himself acquired only about a quarter of the oils on view and only one of the 29 works on paper, what’s the point in trotting out the “Two Devoted Collectors” line now? Well, if you squint and let all the details run together, you get a sparkling, high-toned (and marketable) image of lifelong friendship between the artist and his patrons—despite the fact that Phillips never met Avery and the Kaufmans appear to have bought nothing of his dated later than 1949.

As supporters of the Averys since the ’20s, the Kaufmans offer a good entree to the artist’s early period. When, in his early 40s, Avery sold his first oil, it was bought by the couple (for $25). Still Life With Bananas and a Bottle (c. 1928) is fairly representative of the artist’s heavy, Cézanne-esque work of the time, if somewhat gooier in texture. The Kaufmans also favored the thick, largely frontal, somewhat sickly portraits of the next decade and a half, among them green-visaged visions of Marsden Hartley (1943) and Avery himself (c. 1938).

Two pictures of Annette illustrate Avery’s move toward reduced compositions and flattened forms. Portrait of Annette in a Green Dress (1933) has an almost Reginald Marsh–ish brusqueness, the figure rounded and rumpled, her features coarse and masklike. But Annette Kaufman in a Black Dress (1944), in which the sitter is anchored against a bright-red background by two oversized blue-speckled buttons and the large pink bow at her neck, melds the personality of the pencil sketch that inspired it with an iconicity the earlier portraits lack.

The latter piece was also one of Avery’s last portraits, representing a change in direction that the Syracuse catalog suggests was the result of art dealer Paul Rosenberg’s contention that uncommissioned portraits sold poorly. Whatever the case may be, Avery was becoming ever more the formalist. Although he continued painting people he knew, notably his daughter, his figures became generalized and abstract—elegant concatenations of objects and limbs, as in Nude With Guitar (1947), or decorative alignments of posture and setting, as in Leo Lerman in Mitzi Solomon’s Studio (1948), in which the pinstriped New York Times critic cocks a leg over a red chair before the twining blue forms of Solomon’s sculpture.

If there’s a fault in such work, it’s that the compositions can seem overdesigned. Sally With Skull (1946) is no memento mori. (Rather, it’s a memento Mexico—the Avery clan had just returned to New York after a three-month jaunt south of the border.) Sally is merely the vehicle for planes of color, and the skull on the table is stylized so that a Z-shaped jag running from brow to jaw rhymes not only with the stalk in the vase beside it, but with the cascade of balconies and fire-escape stairs seen through the window behind it.

When Avery suffered his first heart attack, in 1949, he received the jolt of being told by his doctors that he had three years to live. He would last 16, often in ill health, but the knowledge of his mortality made him a different painter. The last Avery in the Kaufmans’ collection, The Convalescent (Self-Portrait in Red Sweater), dates from early in his recuperation; it’s easily the most emotional picture he made. Blue eyes radiate the fervor and anxiety of a man who knows his body will betray him; purplish shadows creep over his ashen skin; his forehead is etched with a maze of incised lines.

Yet there’s a wispiness to the thing as well, particularly around the mouth and mustache. It seems to embody a slow coming to terms with the notion that a fellow—particularly a fellow who, a quarter-century before, shaved eight years off his age to win his bride—won’t always be around.

It’s after this picture that Avery really starts to get interesting, and it is here that Rathbone brings in her ringers. At the top of the stairs, after the alcove containing the comment book, a gallery of nine late paintings, seven of them from the Milton Avery Trust, comes as close to giving Avery the Rothko Room treatment as he’s likely to get.

The work of many artists—Rothko being the most extreme case—isn’t seen to advantage until it receives a place of its own. I had been content to view Avery, particularly in his late landscapes and seascapes, as the opposite case. Seen one by one, such thinly painted, unadorned pieces ably counter weightier neighbors. But what comes as a whiff of fresh air in close surroundings can induce altitude sickness when there’s nothing else to breathe.

So sit down and get yourself acclimatized. Rathbone notes that “[b]y the mid-thirties [Avery] was so thinning his oil paints with turpentine that he could make a tube of paint cover more canvas than virtually any other artist,” but Avery’s paintings of the late ’50s and early ’60s are thinner still—and this was when he could afford what he needed. What becomes clear is that the elderly Avery adopted slightness as a stance, a philosophical position that reflected his half-here/half-gone purchase on life.

Sally Avery once quoted her husband as having said, “A blank canvas is a thing of beauty. The challenge is to cover it and still retain that radiance.” This, of course, is scarcely the man who caked up Still Life With Bananas and a Bottle. Instead, this was the painter who retained that radiance in part by not painting it over, whose White Horse (1962) consists of an equine-shaped patch of primed canvas bridging faint-green grass and dark-daubed hedge, and whose Rolling Surf (1958) depicts fingers of blue water separated by blank stretches highlighted in white.

It has become customary to speak of such works as cases of the artist paring away extraneous details. In 1952, Avery himself said, “I strip the design to essentials.” But such images as the pier-and-pool Reflections (1958) read in the opposite direction, not as reductions but as structures built up only to the point that they are able to look preliminary and precise at the same time.

If Avery’s declining health pushed him to make paintings that bordered on evanescence, his print work had prepared him for the shift. The three 1948 pieces in the Laurel Gallery Portfolio find him pursuing the austere poetry and formal power of blankness, as inflected by the burred line of drypoint etching. Reclining Nude (Nude With Long Torso) can be seen as the missing link between the nudes of Matisse and the plant drawings of Ellsworth Kelly. And the receding lines of By the Sea (Umbrella by the Sea), which divide the bare page into a rippling expanse of wind-ruffled water, foreshadow the solitary seascapes of 1958 to 1959 that rank among Avery’s greatest works.

One of those is the wedgelike Black Sea, acquired by Phillips in 1965 from a Museum of Modern Art–organized Avery retrospective that traveled to the Phillips Collection. Once he latched on to the painting, Phillips, who would die the following year, was so reluctant to part with it that Sally Avery offered to substitute a work from her own collection so that he could take it from the show.

But the piece that seems most redolent of Avery’s own mortality is Rock and Wave, in which black rocks and their gray shadows are set off by a white blankness and surrounded by encroaching black water. The fugitive shapes of the waves have been dashed off with the kind of wristy automatism that any telephone doodler knows to be as inescapably personal as an autograph. Somewhere in that picture, Avery, out beyond the reach of friends and supporters, is discovering what will pass with him and what will be left behind. CP