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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Milton Avery

Sally Reclining, 1962, Milton Avery

We've all heard the saying hundreds of times, "Behind every successful man, there's a woman..." You finish the rest; there are a hundred different endings, some profound, some humorous, some crude, some merely rude. I've written several times before regarding various art couples and their relationships, and they tend to follow some of the above-mentioned guidelines. One of the most interesting and loving art relationships I know of was that of Sally and Milton Avery. Sally Michel was a commercial illustrator. In spite of her family's objections, they were married in the summer of 1924. He was 39, she was 22. Milton was ever fond of telling people, "Sally is the best thing that ever happened to me.  Everything I paint, that isn't a cow, is probably Sally." Milton painted very few cows.

Milton Avery Self-Portrait, 1940
Avery was born in 1885 in the small town of Sand Bank, New York, not far from Lake Ontario. The son of working class parents. He went to work in various factories and by the time he was sixteen, he was also taking art classes at night. In 1911, when he was 26, he began painting full time with a Yankee work ethic that saw him at his easel from dawn till dusk. At an early age, he found himself the only male survivor in a family of nine females--his mother, sister, sister-in-law, and a mixed bag of aunts and nieces. His work was attractive for its color harmonies if unexceptional otherwise.  After his marriage to Sally, the two of them moved to New York where they worked at their art during the day while again attending art classes at the Art Student's League at night. Sally became the art editor of the Sunday New York Times magazine section and often supported them financially as well as providing a secure atmosphere where Milton could work without the stress and worry usually associated with the struggling artist's life. She liked to recall how they use to pay their bills with Milton's paintings.

Rolling Surf, 1958, Millton Avery, abstract,
but not too abstract.
Their apartment, Milton noted wryly, was equipped with a revolving door. Artist friends came and went at will, always assured of stimulating conversation and a congenial atmosphere. Influenced by Matisse and Picasso, Avery soon became an influence himself as many younger artists visited to see his work and admire his warm, friendly depictions of domestic home life. Never deserting realism he was far more abstract than was popular during the trying years of the 1930s. Strangely enough however, by the late 1940s, when his work was gaining some critical and popular success, it may well have been because it was considerably less abstract than was common at the time. In 1949, Milton suffered a heart attack. He was 63. Sally was told he had no more than three years to live.  Fortunately perhaps, no one told Avery. He lived another sixteen years. He died in 1965 at the age of 80.  His work, on the other hand, is ageless.
Though Avery rarely painted cows, he did find
time for the occassional bull, and here a
Young Calf from 1938

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