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Milton Avery, Husband and Wife, 1945.

Artist Milton Avery created many amazing works before his death in 1965

by Susan Stamberg

Editor’s note:  NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg checked in on the Milton Avery exhibition, currently at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The exhibition is on view through January 30, 2022.

SUSAN STAMBERG: I bet there’s no tally of how many times Milton Avery painted his daughter, March – she’s tall, slim, with a row of straight bangs and pointed chin, unmistakable – on paper canvases, even paper napkins.

MARCH AVERY CAVANAUGH: I never posed for him.

STAMBERG: Because he knew just what his only child looked like, he could draw her from memory, and he wasn’t making portraits. An Avery retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth shows that Milton was working on shapes, defining them with his subtle, calm colors – the curve of a wave, the upended triangle of March’s face. Her son, Sean Cavanaugh, an artist like his mother and grandfather, was born after Milton died, but Sean’s heard the stories.

SEAN CAVANAUGH: He’s a very quiet guy. He’s at the party, but he’s in the corner. He’s drawing.

STAMBERG: Always looking, drawing, painting – no shadows, no perspective, flat, simple shapes – at a time in the 1950s when the abstract expressionists were roping paint onto canvases in nervous jabs. Not Milton.

MARLA PRICE: It’s very much his own way of working.

STAMBERG: Marla Price is the director of the Fort Worth Museum. She thinks one of the Marches in the show, “March In Brown” from 1954, is a masterpiece. It’s a study in browns – March, at age 20, sitting on a putty-colored floor in a chocolate-colored dress, hugging her yellow-brownish knees up to her triangular, tanned face.

PRICE: Young people sit like that. Old people don’t sit like that (laughter).

STAMBERG: It’s his colors that stop your eye and slow down the day’s rush. Curator Edith Devaney says Avery thinned out his paint with loads of solvent that harmonized the colors and made them interact.

AVERY CAVANAUGH: I would never think of putting that color with that color. And, you know, he just did it.

STAMBERG: His daughter uses similar colors, but March Avery Cavanaugh modestly says…

AVERY CAVANAUGH: I do the best I can, but it’s not that good.

STAMBERG: Curator Devaney says you can tell Milton Avery had great affection for what he’s seeing and paints it with quiet joy. His work got more and more abstract over the years. In “Black Sea” from 1959, the sea is indeed black, with white, scalloped edges of breaking waves marking yellow sand. Perfect Avery – pared down, clear, tranquil, irresistible.

EDITH DEVANEY: We gravitate toward something harmonious.

STAMBERG: And Milton Avery does harmony better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. His grandson wraps up this little encomium by reminding how prolific Milton was – 150 watercolors in just a few months.

CAVANAUGH: Being very prolific gives you freedom to try things and make mistakes.

STAMBERG: If you just do one painting a month, Sean Cavanaugh says, you may be too careful not to mess up. But Milton Avery did several paintings every week. And so…

CAVANAUGH: You’re much more willing to try something crazy in the next canvas that could be amazing.

STAMBERG: Milton Avery created many amazements before his death in 1965. Some now go from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, then to the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

In Washington, going nowhere, I’m Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


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