Milton Avery (American, 1885-1965)

Boats in Yellow Sea, 1944
Gouache on paper, 22 1/2 x 31 in.
Gift of Sally Avery and Mr. and Mrs. Floyd T. Amsden

Avery's landscapes and seascapes undoubtedly constitute his sublime achievement, and there is nothing in current painting to which one might profitably compare them.

--Hilton Kramer (1)

The critic Hilton Kramer’s praise for Milton Avery’s successful pursuit of his two chief motifs, landscapes and seascapes, reflects the artist’s importance among American painters and critics near the end of his life. Yet earlier in Avery’s career, the forms of his work were dismissed, first, as radically abstract and later, when abstract expressionism held sway, as too representational. Both reactions were misplaced, however, because form--whether representational or abstract--was of secondary concern to Avery. It was color that primarily inspired him, defined his images, and ultimately secured his reputation.

In the spirit of the French artist Henri Matisse, Avery used color relationships to convey emotion, spatial depth, light, and movement. The water surrounding the trio of small vessels in Boats in Yellow Sea is an unlikely yellow-tan that gently contrasts with the grayish purples of the boats. Diluted pink and brown-red accents complete the palette. The muted colors convey a sense of quiet and calm. One can easily imagine little waves gently jostling the moored crafts on a cloudy but peaceful day.

Inspired not only by Matisse but also, perhaps, by Japanese prints, children’s drawings, and folk art, Avery preferred to create nearly abstract imagery with flat areas of color rather than the precise shapes of the objects or the illusion of three-dimensional space. For example, the two small boats look out of scale in relation to the larger vessel in the foreground, and all three are simple cutout forms, barely shaded. In addition, the wooden dock in the background unrealistically appears to hover above the scene.

Like Matisse, Avery felt free to push aside rules of perspective and drawing that had guided artists since the Renaissance. Yet the fact that his paintings are never wholly divorced from representational subject matter separated him from his abstract expressionist peers. Yet several of them, especially his friends Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, appreciated Avery’s lyrical sense of color and inventive patterning of flat forms.

--Timothy R. Rodgers

1. Hilton Kramer, Milton Avery: Paintings, 1930–1960 (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1962), 19.

Milton Avery (American, 1885-1965), 'Boats in Yellow Sea,' 1944. Gouache on paper, 22 1/2 by 31 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Gift of Sally Avery and Mr. and Mrs. Floyd T. Amsden