Milton Avery's work on view at St. John's

Painter: The 28 portraits, landscapes and still lifes on display reveal the artist as America's precursor to abstract expressionism.

Arundel Live

January 09, 2003|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The paintings of Milton Avery are a must-see for anyone who figures that America's full-fledged entry into art's modern age came via the abstract expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s. The process actually began a generation or so earlier with Avery's works.

"His paintings were psychologically riveting in the way they left realism behind," explains Hydee Schaller, director of the Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis, where 28 of the artist's portraits, landscapes and still lifes are on display through Feb. 22. "He was a precursor to abstract expressionism, and a very important influence on 20th- century American art."

Avery (1885-1965) moved to New York from northern Connecticut in 1925, and it was there that he encountered for the first time works by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. It was through Matisse, especially, that he breathed in Fauvism, the style of painting based on strong, vivid, strikingly non-naturalistic colors.

Before long, Avery's adventuresome hues would prove inspirational to younger artists such as Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and other Color Field painters, as well as to Adolph Gottlieb, one of the leading American abstract expressionists.

The Mitchell exhibit, Milton Avery Revisited: Works from the Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection, is dominated by figurative works.

Self Portrait with Red Tam and Scarf (1938) shows the artist with raised eyebrows, a rakishly assertive air, and a neck and torso draped by a carefully modeled red scarf. Strong, stylized shadows on the left side of the face lend striking volume to the image.

Portrait of Chaim Gross demonstrates Avery's affection for full-length poses and colorful faces suffused in equally colorful clothing such as hats and sweaters.

For Picasso-like colors, there's Chinese Checkers, a painting of Avery's 10-year-old daughter March and fellow artist Vincenzo Spagna absorbed in the well-known board game.

"Milton had no prejudices," says Annette Kaufman, whose late husband, Louis, a distinguished concert violinist, fell in love with Avery's style, befriended the painter and his family, and became, with Mrs. Kaufman, a prime collector of the artist's works. "Everyone was a unique figure to him, and he loved to paint anyone who came by to see him."

Still lifes also figure prominently in the exhibit. Perhaps the most striking is a Cezanne-inspired Still Life with Bananas and a Bottle, the first of 29 paintings Louis Kaufman purchased from Milton Avery - and the first the artist sold.

The personal connection between the Averys and the Kaufmans animates the spirit of this lovely exhibit. Portraits of Louis and Annette Kaufman are on display, and there is an intimacy both to the show and the informative, utterly unpretentious catalog that goes with it.

It is fitting that Annette Kaufman and Thomas Dawson, proprietor of the Dawson Gallery in Annapolis, will discuss Avery's paintings at the Mitchell Gallery at 4:30 p.m. today. Artistic connections this personal deserve the personal touch.

Milton Avery Revisited: Works from the Louis and Annette Kaufman Collection will at the Mitchell Gallery, St. John's College, 60 College Ave. in Annapolis through Feb. 22. The museum is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday.

The opening reception and family program for the exhibit will be held from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 26.

Mitchell Gallery events are free and open to the public. Registration is requested: 410-626- 2556.

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