Monday, October 5, 2009

Milton Avery ~ Rothko and Matisse Connections

Still Life with Flowers by Milton Avery sold at Christie's in 2005. When I first saw this painting, the name Matisse flashed in front of my eyes. It certainly has some of the same elements of Matisse's Red Studio from 1911. In Still Life with Flowers Avery has chosen red for his walls and table top (Matisse, walls are red), has still life elements (Matisse, still life elements) and some of his own paintings (Matisse, a few of his paintings). Although Avery had embraced color and form reduction in his early paintings it wasn't until after he was exposed to Matisse's work that he incorporated the "Fauve attitude toward non-associative color". There seemed to be a link to Matisse – some even thought of Avery as the American Matisse. However, Avery often denied the influence of Matisse on his work, "saying that it was too hedonistic for his taste," Barbara Haskell from the Whitney has written in her book Milton Avery of the connection between Avery and Matisse. Feel free to choose yes or no.

It seems that Matisse's Red Studio had an influence on another artist, Mark Rothko. In Week 4 here at Fifty Two Pieces, we looked at Rothko's Homage to Matisse. Rothko attributed all that he knew about color to Matisse. In 1949, the Museum of Modern Art began to permanently display Matisse's Red Studio. Rothko told friends that he credited Matisse with his understanding of color. "You became that color, you became totally saturated with it as if it were music". According to one friend visiting from Italy, he had told Mell: "You remember when I used to pass my days at the Museum of Modern Art looking at Matisse's Red Studio? You asked: why always that and only that picture? You thought I was wasting my time. But this house you owe to Matisse's Red Studio. And from those months and that looking every day all of my painting was born." .... Rothko's painting certainly had changed in the late 1940's. This was when he began to paint the large areas of color that he is remembered for the most, shifting from less figurative but more abstract paintings such as Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944.

Louis Kaufman (Annette Kaufman's husband) had a slightly different view of influences on Rothko's work, at least his earlier work before 1945. Kaufman knew Rothko from their days growing up in Portland. When Rothko arrived in New York in the late 1920's, Kaufman introduced him to Milton Avery. Louis Kaufman was interviewed by the Smithsonian and remembers this about Avery and Rothko...

I took Marcus to Milton and then he became a real fanatic on the work of Milton. It had an immediate effect on his work. If you have the big book on Rothko, you'll see that some of the early Rothkos could be mistaken, of the same period, for Milton's work, practically the same compositions and so forth. He soon got out of that. It was a sort of natural homage to a man he admired. One thing it did do, I think very definitely, it cleared up Marcus' sense of color remarkably.

So there you have it -- Avery linked to Matisse, Rothko linked to Matisse, Rothko linked to Avery.

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