Art review: Milton Avery: American colorist

Milton Avery was “a colossus of twentieth-century painting”, said Cal Revely-Calder in The Daily Telegraph. Although his name may not be familiar to many Europeans, he was a prominent figure in American art.

Avery (1885-1965) began his half-century career as an Impressionist and ended it as an Abstract Expressionist. In a country that had not yet taken its place in the history of art, he was a precursor. Its “flexible shine” suited many styles; his admirers included Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and although he never really dabbled in pure abstraction, his influence on both was profound.

Now, for the first time in this country, his work is being celebrated in a large-scale retrospective, at the Royal Academy. It brings together 67 works from Avery’s vast and varied oeuvre, including landscapes, seascapes, portraits (both human and animal), and abstract canvases. There are echoes of various European and American masters – Matisse, Van Gogh, Derain, Rothko – as we follow his fascinating but “elusive” career. Visitors will leave this show “with a new star in their firmament”.

Avery was born into a working-class family in Hartford, Connecticut, said Laura Freeman in time. He begins by painting “pleasant, passable landscapes, more or less after Monet”. Then, thanks to “New York and a new vision”, came “the jump”: witness the passage of the “polite” Sunset (1918) with a more “robust” set moody landscape (1930), a painting swimming in “bruised, wine-tinted hues”.

The 1930s was the decade in which Avery came “into his own”. Works such as Fishermen village (1939) come to life through energetic, grating brushstrokes. Later, as he moved towards abstraction, Avery showed he had a gift for ‘color-blocking’: ‘blood orange against turquoise; Colman’s mustard versus carbon black”. He may not have been, ultimately, a “first-rate artist” – he was more of a “middleman”, a guide tracing a “path through the vineyards”. But despite everything, you will leave the exhibition with “wide-eyed and dazzled eyes”.

Avery was sometimes called “an American Matisse”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. In fact, “it’s much stranger, and better than that”. Far from being content to imitate European artists, Avery was a true modern master who developed his own visual language. little fox river (1942), for example, looks at first glance like a “joyful, summery” vision of a “butter-yellow landscape surrounded by waves of blue”, but is infinitely more fascinating on closer inspection. The waves are “big and inhuman”, their swell making the buildings on the shore appear “frail”.

Even more interesting is Man with a pipe (1935), a “deliberately bizarre scene” depicting “a blackish sky over a gray ocean on a yellow beach”. Remove the people from the composition and you have “exactly the same kind of sublime vertical stack of colors that Rothko painted”. Avery’s genius was his ability “to find the hidden abstraction within nature itself.” The open landscapes of America are more suited to abstraction than the fields and hills of Europe: even his figurative works show “strange empty vistas of sea and sky”.

This is an exhibition that gives us “a new vision of American art itself” and a superb opportunity to familiarize ourselves with an “idiosyncratic and experimental American dreamer”.

Royal Academy, London W1 (royalacademy.org.uk). Until October 16