Milton Avery and Sally Michel met as young artists during the summer of 1924 painting out of doors in Gloucester, Mass. They were married in 1926. When Milton followed Sally to New York, he had not yet experienced the modernist art out of Europe that was taking New York by storm. Through the late 1920s into the 1940s, Milton Avery and Sally Michel developed their approach to art together. By the 1950s, the Averys had developed their personal styles so the exhibition begins with Michel’s works from 1953.
Sally Michel did commercial art work for twenty years so Milton could devote all his time to painting. She did her commercial illustration jobs at home, so the Averys were almost constantly together. They sketched on paper and developed their sketches into oils. Art was the Holy Grail for them and under discussion all the time. Friendships in New York with Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnet Newman began in the 1930s and continued on vacations taken together in Vermont, Gloucester, and Provincetown. On those vacations everyone had a space to work by themselves, but they met on the beach and at dinner to talk art. Looking at each other’s art helped add ideas about making a new kind of art. The group would verbally take a painting apart and suggest other approaches to color, shapes, and form. It was the old story of young artists finding their personal style while trying to differentiate their art from that of previous generations. The group built on Pierre Bonnard’s exploration of color and forms to express personal feelings and to alter the viewer’s perspective by flattening space. For Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman, thinking about color and perspective led to Abstract Expressionism. For the Averys, it led to a new kind of abstracted realism, different but related to Abstract Expressionism. These artists were at the fork in the road when Abstraction took two different paths. That is why the Averys are important artists.
The core rule for Avery and Michel was to never invent imagery. Representational references provided an inexhaustible supply of motifs that was continually replenished by the visible world. This freed them from the struggle to come up with new series of paintings, which became a problem for the Abstract Expressionists. The Averys’ goal was to present nature within an abstracted two-dimensional design rather than the traditional three-dimensional view. To achieve their desired perspective, the Averys had to figure out how to flatten the space in a painting. They used devices such as diagonal thrusting lines, steep perspective, tilted planes or overlapping planes of color, as well as minimized the detail or number of shapes in a painting. Michel simplified her landscapes, yet kept their natural order. Her trees are always rooted to the ground. All of this can be seen in Autumn Hills,
1984. However, Michel and Avery’s paintings moved away from the description of individual parts of a subject in order to achieve a harmony of the whole similar to Color Field abstraction.
Michel was interested throughout her life in exploring the effect of color and the flattening of perspective to achieve realist-abstraction. In some of her paintings in the 1980s, she mixed in large amounts of turpentine to achieve a dry and unobtrusive surface and more muted color harmonies. She also applied thin washes of paint over one another to flatten perspective while adding a sense of transparency and atmosphere. Her choice of canvas, slightly absorbent but not too rough, was also selected to help flatten perspective. Colors suggest Michel’s emotional response to her subject. This can be seen in the titles of some of her paintings, like Fall Hills
, 1963 or Snowy Field
, 1975, where the color choices don’t immediately bring to mind the season.
New ideas about how the size of paintings change the viewer’s perception were being discussed by artist friends in the 1950s. Rothko had taken from reading Plato that size had a relationship to beauty, and reasoned that large scale paintings would take up the viewer’s entire vision to make a greater impact. Rothko’s and Gottlieb’s large canvases stimulated the Averys to try their own the summer of 1957 when they were all in Provincetown. Michel’s paintings remained under 18 x 20 inches until 1957 because only Avery had the studio space to work on larger canvases, but in Provincetown she painted some 24 x 30 inch canvases while Avery’s moved from 40 x 50 to 60 x 70 inches. In the 1970s with studio space of her own, Michel further increased her canvas size to as much as 40 x 50 inches.
For 40 years Sally Michel painted beside Milton Avery and they discussed art constantly. Together they developed a synthesis of abstraction and realism. Michel built her personal style in an atmosphere of discussion and experimentation with great American abstract artists. She and Milton retained their realist references, but they used unusual perspectives, simplification, and overlapping and non-objective colors to create a modern picture.