Clement Greenberg on Milton Avery

One of the most influential American art critics of the twentieth century writes in the pages of Arts Review, 22 September, 1962

By Clement Greenberg

Milton Avery grew up as a painter in the days of the American Scene movement, with its advocacy of an art that would concentrate on American life and shun esoteric influences. Avery set his face against this, yet the atmosphere created by that movement may have helped confirm him in his acceptance of himself. However misguided and even obscurantist the American Scene tendency was, it did at least urge in principle that the American artist come to terms with the ineluctable conditions of his development; it did remind him that he could not jump out of his skin; and it did prepare for the day when he would stop bewailing the fact that he lived where he did.

In any case, Avery started off from American art before the American Scene was heard of; in Hartford, where he grew up, he looked harder at Ryder and some of the American Impressionists than at anything in French art. And when he went on to assimilate certain French influences the outcome was still some of the most unmistakably and authentically American art that I, for one, have seen.

Avery himself would be the last to see any aesthetic value in Americanness as such. If his art is so self-evidently American it is because it so successfully bodies forth the truth about himself and his condition, not because he has ever made an issue of his national identity. And it may also be because he developed, owing to circumstances he only half-chose, within what was to a great extent a non-European frame of reference. There are, moreover, different kinds of Americanness, and Avery’s kind may be more apparent than others at this moment only because it had had less of a chance, before the advent of Fauvism, to express itself in ambitious, sophisticated painting.

There is no glamour in Avery’s art; it is daring, but it is not emphatic or spectacular in its daring

There is no glamour in Avery’s art; it is daring, but it is not emphatic or spectacular in its daring. In part this may have to do with the concrete elements of his painting; the absence of pronounced value contrasts on the one hand, and of intense colour on the other; the neutral surface that betrays neither ‘paint quality’ nor brushwork. But it has even more to do with his temperament, his diffidence. Fifteen years ago, reviewing one of his shows at Paul Rosenberg’s in The Nation, while I admired his landscapes, I gave most of my space to the derivativeness of the figure pieces that made up the bulk of the show, and if I failed to discern how much there was in these that was not Matisse, it was not only because of my own imperceptiveness, but also because the artist himself had contrived not to call enough attention to it.

I still quarrel with Avery’s figure pieces, or at least with most of them. Too often their design fails to be total: figures are not locked securely enough in place against their backgrounds, which are so often blank ones. And for all the inspired distortion and simplification of contour, factual accidents of the silhouette will intrude in a way that disrupts the flat patterning which is all-important to this kind of painting. It is as though Avery had trouble handling displaceable objects when they exceeded a certain size, and found his certainty only in depicting things that had grown into the places they occupied and which provided foregrounds and backdrops that interlocked of their own accord. In other words, he is generally at his best in landscape and seascape.

Nature is flattened and aerated in his painting, but not deprived in a final sense of its substantiality, which is restored to it – it could be said – by the artistic solidity of the result. The picture floats but it also coheres and stays in place, as tight as a drum and as open as light. Through the unreal means most specific to pictorial art, the flat plane parallel to the surface, Avery conveys the integrity of nature better than the Cubists could with their own kind of emphasis on flat parallel planes. And whereas Cubism had to eventuate in abstraction, Milton Avery has developed and expanded his art without having either to court or ward off that possibility. As it happens, he is one of the very few modernists of note in his generation to have disregarded Cubism. It would be hazardous to say that he has not been affected by it in any way, but it certainly has not had an important part in his formation, and he has flouted the Cubist canon of the well-made picture almost as much as Clyfford Still has.

That the younger ‘anti-Cubist’ abstract painters who admire Avery do not share his naturalism has not prevented them from learning from him any more than it has prevented them from admiring him. His art demonstrates how sheer truth of feeling can galvanise what seem the most inertly decorative elements – a tenuous flatness; pure, largely valueless contrasts of hue; large, unbroken tracts of uniform colour; an utter, unaccented simplicity of design – into tight and dramatic unities in which the equivalents of the beginning, middle and end of the traditional easel pictures are fully sensed. His painting shows once again how relatively indifferent the concrete means of art become where force of feeling takes over.

Clement Greenberg (1909–94), was the most influential American art critic of the mid twentieth century. Famously championing Abstract Expressionism, he wasn’t so sure about Pop. By the 1970s Arts Review’s writers had  firmly categorised him as a fuddy duddy

From the 22 September, 1962 issue of ArtReview (then titled Arts Review). This article was republished in the 70th anniversary issue of ArtReview, March 2019