Milton Avery Exhibit at Bennington is Minor, but Has its Delights


Bennington Museum of Art, Bennington, VT

Through November 6, 2016


Avery Self-Portrait
The best way to enjoy the Bennington Museum of Art's current exhibition of Milton Avery is to lower your expectations a bit. Avery (1885-1965) was a major figure in American Modernism. Like many of his generation, he broke with the idea that a painting had to have perspective. Unlike most, a lot of his art remained representational–not literally, but in the sense that one usually knows what his subject was, even when he reduces them to shape and color. Those shapes and colors were seldom those with which nature endowed said subject. A really good Milton Avery looks like a collage or quilt pattern on canvas. His use of shape was so striking that Mark Rothko was among his biggest fans. A good Avery also has the quality of telling you all you need to know through just a few semi-abstract figures, lines, and well-placed objects.  

Best in Show?
So the first thing you need to know about the Bennington exhibit is that most of what is on display falls into the "minor works" category–the kind that sell at auction for around 10 grand, not the ones museums shell out over a half a million to boastfully hang on their walls. The good news? The exhibit lives up to its claim–these 60 works were executed between the years 1931 and 1943, a time in which Avery and his family often summered in the Jamaica/Rawsonville area of southern Vermont. (The Averys lived in New York City, but were lured to Vermont by a friend, Meyer Shapiro.) As one does during a Vermont summer, Avery often worked en plein air and represented nature. A few of these outdoors

paintings are quite eye-catching, especially the less busy works that get down to bare essentials. My favorite is a meadow, bush, mountain, and sky reduced to geometric shapes and painted in yellow, blue, green, and gray–the classic less-is-more principle on display. I also admired a watercolor in which quick brush strokes, daubs of paint, and flashes of color capture nature's essence rather than her particulars.

Less certain are Avery's paintings in which people appear. A whimsical self-portrait works but most of the rest do not. It must be
Not working for me!
said that Avery was a poor draftsman, a fact made exceedingly manifest when figures are not placed in perspective, but seem suspended in space. These figures are often so crudely rendered as to invoke the paintings of Bennington Museum's star attraction: Anna Mary Robertson (1860-1961), better known as "Grandma Moses." She was aimed at documentation; he did not. In this regard, Avery's abstracted figures work much better–especially those with a Toulouse Lautrec quality to them.
Lautrec-like quality? More successful?

This exhibit is certainly worth attending but, as I said, lower your expectations. It's also worth seeing because (through October 2) you can take in a delightful corridor exhibit titled "Something About Summer" by Mark Barry. I know little about Barry, other than the fact that he is from North Bennington and has a wickedly offbeat sense of humor. A girl with a hamburger, for instance, has such skewed perspectives that her unhinged mouth leaves us uncertain as to whether she will that burger or vice versa. A bicyclist strains uphill, or is he falling backward over an abyss? One critic calls his style "faux naïve" and that's a pretty good descriptor. But whatever you call it, his art is the sort that makes you smile, chuckle, and grin. This is a small exhibit as well, but I wish the corridor had been longer. 


Rob Weir (Apologies: Images throw off the font and the fix-code eludes me.)


jfranklin said...

Interesting take on the Avery show. The reviewers at the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe had a rather more positive view

jfranklin said...
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