Milton Avery, Dancing Trees (1956), oil on canvas, 34″ x 48″; courtesy Knoedler Gallery
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The sole indication of “magical means,” the title of Knoedler & Company’s exhibition of watercolors by the American painter Milton Avery (1885-1965), is an untitled piece from 1954—a forest evoked with a sweeping raft of prickly lines and smears of gray, purple and green. This fleeting grace note reveals, with merciless precision, Avery’s failings as a painter. No one expects decent draftsmanship, but the pictures of horses, cows and women washing clothes in a stream are particularly clumsy. Avery’s vaunted palette is nowhere in evidence, and his touch is less masterful than expedient. He fumbles like a folk artist, and he falls harder because his sophistication isn’t in doubt. Working in oils, Avery seems like a credible, minor painter. When he’s otherwise engaged, you wonder if he’s even that.
© 2007 Mario Naves
Originally published in the July 10, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.