The Summer of ’57 With Milton Avery, Gottlieb, Rothko

The role played by friendship in the life of art is a seldom-discussed subject. This is probably why so few exhibitions have been devoted to exploring the aesthetic consequences of such friendships. In chronicling the course of modern painting, for example, we have generally preferred to codify its history in terms of movements and “schools,” compared to which the role of friendship is likely to seem too elusive or ephemeral or otherwise insufficiently weighty to elicit serious critical inquiry.

There are exceptions, of course. The stormy friendship of Gauguin and Van Gogh is undoubtedly the most celebrated, and has lately been a subject in two exhibitions (at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford and the Art Institute of Chicago). Closer to home, it’s a wonder that there has never been an exhibition (that I know of, anyway) devoted to the friendship of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, two immigrant talents whosignificantly changed the course of 20th-century American painting. There is certainly enough literature on the subject to warrant such an exhibition.

It is the great merit of the exhibition that E.A. Carmean Jr. has noworganizedat Knoedler & Company that it focuses our attention on another important development in 20th-century American painting in which friendship played a key role. The exhibition is called Coming to Light: Avery Gottlieb Rothko, ProvincetownSummers 1957-1961 , and it concentrates on the work that brought crucial changes to the art of threewell-known painters-Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko-at a particular moment in their respective careers.

Theirs was a friendship which dated from the late 1920′s, when Milton Avery (1885-1965), who came from a working-class family in upstate New York and took classes at the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford, had settled in New York. He was the oldest of this trio of friends, and even older than any of them knew. For in the summer of 1925, while painting in Gloucester, Mass., he fell in love with a 21-year-old painter and illustrator from New York, Sally Michel, and followed her to New York. They were married in 1926, when he was 41 but passing as a much younger man. (It helped that he was very handsome, very talented and very sweet.) Theirs was a long and happy marriage-one of the happiest, perhaps, in the history of American art-but Mrs. Avery was not to discover her beloved husband’s actual age until 1982, when Barbara Haskell organized an Avery retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

AdolphGottlieb (1903-74) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970) belonged, of course, to a younger generation-the Abstract Expressionist generation, with whose aesthetic interests Avery would seem to have little in common.Yetboth painters readily acknowledged their debt not only to the quality of Avery’s art-especially his achievement as a subtle and inventive colorist-but also to the firmness of purpose with which he mastered a modernist pictorial idiom when it was highly unfashionable for an American painter to pursue such a course. In the eulogy Rothko delivered on the occasion of Avery’s memorial service in 1965, he spoke of “what it meant to us during those early years to be made welcome in those memorable studios …. [The] walls were always covered with an endless and changing array of poetry and light.” And Gottlieb, after declaring that he had “always thought [Avery] was a great artist,” went on to say, “His attitude helped reinforce me in my chosen direction. I always regarded him as a brilliant colorist and draftsman, a solitary figure working against the stream.”

In the course of time, it was inevitable that these friends would drift apart. By the summer of 1957, when they found themselves reunited in Provincetown, Mass., all three were firmly established as recognized masters, and there is nothing more challenging to old friendships than newly acquired fame and fortune. Yet all three appear to have embraced their reunion with a sense of excitement and renewal. Both Gottlieb and Rothko had already embarked upon new directions in their work: Gottlieb with his so-called Burst paintings, while Rothko was turning to a radically darker palette than any he had heretofore been drawn to. In some respects, however, it was Avery’s art that underwent the most radical transformation as a result of this reunion with the younger painter-friends who had once sat at his feet, as it were.

It had long been Avery’s practice to devote his summers to drawings and watercolors, which would serve as the basis for the oil paintings he worked on during the long winters. In the summer of 1957, however, he abandoned this practice in order to paint larger and larger canvases-”like the abstract boys,” as he confided to one of his dealers. As his Provincetown subjects were mainly drawn from broadly formed landscape and seascape motifs, that too must have eased the transition he was making toward a greater and greater degree of abstraction in pictures that remained fundamentally representational-or, as was sometimes the case, in a pictorial realm where abstraction and representation, especially in the depiction of light and shadow, are not easily distinguishable from each other.

Everyone now recognizes that the overscale paintings that Avery produced in the period covered by the Coming to Light show were the greatest in his career, and in my view are among some of the greatest paintings produced by anyone anywhere in this period. Three of these masterworks are included in the current show: Sunset Sea (1958), Yacht Race in Fog (1959) and Sea, Moon and Stars (1960). Even more surprising are the works on paper from this same period, especially Breaking Wave (1957) and The East End (1957), and the even more abstract paintings on paper from 1960.

Seen in the company of these Avery pictures, two horizontal abstractions by Rothko in the show-one from 1958, the other from 1962-certainly underscore the artist’s affinity for Avery’s chromatic subtlety and daring, if not a direct influence. So does Gottlieb’s lovely Blue at Night (1957) and some of the artist’s works on paper. Still, it is Milton Avery who remains the star of this interesting show-a star who also served as a guiding light for other, younger artists.

All kudos, then, to Mr. Carmean and the staff of Knoedler & Company for mounting this marvelous exhibition, and also for producing the equally extraordinary catalog that accompanies it. Everything in this beautifully produced catalog makes fascinating reading, but Mr. Carmean’s detailed chronology of the artists’ personal histories and their critical reception ought to serve as a model for others-museums included-to emulate.

Coming to Light: Avery Gottlieb Rothko, Provincetown Summers 1957-1961 remains on view at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, through Aug. 15. It is not to be missed.