Milton Clark Avery (March 7, 1885 – January 3, 1965) was an American modern painter. Born in Altmar, New York, he moved to Connecticut in 1898 and later to New York City.
The son of a tanner, Avery began working at a local factory at the age of 16 and supported himself for decades with a succession of blue-collar jobs. The death of his brother-in-law in 1915 left Avery, as the sole remaining adult male in his household, responsible for the support of nine female relatives. His interest in art led him to attend classes at the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford, and over a period of years, he painted in obscurity while receiving a conservative art education. In 1917, he began working night jobs allowing him to paint in the daytime.
In 1924, he met Sally Michel, a young art student, and in 1926, they married. Her income as an illustrator enabled him to devote himself more fully to painting. The two had a daughter, March Avery, in 1932. For several years in the late 1920s through the late 1930s, Avery practiced painting and drawing at the Art Students League of New York. Roy Neuberger saw his work and thought he deserved recognition. Determined to get the world to know and respect Avery’s work, Neuberger bought over 100 of his paintings, starting with Gaspé Landscape, and lent or donated them to museums all over the world. With the work of Milton Avery rotating through high-profile museums, he came to be a highly respected and successful painter.
In the 1930s, he was befriended by Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko among many other artists living in New York City in the 1930s–40s. It was Rothko who wrote perhaps the most vivid summation of Avery’s art.
The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., was the first museum to purchase one of Avery’s paintings in 1929; that museum also gave him his first solo museum exhibition in 1944. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963.
Avery was a man of few words. “Why talk when you can paint?” he often quipped to his wife. Their daughter, March Avery, is also a painter.
He died at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, New York after a long illness, and is buried in the Artist’s Cemetery in Woodstock, Ulster County, New York. After his death in 1965, his widow, Sally Avery, donated his personal papers to the Archives of American Art, a research center of the Smithsonian Institution.
Depicting everyday scenes of domestic, city, and country life, painter and printmaker Milton Avery favored simplified forms and the flat application of color, inspired by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. “I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, [and] colors form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter,” he once said. Avery’s early work incorporated elements of Impressionism, but his smooth planes of color and combination of figuration and abstraction would make him an archetype of American Modernism, prefiguring aspects of Color Field painting by years. Avery was a friend and source of inspiration to artists including Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. A man of few words, he was said to have frequently quipped, “Why talk when you can paint?”