- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

The Phillips Collection exhibit “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips” highlights much of Mr. Avery’s talent — modulated and closely hued colors, tilting of perspectives for unnerving tensions, reduction of compositional elements to essentials — and shows the collectors’ uncanny eye for this pioneering modernist painter.

Mr. Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, and Mr. Kaufman, later a famous Hollywood violinist, were the first to become interested in Mr. Avery’s art and buy it.

The musician purchased the exhibit’s “Still Life With Bananas and Bottles” in 1928 — Mr. Avery’s first sale — and Mr. Phillips bought “Winter Riders” (circa 1929) the following year.

They wisely saw that the artist would form an important link from the European fauvism and cubism of Matisse and Picasso to early American modernists such as New Yorkers Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb.

Exhibit curator Eliza Rathbone expanded the exhibition by borrowing from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, American University and the National Gallery of Art for this unusual display of 42 paintings and 29 works on paper.

Though the museum could have made more of the differing tastes of the collectors by boldfacing their names on exhibit labels next to the works, it does a fine job of chronologically surveying Mr. Avery’s career with the infrequently shown early still lifes, self-portraits and portraits of the Kaufmans and the later, poetic, more abstract landscapes and seascapes collected by Mr. Phillips.

Notable in the exhibit are the many works on paper rarely exhibited with the paintings. Among them are drypoint, woodcut, linocut and monotype prints, some exhibited with their copper and zinc printing plates, and four penciled sketchbooks loaned by the National Gallery.

In addition, Miss Rathbone effectively placed several paintings with their preparatory drawings.

Despite its pluses and minuses, this is a landmark exhibition for Washington. The last major exhibit of Mr. Avery (1885-1965) held here was the Phillips Collection’s “Milton Avery, Drawings and Paintings” — 27 years ago.

The first gallery throbs with Louis and Annette Kaufman’s preference for Mr. Avery’s traditional, detailed portraits and still lifes and is an exceptionally thorough showing of the artist’s early style.

Mr. Kaufman once took Annette, then his fiance, to the Avery studio to have her portrait painted. “I’d like to have Milton paint you — a nice concert dress — we can use it for publicity in the concerts in which we perform together,” Mr. Kaufman told his fiance, according to “Discovering Milton Avery,” a catalog by Miss Rathbone.

The show’s “Portrait of Annette in a Green Dress” (1933) was the result.

The couple formed a close 40-year friendship with the artist; his wife, Sally; and his daughter, March, that shows in the informality of the many portraits Mr. Avery painted during those years. Included in the exhibit is Mr. Kaufman slouching in an open-collared shirt, “Louis Kaufman with Red Suspenders on White Shirt” (1931); “Milton Avery in a Gray Shirt With ‘The Chariot Race’” (circa 1938); “Portrait of Clara” (1929); and the later “The Convalescent (Self Portrait in a Red Sweater)” (1949), painted after the artist’s first heart attack.

All, including portraits in the second gallery, have an in-your-face directness uncommon for portraits of that time. In his work, Mr. Avery showed the character of his sitters.

In the second gallery, the artist becomes freer with his brush strokes, color and movements toward abstraction, especially with landscapes, such as “California Landscape/Seascape” (1942). This holds true as well for the portraits and still lifes — many in the Kaufman Collection — in this gallery. He scumbled thinned oils for the many greens in “Trees” (1936) and introduced jagged, calligraphic white accent lines in “California Landscape.”

Though painted early, this is one of the most extraordinary of the artist’s landscapes and the most abstract of those from the 1940s. Two brownish land promontories, connected by a curving tan road, frame the seascape of turquoise sea and blue sky. Thinned oil pigments, here black, indicate rocks in the distance. His signature calligraphic white dots, Z’s, dabs and tensile jabbings — so important to the life and energy of his work — begin here.

In this gallery, also, the portraits become even more direct than the earlier ones. Mr. Avery painted “Annette Kaufman in a Black Dress” (1944), for which he set her against a vivid red background. (A pencil study is also in the show.) The portraits also become more expressive, as with the chartreuse-faced “Portrait of Marsden Hartley” (1943).

In the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Avery’s expressive contouring of figures and unsettled, tilted compositions became his primary stylistic tools. “Chinese Checkers (March Avery and Vincenzo Spagna)” (circa 1941) is the most dramatic. The figures are flatly patterned, and the checkerboard sits on what looks like a plunging table.

The last gallery displays Mr. Avery’s most affecting images of ocean and rocks. They’re the most reductive and what Miss Rathbone calls the most “Zen-like” — showing the artist’s oneness of spirit with object. “Rock and Wave” (1959) continues the wavelike calligraphy of earlier landscapes.

Mr. Avery divided “Black Sea” into barely recognizable patterns of yellow sand, white surf and black water. Another sensational work here is “Rolling Surf,” in which the artist reduced sand, surf and sea into a swirling design.

Miss Rathbone approached the subject of the always-fascinating work of Milton Avery through two of its most prominent, perceptive collectors. Though not always successful, she was able to show some of Mr. Avery’s lesser-known work, his early and more representational work, and the little-seen works on paper.

WHAT: “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday, through May 16

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 students and senior citizens, free for children under 18 and Phillips Collection members.

PHONE: 202/387-2436

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