Milton Avery 1893-1965
1952, pub. 1953
Woodcut 180 x 230 (7 1/8 x 9 1/8) on Japan paper 227 x 375 (8 7/8 x 14 3/4); printed by Steve Pace, New York and published by the Collectors of American Art in an edition of 15
Inscribed ‘Milton Avery' below image b.r. and ‘9/15' below image b.l.; printed inscription ‘M.A' b.r. of image
Purchased at Christie's, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1985
Repr: Harry H. Lunn Jr, Milton Avery Prints 1933-1955, Washington DC 1973, p.63, no. 40.
‘Dawn' was the first block to be cut in a series of 21 woodcuts which Avery made between 1952 and 1955. This period of concentrated activity is significant in that it represents Avery's success, as a printmaker, in combining those stylistic characteristics which had hitherto remained separate in his prints in other media. During the period 1933-1949 Avery completed thirty drypoints, a medium in which the images are characteristically executed as black lines on a white background. In 1949, Avery suffered a heart attack which compelled him to cease working in this medium and also forced him to stop painting. Because of the restrictions imposed by ill health he turned in 1950 to making monotypes. This medium provided him with a less physically demanding means of expression and it also permitted the subtlety of colouring which is a dominant trait of his paintings. These characteristics of colour and linearity were bought together when Avery's health subsequently improved and he commenced making woodcuts. Before printing, the broad flat forms of the block were painted and the tonal density of the resulting image was controlled and varied between impressions through applying different hand pressures to the block. These areas were juxtaposed with the incisions in the block which read as white lines on black when printed. Steve Pace demonstrated the woodcut technique to Avery and was responsible for printing the edition to which ‘Dawn' belongs. Subsequently Avery either printed the blocks himself or with his wife and daughter. It was Avery's practice to vary the impressions taken from the woodblocks and in addition to the use of different pressures on the blocks during printing, he also occasionally added a second colour by inking an uncut face on the block and printing this along with the impression in black. ‘Dawn' was printed in two separate colour editions. The Tate's example belongs to an edition of fifteen printed in black only, but there is a further edition of 100 in yellow and black.
The motif of flying seabirds is one which Avery explored in all media during the 1950s, notably in such works as ‘Diving Gulls' 1957 (ink on paper, repr. Drawings by Milton Avery, exh. cat., Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York 1970, p.12), ‘Birds Over Sea' 1957 (oil on canvas, repr. Milton Avery, exh. cat., The Edmonton Art Gallery, Alberta 1978, p.8), and ‘Plunging Gull' 1960 (oil on canvas, repr. Adelyn D. Breskin, Milton Avery, exh. cat., National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC 1970, no.111). In a letter to the compiler Sally Avery, the artist's widow, has stated that ‘We spent many summers by the sea. The birds were there ... Milton did hundreds of sketches of birds in flight. We have a number.' The image in ‘Dawn' consists of a flying seabird, set against a night sky in which there are four stars and a crescent moon. Sally Avery has commented on the significance of this in the following way: ‘The bird rising from the dark sky anticipated the dawn.' At the same time, unlike the titles of Avery's other prints which are plainly descriptive, there is an apparent disjunction in this case between the image and its title. A possible explanation for this may be that ‘Dawn', being the first work in a medium unfamiliar to Avery, refers to the advent of a new way of working. Some evidence for this view is provided by the fact that the seabird in ‘Dawn', although reminiscent of the central bird in ‘Flight' 1950 (oil on canvas, repr. Art News, Jan. 1985, inside front cover in col.), is treated here in a particularly emblematic way. In more general terms, the seabird in ‘Dawn' exemplifies Avery's statement that ‘I always take something out of my picture ... I strip the design to essentials, the facts do not interest one so much as the essence of nature' (Chris Ritter, ‘A Milton Avery Profile', Art Digest, vol.27, Dec. 1952, pp.11-12), while the stars and moon motifs recall the artist's observation that ‘I never thought of being interested in pattern, but my work always stressed it' (ibid.).
This entry has been approved by the artist's widow, Sally M. Avery.
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.309-10