Milton Avery

Yellow Sky

1958

On display at Tate Liverpool

Artist
Milton Avery 1893–1965
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1562 x 1841 mm
frame: 1615 x 1895 x 75 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Mr and Mrs Philip G. Cavanaugh through the American Federation of Arts 1963
Reference
T00575

Summary

Yellow Sky is a large abstract interpretation of a landscape that comprises deeply coloured, simplified shapes. The predominant colours are yellow, dark grey, blue-green and black. A band of deep yellow – the ‘yellow sky’ of the work’s title – forms the top of the composition and underneath it is a strip of black resembling a horizon. This is flanked by two large, grey, boulder-like shapes, between which runs a yellow vertical strip reminiscent of a pathway, lending depth to the image. A strip of pale blue-green meanders across the canvas under the grey rocky shapes, beginning at a ‘pool’ on the left and moving in a broadly diagonal direction, splitting the canvas horizontally into roughly two parts. The lower part of the canvas bears a further expanse of yellow which, defined by the winding, river-like line, takes the shape of a mountainous region or plain. The areas of paint vary in tone while the overall effect is of a composition that adheres to the flatness of the picture plane.

This work was made by the American artist Milton Avery in 1958. The artist thinned his oil paint by adding turpentine then painted it onto the canvas in dry layers. His brushwork is clearly visible and the expanses of thinly applied colour appear patchy, helping to give the scene its flattened effect.

Yellow Sky was painted after Avery visited Provincetown in Cape Cod. He spent the summers of 1957, 1958 and 1959 undertaking sketches and watercolours of the surrounding area, and on returning to his New York studio he would develop the scenes into compositions reduced to simplified colours and shapes. This often led to his works, such as Yellow Sky, appearing simultaneously abstract and representational. As the curator Adelyn Breeskin wrote in 1960: ‘The distortion of his shapes is bold but accurate, and his simplifications always retain sufficient identity with his subject to be entirely readable’ (Breeskin 1960, p.4).

The painting constitutes a relatively late work in Avery’s career, having been made seven years before his death in 1965. Avery’s work had been visible on the New York art scene since 1928, with his first solo exhibition taking place that year at Opportunity Gallery. The art critic Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Times in 1982, identified Avery as one of the earliest American artists to fully embrace the ‘innovations’ of the European modernists during the 1930s and claimed he ‘had the finest eye for color in the entire history of American painting’, with French painter Henri Matisse (1969–1954) being a strong influence. However, as Kramer pointed out, Avery’s modernist leanings came at a time when ‘supporters of the American Scene painters and the Social Realists of the 1930s considered an art like Avery’s to be alien both to native experience and to the political imperatives of the Depression era’. (Hilton Kramer, ‘Milton Avery’, New York Times, 4 November 1982, http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/04/news/milton-avery.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 26 January 2017.)

In December 1957 the critic Clement Greenberg, writing in Arts magazine, described Avery’s paintings as ‘unmistakably and authentically American’. Referring to the artist’s Provincetown works, such as Yellow Sky, he described them as ‘a new and more magnificent flowering of his painting’. Greenberg went on to propose:

It is time [Avery] were given a full-scale retrospective by a New York museum, not for the sake of his reputation but for the sake of the situation of art in New York. The latest generation of abstract painters in New York has certain salutary lessons to learn from him that they cannot learn from any other artist on the scene.
(Clement Greenberg, reproduced in O’Brian 1995, p.44.)

Greenberg’s suggestion was ultimately taken up by the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York, which staged Avery’s retrospective in 1960. The exhibition was curated by the American Federation of Arts and included Yellow Sky among its exhibits (see Breeskin 1960).

While there is much about Avery’s painting which is reminiscent of the work of the abstract expressionists (and particularly colour field painters such as Mark Rothko) the artist never moved towards total abstraction in quite the same way as those he influenced. Rothko nonetheless paid tribute to his friend in a commemorative essay written for Avery’s memorial service in 1965. As a young artist welcomed into Avery’s studios, Rothko described the painter as covering the walls with a ‘changing array of poetry and light’ which ‘penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush’ (Rothko in Haskell 1982, p.181).

Further reading
Adelyn Breeskin, Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue, American Federation of Arts, New York 1960, reproduced p.33.
Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1982.
John O’Brian (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969, Chicago 1995.

Lucinda Towler
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Catalogue entry

Milton Avery 1893-1965

T00575 Yellow Sky 1958

Inscribed 'Milton Avery 1958' b.r. and '"YELLOW SKY" | by | Milton Avery | 1958 | 60 x 72' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 61 1/2 x 72 1/2 (156 x 184)
Presented by Mr and Mrs Philip G. Cavanaugh through the American Federation of Arts 1963
Prov: Mr and Mrs Philip G. Cavanaugh (the artist's daughter and son-in-law)
Exh: Milton Avery, Whitney Museum, New York, February-March 1960 and US tour, 1960-1 (33, repr.)
Repr: Hilton Kramer, Milton Avery: Paintings 1930-1960 (New York-London 1962), pl.13; Ronald Alley, Recent American Art (London 1969), pl.5

The artist stated (letter of 14 August 1963): 'I had spent that summer on Cape Cod at Provincetown and had made many notes of the surrounding countryside. From one of these notes I painted a large watercolor and it was from this watercolor that I developed "Yellow Sky".'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.25, reproduced p.25

Explore