Reflections on Milton Avery’s Whitney museum retrospective September 16– December 5, 1982
I was preparing my mind for my annual ten-day visit to New York City to see my parents. Fortunately, I was able to combine my filial duty with a visit to the cultural Mecca that is N.Y.C. I had taken up residence in San Francisco in October 1974. In advance of my trip my mother Vivian mailed me newspaper clippings
From the New York Times magazine section containing an article
on a big retrospective of the art of Milton Avery, this exhibition would be "on" at Whitney Museum during my visit to New York. She told me I must see the exhibit while I was in New York.
A Little bit about my mother, she had studied painting at the Brooklyn Museum school in the 50's and early 60's and although she had given up on her art, she made a habit of going to galleries and museums regularly in Manhattan and reading about the New York city art scene. After I received and perused the article my Mom and I spoke on the phone. I told her that from what I could see the paintings were not of interest to me. I said the paintings looked simple and flat and Avery’s work was not my cup of tea.
My aesthetic at that point was rooted and inspired in a passionate, painterly, expressionistic approach utilizing texture and saturated opaque color. I had also just discovered non-figurative or abstract art, especially Pollock, DeKooning and Kline.
On the free admission night at the museum I arranged to meet my mother and one of her friends at the museum. After spending an afternoon around the various galleries and neighborhoods in Manhattan I was waiting in the lobby of the Whitney for the time to arrive when I would be admitted to the galleries without paying. A friendly museum guard noticed me waiting on the bench in the lobby. He asked me if I was waiting to see the show. I said yes and He admitted me 20 minutes before the free time I was able to view the art in relative privacy.
I have an acute eye for viewing and analyzing art. I began to take in and absorb the art starting with
Avery’s early works on a lower floor. I was immediately struck by his unique simplicity of form and composition. I proceeded up to the next floor where his later works were hung. The works where mainly landscapes of the mountains and the sea shore where he and his family summered from their home in their apartment in Midtown Manhattan. These Oil Paintings were larger and simpler with fewer elements. My soul was quieted and exhilarated at the same time. Large fields of color were suffused with a spiritual glow. Their simplicity was deceptive. They were powerful and masterful. I entered into an almost religious reverie.
By now the galleries of the Whitney Museum were being filled with New York City's "art going public". They were mainly a hip urbane, arty and fashionable group, I spotted my mother and her friend among them.
I had to abandon my reverie to address them. I told my mother to please forget my previous comments about Milton Avery’s art. I had viewed the small reproductions she mailed me through the limited prejudices of my big artist's ego. This precipitated my ignorant and opinionated pre- judgment of his work. I had been lucky enough to spend nearly 30 minutes alone with his masterpieces via the kindness of the museum guard who admitted me early on the free night. I was now a convert. I declared "Avery is one of the great masters of 20th Century American Art'. However now that the moneylenders had entered the temple (according to my grand religious metaphor) I would be exiting the Museum.
I thanked her for telling me about the Milton Avery retrospective. I fled out into the darkness of the Madison Avenue night, newly enriched by my experience. To this day I consider Milton Avery to be a Modern Master.
Milton Avery, Rocky Coast, 1944-1945
The following describes an experience I had meeting Imogen Cunningham at her one woman show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
In 1971 I was enrolled at California College of Arts and Crafts( CCAC ) located in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland CA. I was 20 years old, an art student majoring in painting. I was skeptical as to whether photography was a true art form. When it came to art, music, philosophy and history, I would describe myself as an iconoclast. I decided to take a History of Photography class in order to draw my own conclusions. Jack Welpott taught the class of about 15 students. He was a dedicated fine art photographers as well as our knowledgeable guide to the history of photography.
I learned about Matthew Brady who was a pioneer of the technique of the Daguerreotype. He visually chronicled the Civil War including scenes of the troops, portraits of Lincoln and his generals. I also learned to appreciate the work and the artistry of Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams. I had recently camped out at Yosemite National Park for the first time as part of a summertime hitchhiking exploration of the natural wonders of The Golden State.Ansel Adam's black and white photographs conveyed the magnificent splendor of this awe inspiring National Park.
After a couple of weeks of listening to Mr. Welpott's informative lectures and reviewing slides of great photographs, I became convinced of photography's viability as a true art form. There is certainly is a vast difference between snapshots taken by amateur photographers and the fine art photography of the masters. A great photographer develops a mastery of composition and light. They must carefully consider their choice of subject matter and point of view. The best are as skilled, dedicated, inspired, gifted, eccentric, and idiosyncratic as any good painter.
The highlight of the class was when we got to meet Imogen Cunningham the famous photographer and Proto – Feminist. She was having a one woman show at the de Young Museum located in Golden Gate Park. Fortunately, my teacher Jack knew her well enough to ask her if she would accompany our class while we visited her show. I had seen some of Ms Cunningham's Photos in the class projected as slides, but otherwise did not know much about her nor seen the actual prints.
We picked her up in our instructor's car at her house on Green Street in San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood The house was a Victorian set back from the sidewalk with a second story porch overlooking a wild garden. Miss Cunningham was 87 years old. she wore a loose fitting dress with a bold colorful print, she had a large Peace Sign dangling from her neck. Upon entering the car, she inquired if there were any women in the class, there were none in our car. Mr. Welpott reassured her there were women students in the other car, they would be meeting us at the museum.
In a medium size Gallery, we were surrounded by approximately 20-25 of her photographs. I was able to speak with her personally. Firstly she volunteered that she thought some of the photos were not that good. She said"it's terrible, once you become famous ,people will no longer tell you the truth about your work". We were standing near a photo of a nude in nature, it exuded sensuality and earthiness. The background was misty and expressionist. I asked her who the model was ,she said that's me. I was shocked that the woman before me was one in the same as the figure in the photo hanging on the Museum Gallery wall. It was an early Life Lesson for me concerning the temporal nature of "this mortal coil" as Shakespeare terms it.
One of the students who was a photographer pointed at a portrait of Morris Graves, a well-known painter of the Northwest school and asked Imogene if she "burned" the image to achieve a marvelous luminous light. She said, "no, the light was coming through the floorboards of the porch above and was cast upon the painter's face suffusing it with that glow". She further stated that she never altered any of her photos in the darkroom, she either printed the negatives or disposed of them. This was startling to my photographer classmates who did a lot of altering of their works in the dark room.
These were the highlights of our meeting with Ms Cunningham at the de Young in 1971 as I recall them. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet this American Master. This event left a lasting impression on me that has inspired me to this day.
Photo by Jack Welpott, © 1971
My Early Discovery of Painting and the Transformation of my Art from Figurative to Abstract
1. Flashback:Re-creation of my Awakening!
It is 1959 in Queens New York, I am 8 years old and my mother Vivian is 34 years old, we sit together with art books she shows me reproductions of impressionist and modern paintings From the late 19th and the early 20th century and speaks to me about the artists and their work My mother is an art student at the Brooklyn Museum School she is studying figure drawing and painting with ReubenTam and Yonia Fain,two very fine artists who had long careers as artists and educators
She recited a litany of names of great painters including Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Modigliani and Picasso .Their names captivated me . I discovered the magic of art and felt that i wanted to devote my life to it. At 18 years old I embraced art as my life's purpose.No other vocation inspired that kind of passion or interest in me.
2. My Meaning Of Art
The rudimentary meaning of Art is visual self-expression manifested as an object. For me Art is a calling. The true artist is both shaman and philosopher . I strive to translate and synthesize the culture and life of the past , present and future(Perhaps artist are are oracles as well) into totems that express and symbolize energy ,essences and truth For future and present civilization. One must be receptive to all aspects and elements of many disciplines and art forms.So as to be able to incorporate them into one's own art form.These Sources of inspiration include archaeology, anthropology, psychology ,science fiction ,history Music and Dance. The greatest artistic manifestations are works that are infused with soulful essence of the human spirit.This type of art is not merely clever technique or Style, nor is it primarily an intellectual exercise or aesthetic acrobatics. This is the art to which I have pledged
my efforts. The artist must have great conviction and be steadfast and courageous because there is no guarantee of worldly Rewards for following this path.
3. Moving From Figurative to Abstract Painting
When I first declared my devotion ,dedication and passion for Art I was an adherent of Figurative Art (1970)As a Humanist I believed that in order to express the human condition I must depict the human form and the world I could see.The manner(or style) that I worked in was painterly, visceral and expressionistic.My Initial influences were the post impressionists VanGogh,Gauguin and the Fauves. Then I added the Expressionists Kokoschka,Nolde and Munch.
My first inspiration to move from figurative to abstract Art was Kandinsky whose paintings at the Museum of Modern Art I’d admired for a long time.In 1979 I started to devote some pages in my sketchbook to abstract (non-figurative) works.I still hesitated to commit to doing larger more developed works on canvas.
In 1981 I had a revelation that pushed me past my self imposed barrier. I discovered a book in the main branch of the SF Public Library titled Energy Made Visible on the life and work of Jackson Pollock by BH Friedman(published in 1972).Until I read this book I did not understand the importance of Pollock.
The artistic movement that he spearheaded carried Kandinsky’s revolution further and created more freedom for the artist.I realized I could dispense with figures and objects as focal points within the picture plane of my paintings.I also realized there could be more immediacy in the process without preliminary sketches.The freedom and courage of Pollock reenforced my will to make Abstraction the main focus of my artistic pursuits.