BENNINGTON, VT — The American Modernist painter Milton Avery was a visionary, and visionaries are always seeking destinations past the horizon. This ambitious quest defined Avery's artistic imagery, in that he always sought the next new place as a setting to help create his art.
So, it was in the summer of 1935, and continuing for the following eight years, that Avery (1885-1965), made his annual pilgrimage to Vermont. The art resulting from or influenced by these treks are the theme for the Bennington Museum's major exhibition of 2016, "Milton Avery's Vermont." The show opens Saturday, July 2, and will run through Nov. 6.
The museum's curator of collections Jamie Franklin said this is the first exhibition to take an intensive look at Avery based upon his summers spent in southern Vermont, specifically in Rawsonville and Jamaica.
"Avery regularly spent his summers traveling with his family in search of fresh subjects for his art," Franklin said. "He was drawn to Vermont by his friend, Meyer Schapiro, one of the most important art historians of the twentieth century, who had owned a summer home here since 1930."
The exhibition, Franklin continued, studies Avery's creative method, and includes works such as pencil sketches drawn outdoors, and subsequent works on paper like watercolors made while in Vermont, and based on those same sketches.
Also, Franklin noted that all of Avery's Vermont oil paintings were studio creations based on plein air sketches, or watercolors and gouaches that were executed in Vermont based on said sketches.
One such work included in the exhibition is also among Avery's most well-known paintings, "Blue Trees." The artist rendered this 1945 painting of a forested and mountainous Vermont vista with both muted and vibrant uses of an unexpected hue.
Scholars and critics have noted the potential of "Blue Trees" to elicit a broad spectrum of reaction from any potential viewer. It's in this manner that Avery became recognized as an innovative, supreme colorist.
Given these and other connections examined in the show, art historian and Bennington Museum executive director Robert Wolterstorff said that the years Avery spent in Vermont were seminal to his maturity as an artist — and key to the public and critical recognition of his talent.
"Certainly, it is not exaggerating to say that Avery became the Avery we know and recognize during precisely the time he was coming to Vermont," Wolterstorff said. "By the end of this period he was on the threshold of acceptance as one of the American masters."
During his time in Vermont, many subjects caught Avery's attention. The presence of his family was key not only in providing character material, but also in helping to foster a vibrant yet secure milieu in which Avery could thrive.
To that end, March Avery Cavanaugh, the artist's daughter, now 83, recalled the highly personal touch of some of her younger years spent in places like Rawsonville and Jamaica. She said being in Vermont was associated with many positive, simple childhood memories.
"The first time I was only 4 and so I do not remember the painting process, only the interests of a child my age," Cavanaugh said. "[There was] a cat we named Ginger, who we rented for the summer, and my 5-year-old birthday party, where we played 'pin the tail on the donkey.' Also, I cut my foot badly on a mowing machine."
Cavanaugh, a well-regarded painter in her own right who was taught by her father, said another summer she recalled well was at age 11. Cavanaugh recounted how every day Avery would take her out to sketch in the morning. Then in the afternoon, her father would paint watercolors from the sketches, and then turn his attention to more fun with the family.
"If the weather was good, we would go for a swim," Cavanaugh said. "It was during the war and food was in short supply. We ate a lot of Spam and traded blueberries we had picked with the local farmers for milk and eggs."
Franklin concluded that perhaps, more than anything, it was moments such as those described by his daughter so many decades later that served as Avery's inspiration. His ensuing work helped him achieve widespread recognition and acclaim in the American art world at the very end of his most productive time in Vermont.
"Avery's Vermont sojourns proved to be a pivotal chapter in the development of the artist's distinctive style," Franklin said. "He captured summer activities with family and friends and developed his highly personal response to the landscape. This helps us appreciate more fully his rare contribution to the history of 20th century American painting."
ON VIEW ...
What: "Milton Avery's Vermont"
When: Opens Saturday, July 2, through Nov. 6
Where: Bennington Museum, 75 Main St., Bennington, Vt.
Cost: Adults, $10; Seniors and Students 18 and over, $9; Children and students under 18, free
Information: 802-447-1571, or benningtonmuseum.org
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist.