The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Milton Avery and Louise Nevelson at the Lowe Museum (2002)

Miami Art Exchange. Also posted on newCrit, January 2002.

Although the Lowe Museum rents its exhibitions rather than curates them there are certainly good ones out there to be rented. They recently got an excellent show of flat pieces by the Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith and now there are exhibits of two of the big names of American Modernism: Milton Avery and Louise Nevelson (to Jan. 20). Given the arid environment for good modernist work in Miami these are a must-see for anyone interested in this kind of art, or art in general, for that matter.

Milton Avery was a very good artist and an interesting and unusual one. Born in 1885, he spent his formative years and his early career in Connecticut, painting Impressionist landscapes and the like. In 1925, when he was 40, he moved to New York City and began to mature as an artist. At that time, and through the depression years of the 30s, the dominant trends of American painting were American Scene and Social Realism. Avery never cared for art with messages; he was a "pure" painter, more interested in the pleasures of painting than its use for non-art purposes, and he aligned himself with Matisse and the Fauves, evolving a simplified "primitive" style of distorted figures and broad, flat, barely modulated areas of bright and subtle color.

He must have seemed an oddity in an art world of patriotic countrysides and bitter social commentary and the countervailing sophistication of the radical geometric abstract painting then evolving in New York. But with hindsight it can be said that, along with Hans Hofmann, a very different artist whose lifetime coincided almost exactly with and whose career bears eerie parallels to Avery's, he brought Matisse to New York, and by so doing had a far greater effect on the best subsequent painting than any of the trends that dominated the time. Both men influenced Abstract Expressionism: Hofmann through his school and Avery by example and through his close relationship with Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. Both men matured late in their art and both were ultimately influenced by the artists they had influenced in the first place. They were in their 60s when Abstract Expressionism began to flower, and they were inspired in turn, painting their best pictures in its wake.

Unfortunately there are almost none of these late pictures in the show, especially the larger, radically simplified landscapes of the late 50s which are acknowledged (and I agree) as his best. The one example - Waterfall, 1954 - along with the very few earlier figureless landscapes (my favorite was a watercolor, Trees and Hills, 1943) are the best paintings there. For some reason, Roy Neuberger, founder of the Neuberger Museum which organized the exhibit, seems to have been drawn to and collected the earlier and more figurative work, and that's what we get. Too bad. But go see it anyway. An ordinary Avery is still an extraordinary painting, a delight to the eye and a palliative to the grim silliness so much in evidence in Miami (and everywhere else) these days.

Louise Nevelson was very much on the scene when I was growing up as an artist in the 50s. Her sculpture was everywhere, in group and solo shows, Whitney Annuals (they were Annuals back then, and this exhibit was organized by the Whitney), and so forth. I have never been a big fan of Nevelson and this presentation does nothing to change my mind. Quite the opposite, in fact; with the liveliness of the Smith show fresh in my mind the overfinished inertness I saw here was accentuated all the more.

The dominant work at the Lowe is her trademark boxes, stacked on the floor against the wall facing forward, filled with various kinds of "found" scrap wood, all painted a uniform charcoal black. I had always heard, and it was affirmed by Ray Cotta at the museum, that she did not care in what order or sequence the boxes are stacked.

In fact, I doubt that it would make any difference. I guess to her this was a way of saying every box is so wonderful it doesn't matter; to me it is indicative of indifference to the integrity of the art. There are a few stacks painted white or gold, and a number of tall thin pieces and some prints and collages and other flat work. A couple of the small collages are nice.

When I look at the stacks, unable to perceive any sign of life, I can't help imagining that some wise god of art has taken all the bits and pieces of used Cubism floating around in the art world, sorted them as efficiently as possible and put them in "mothballs", like the Navy does with old vessels. The sculptures are very tidy and nicely put together - enclosed, constrained, static, impassive and dull, like specimen drawers in a natural history museum - and any subversive hint of surface variety is effectively squelched by the uniform black coat of paint. Any number of wonderful pieces could be made from the varied and interesting wooden forms packed into the boxes, open, unpainted sculptures perhaps, freely composed in the vigorous 20th Century tradition of open sculpture Picasso started with his Guitars and continued by Gonzalez, Smith, Caro and so many others. In fact, aside from the mildly interesting Night-Focus-Dawn, 1969, which employs some of the sequencing repetition in vogue in the late 60s, the best pieces in the show were the two sculptures which were, in fact, open: the quite figurative model for Night Presence, 1955, and, near the entrance, Present Universe III, 1985, probably the best piece in the show despite its awkward pedestal.

Because Nevelson's work has been around for so long, as I have, I have had occasion to talk it over with art people now and then, over the years. My impression is that those who like Nevelson's art go for the very characteristics which make it look like art while assuring, ironically, that it fails as art. The large size is imposing but allows an inhibiting overcomplexity; the blackness is theatrical but prevents any interesting variety of surface; the Cubist set-up has that "art look" but the closed, packed, squared-up construction hinders any kind of lively interaction between the parts. These folks seem to go for the dramatic overtones and fail to recognize that there isn't much art there.

Anyway, for better or worse, it is a show worth seeing, if only to get your take on one of the big sculpture reputations of the postwar period of American art.