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Permanent Collections: Pin Matisse on Avery

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

"Some critics like to pin Matisse on me....But I don't think he has influenced my work." *

It's hard to believe that Milton Avery actually made that statement. Just take a look at some of his paintings, like Tree Fantasy (Whitney Musuem of American Art, New York), March on the Balcony (Phillips Collection, Washington, DC) and Seated Blonde (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis). Avery's brushwork, sophisticated use of color, and his masterful reduction of forms to simple, playful, sketch-like approximations all show a fluent understanding of Matisse's style as well as a skillful appropriation of it. In addition, March on the Balcony is a picture of a woman seated by a window overlooking the sea--a favorite subject of Matisse once he moved to Nice. And where did Avery paint March on the Balcony? Also in the South of France, in St. Tropez.

A lot of space could be spent considering the reasons for and implications of Avery's implausible denial of Matisse's influence. But I don't want to spend my time--or yours--speculating. Instead I'll just be glad that he learned so much from the French master that he created paintings like the one above, Bicycle Rider by the Loire, the next work in my series "Permanent Collections."

As the painting's title indicates, Avery did not restrict himself to the Riviera when in France. Besides a sojourn into the heart of the country, which produced Bicycle Rider by the Loire, Avery traveled to Paris and made at least one picture along the Seine. That painting, The Seine (Whitney Museum) is one of my favorite Avery landscapes. But I've decided to focus on Bicycle Rider by the Loire, simply because it makes me chuckle and because of the institution that owns it, the Flint Institute of Arts.

That's right Flint, Michigan--mostly known for rusting factories, economic woes, and its poisonous water--has an art museum. And Bicycle Rider by the Loire, is a representative example of the impressive quality of the museum's collection of American paintings. If you take look at its website, you'll find that the FIA also owns fine works by Mary Cassatt, Lee Krasner, Jacob Lawrence, and John Singer Sargent. I got a kick out of discovering that the museum owns a painting by Don Eddy, a former teacher of mine.

The FIA also has a fairly extensive group of 19th and early 20th century French paintings, with works by Courbet, Corot, Sisley, Boudin, Renoir, Bonnard and Vuillard. In 2006 the museum a small Matisse painting from 1921.

Bicycle Rider by the Loire was donated to the FIA in 1990, along with paintings by Josef Albers and Willem De Kooning, and a small sculpture by Alexander Calder. All four works were bequeathed to the museum by Mary Mallery Davis. People like Mary Mallery Davis intrigue me. You find their names in museums across the country. The information cards next to paintings tell us that they were generous and fortunate enough to own great works of art. But other than that, who were they?

From a web search, I have discovered that Mary Mallery Davis was a painter, but I haven't learned much more. I'd love to know how she got her hands on Bicycle Rider by the Loire. Maybe she met Avery at one of the various artists' colonies where he spent his summers in the 1950s. Or maybe she met him through other creative circles. Or maybe she simply saw the painting in a gallery and bought it. Who knows?

However Mallery Davis acquired Bicycle Rider by the Loire, the people of Flint are fortunate that she did. I love the enigmatic silliness of the robed figure on two wheels. Is he a monk? Or could the figure be a woman in a long dress? The figure's shrunken head makes the rest of the body seem large in contrast. How does a person of such apparent girth maintain balance? And how does a bike with its rear hub so far off center manage to function properly?

These silly conundrums are the by-products of Avery's thoughtful formal decisions. The small head draws the viewer's attention to the biker's body, an organic shape that stands out against the geometric forms that indicate the river and its bank. When I look at the body, I immediately notice the curved edge of its back crossing the horizontal edge of the far side of the river. This intersection is the most dynamic part of the painting, and it seems to provide the biker with the energy necessary to propel him across the canvas.

The off-center rear hub also activates the picture. If Avery had placed it at the middle of its wheel, the rear hub--like its forward counterpart--would rest on the abutting edges of the river and bank. The bicycle would then seem locked in place, thereby draining the painting of its energy. A simple yet well thought-out decision that makes all the difference. Without it, Bicycle Rider by the Loire would bore, and the Flint Institute of Arts would be a little less remarkable.

*James R. Mellow, "Sun, Surf and Subversion," Art News 81:10 (12/82) p. 80; quoted by Robert Hobbs in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, pg. 49.

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