Milton Avery’s greatest works were completed toward the end of his career, after 1947, when he investigated figure paintings and landscapes in broad bands of jubilant colors. There is a feeling of quiet joyfulness around these late compositions that can be exhilarating in its simplicity. This joy is vitally connected with the simplicity of form and unique presentation of palette.
Scholars have struggled over the past 60 years to find an appropriate manner in which to classified Avery as a painter. He has been called “American Fauve”, “America’s Matisse”, even “Abstract Impressionist” as Elaine de Kooning used the term in the 1950s. She was attempting to describe the works painted alongside those of the Abstract Expressionism movement where the artists implemented grittier brushstrokes and broader gestures against more challenging topics. Avery recognized the greatness of these works, particularly the major paintings by Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko who were among Avery’s closest allies, but he turned his attention to serenity and harmony within the absence of anger and anxiety to craft his own unique view of beauty. In hindsight we can now recognize the significant impact that Avery’s late work had in this environment, particularly in its alliance with the works of the Color Field painters.
In 1957, the influential critic Clement Greenberg praised Avery’s work upon seeing in it a subtle sophistication and beauty. Greenberg’s comments sparked considerable interest in Avery’s recent paintings and opened doors for retrospective exhibitions. Avery's reputation was solidified in 1962, with Hilton Kramer’s first major book on Avery’s art.
Avery’s later works are created in two modes. His studio works, painted in Provincetown and New York are generally painted on a massive scale, often with canvases 5 or 6 feet across. The use of this scale was certainly emblematic of the day, but also indicated Avery’s growing confidence in his art. He was surer of form and mood in these later works and embraced the growing stature of the canvases. In his works on paper, like Crescent Reef, Avery sometimes experimented with oil pigment on paper rather than watercolor, which was his preferred medium earlier in his career. In the best of these works on paper there is an interesting texture to the surface that further develops the composition.
One of Avery’s lasting contributions is the unique and flamboyant manner in which he deployed color. Crescent Reef is a perfect example of this with Avery’s bright green sea, flaming red brushstrokes in the foliage and the other compositional elements displayed in Avery’s signature style.