Milton Avery - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, June 24, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Painted in 1958, Milton Avery’s Tree by the Sea is a nostalgic rendering of one of the 20th century artist’s quintessential seascapes. Having been housed in the same esteemed collection of Robin Quist Gates for more than three decades, this work is a testament to not only Avery’s prowess as an abstract landscape painter, but also to the eye of the collector who treasured it.

    "I like to seize the one sharp instant in Nature, to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving apparently nothing but color and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea—expressed in its simplest form."
    —Milton Avery

    Provincetown, Massachusetts


    Beginning in the mid to late 1950s, Avery vacationed each summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he fell in love with the serene New England waterfront. In 1957, other artists including Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb joined him there, also drawn to the town for its beauty. It was during this later part of the decade that Avery, whose success as a colorist undoubtedly influenced the younger generation of abstract and color field painters like Rothko and Gottlieb beside him, moved more and more towards abstraction himself. And yet, though more abstract, Avery’s output from the late 1950s still featured shapes and horizon lines to suggest his chosen subject matter, often defined by his simple titles such as Tree by the Sea. These new works were lauded by critics, whose praise in turn propagated support for his 1960 retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York just a couple years later.


    The “American Fauve”


    Henri Matisse, La Moulade, 1905. © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
    Henri Matisse, La Moulade, 1905. © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

    In Tree by the Sea, Avery breaks the composition into four discrete bands: a textured white sky is separated from a blue ocean, which is then further juxtaposed with a sandy dune and the foreground. Seated in the left foreground is the titular tree, leaning off the composition. The multiple horizon lines used here replace the slanted diagonals used in Avery’s earlier works, resulting in a balanced and harmonious composition. In this work, his palette is restricted to cool blues, creamy whites and pastel yellows, another stark contrast from the moodier tones used in paintings from decades prior. No matter what palette was used, however, it was the artist’s unique ability to define composition purely by color rather than line and form that has solidified his reputation as “the American Fauve.” Indeed, Avery’s compositions of the Eastern coastline recall the same use of color blocking and patterned paint application employed in some of Henri Matisse’s depictions of the South of France, as in La Moulade, 1905. As Hilton Kramer eloquently espoused, Avery was “without question, our greatest colorist…. Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.”i

    i Hilton Kramer, “Our Greatest Colorist,” The New York Times, April 12, 1981, online.

    • Provenance

      Waddington Galleries Ltd., London
      Robin Quist Gates, California (acquired from the above in October 1985)
      Thence by descent from the above to the present owner

Property from the Collection of Robin Quist Gates


Tree by the Sea

signed and dated "Milton Avery 1958" lower right; signed, titled and dated ""Tree by the Sea" by Milton Avery 1958" on the reverse
oil on canvasboard
21 7/8 x 28 in. (55.6 x 71.1 cm)
Painted in 1958, this work is accompanied by a letter of opinion from the Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 250,000 

Sold for $378,000

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021