Milton Avery - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session New York Thursday, November 18, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Brimming with playful movement, Milton Avery’s Sea and Stars hovers between the representational and the abstract, the stars leaping over a wave in a melodic arc. Here, Avery elegantly distills the sea and sky into simplified forms. The painting was executed in 1951 as the artist faced major changes in his career, resulting in a dramatic evolution of both style and technique. One of the greatest American Modernists in history, Avery’s commitment to the representational differentiated him from the Abstract Expressionists. And yet, he also stood apart from the American scene painters of the 1930s, often simplifying his landscapes to biomorphic forms and foregoing spatial perspective. In Sea and Stars, what may first be perceived as a cloud is revealed to be, upon closer inspection, the titular sea, positioned so high on the horizon that the wave appears to almost touch the moon itself.

    "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


    Mark Rothko, Green on Blue (Earth-Green and White), 1954, The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    The 1950s marked a transition in Avery’s style, as he began to distance himself from the works of Henri Matisse and French Fauvism.  During the mid 1940s, Avery joined the prestigious Paul Rosenberg & Co., which at the time represented major European artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. A few years later, the artist suffered from a debilitating heart attack in 1949 and left Paul Rosenberg & Co. in 1950. While recovering from his heart attack, he began to experiment with monotype printing, as he was too weak to paint. He would rapidly produce prints in quick succession, applying thin pigments to a surface, often printing the image while it was still wet. Elements of these printing techniques are echoed in the transparency of pigment in Sea and Stars. This is seen most clearly in the gestural blue-grey coat of paint softening the borders of the composition, akin to Mark Rothko’s color fields. As Robert Hobbs stated of Avery’s late paintings like this work, “There is a lyric intensity in the landscape and seascape paintings of Avery’s last period that is unlike anything else in the art of our time. As in the late paintings of Cézanne and Matisse, many of these pictures are characterized by an inspired concision, as if the painter were attempting to summarize and quintessentialize everything that he knew and felt and wanted to see realized in painting.”  

    • Provenance

      Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1992)
      Sotheby's, New York, September 14, 1995, lot 234
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Summer 1991
      New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Sun and Moon Paintings, January 4–February 1 1992, n.p.

    • Literature

      Holland Cotter, "Art in Review: Milton Avery," The New York Times, January 10, 1992, p. 72

Property of an Esteemed East Coast Collector


Sea and Stars

signed and dated "Milton Avery 1951" lower left; signed, titled and dated ""SEA and STARS" by Milton Avery 1951" on the reverse
oil on canvas
34 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. (86.7 x 96.8 cm)
Painted in 1951.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 400,000 

Sold for $352,800

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 18 November 2021