Milton Avery - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, colours, form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter. At the same time I try to capture and translate the excitement and emotion aroused in me by the impact with the original idea.' —Milton Avery  

    With his sensitive colour harmonies, and pared down, simplified approach to form, Milton Avery remains one of the most influential American modernists, his evocative landscapes especially expressive of the careful balance between abstraction and observable reality that he achieved. Although the shoreline was a favourite subject of Avery’s that he would return to again and again throughout his career, by the late 1950s, he had begun to radically strip away descriptive detail in order to focus on more formal elements of composition including colour, line, texture and form. Firmly located within his celebrated body of late works, Bird by Wild Sea demonstrates the taut lyricism and refined simplicity that best characterises these mature canvases. 


    Birds have proved to hold an enduring fascination for painters and poets alike, evocative symbols of aspiration, of hope and of the fleetingness of life itself. For Avery, who returned to the subject again and again, seabirds in particular seem to speak to the trials of the painter; especially perhaps one who so often found himself flying against the winds of popular opinion. In more prosaic terms, the inclusion of birds within these landscapes also allowed Avery to balance his increasingly abstract language of shape and colour with more figurative elements. 


    Milton Avery, New York, Photograph by Arnold Newman, 1961

    Luminous and dynamic, the deceptively simple composition of Bird by Wild Sea is executed through a strikingly varied repertoire of brushstrokes – the frothy texture of the choppy waves built up in marks of greens, whites and greys over exposed canvas further energised by the wide and rapid zig-zag strokes of the stormy sky lashing down upon it. Creating a striking counterpoint to the more agitated upper half of the composition, the exaggerated line of the sandy beach and the biomorphic curve of the rocky outcrop grounds and settles the composition, emphasised by the soft wash of layers of warm ochre pigments absorbed directly into the canvas. The variety of textures achieved between the rock, the sand and the waves are especially striking here, as is the sense of volume and form that Avery is able to generate in his radically flattened picture plane through subtle chromatic contrasts.


    Avery’s Legacy and Peter O’Toole                             


    Peter O’Toole with his family seated in front of Gulls in Fog, being offered concurrently in Philips 20th Century and Contemporary Day Sale. Peter O’Toole Papers, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

    Although Avery’s influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting in America is well documented, it was another artist, Patrick Heron, who brought his painting to the attention of Leslie Waddington in London, writing in disbelief from New York ‘Why hasn’t anyone told me about this marvellous painter?’3  Bird by Wild Sea was one of several works that passed through the Waddington Galleries in the 1960s, whose landmark exhibitions from this period did much to secure Avery’s relevance for subsequent generations of artists, a legacy continued to the present day with more recent retrospectives from Victoria Miro and forthcoming with the Royal Academy ensuring the artist’s reputation as a quiet but formidable force of twentieth-century American painting. The present work arrives at auction from the collection of renowned actor Peter O’Toole, an avid and astute collector of antiquities and contemporary art. Most famous for his role as T. E. Lawrence in David Lean’s 1962 cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole purchased the present works directly from Waddington Galleries shortly after the film’s release. 


    Peter O’Toole at home in London, Peter O’Toole Papers, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.


    A Matter of Influence

    'There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush.' —Mark Rothko on Milton Avery

    Despite only visiting Europe once in his lifetime, Avery aligned himself more with European experimentalism than with the American Impressionism and landscape traditions that dominated the academy in the early years of the twentieth century. His economic and fluid sense of line, as well as the interlocking flat areas of colour that his work is most recognised for cemented his reputation as the ‘American Fauvist’, and certainly his portraits and still lifes sit in a comfortable dialogue with the French Master, Henri Matisse, whose 1931 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art did not go unnoticed. Avery’s landscapes however, break ground of their own. Making oblique visual reference to the exaggerated treatment of line and flattened shapes of André Derain’s early Fauve landscapes, Avery modifies the screaming intensity of Derain’s palette in favour of softer, more luminous hues, creating dreamier and emotionally complex compositions.


    André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1906, National Gallery of Art Washington DC Bridgeman Images © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021.
    Mark Rothko, Number 10, 1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    For the generation of emerging New American Painters including titans of post-war American Art Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, Avery’s work was a revelation, and the older artist frequently played host to this younger ‘idolatrous audience’ as they shared their work and ideas in a charged atmosphere of creative exchange throughout the 1930s and 40s.1 Particularly influential for these incipient Abstract Expressionists was what curator and art historian Barbara Haskell has described as Avery’s ‘spectacular ability to handle colour’.2 As Avery’s imagery moved closer to abstraction in the 1940s, his palette shifted to the more carefully weighted sense of colour evident in Bird by Wild Sea. During this period, he also began to experiment with thinning down his paints, creating the deeply harmonic washes of colour that would be so instructive to the evolution of Colour Field painting. Rothko recorded a personal debt to Avery upon the event of his memorial in 1965, recalling the ‘poetry and light’ of his canvases in a world that seemed increasingly dominated by physicality and machismo.


    Collector’s Digest


    •    Bridging European Impressionism and American post-war Colour Field painting, Milton Avery is widely considered as one of the foundational painters of American modernism, as his highly anticipated retrospective opening next month at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Florida, before travelling to the and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts, London will draw on.


    •    Coming to auction from the personal collection of renowned British actor Peter O’Toole who purchased the works directly from Waddington Galleries in the 1960s, these Milton Avery works have an exceptional provenance, and represent an important moment in the establishment of Avery’s reputation in the United Kingdom.


    •    Avery’s works have been exhibited widely in recent years. As well as the upcoming touring retrospective opening at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Florida next month, Victoria Miro also held a significant exhibition of the American artist’s work in 2017, alongside regular, more focussed exhibitions with Waddington Custot.


    1 Mark Rothko, Memorial Address delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, 7 January 1965. 
    2 Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery, (exh. cat.), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1982, p. 14. 

    3 Patrick Heron quoted by Hilton Kramer, ‘Milton Avery’, The New York Times, Nov. 4 1982.

    • Provenance

      The Waddington Galleries, London
      Peter O'Toole (acquired from the above in 1963)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

Works from the Collection of Peter O’Toole


Bird by Wild Sea

signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1961' lower left; signed and titled '''Bird by Wild Sea'' by Milton Avery' on the reverse
oil on canvasboard
56.2 x 71 cm (22 1/8 x 27 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1961.

Full Cataloguing

£120,000 - 180,000 

Sold for £207,900

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021