If You Like Mark Rothko, You'll Love Milton Avery

These artists sought to use subtle colour to evoke deep, lasting, emotional experiences

By Google Arts & Culture

No. 5 (Untitled) (1949/1949) by Mark RothkoChrysler Museum of Art

Mark Rothko, No.5, 1949

Melancholic? Meditative? Mark Rothko's paintings inspire many thoughts. These color field paintings sit somewhere between abstract expressionism and optical illusion. They're meant to be absorbed over time, and your feelings about them might change.

Rothko painted for decades, moving through varying styles, from Impressionism to Surrealism, before he settled on his signature color field works. This particular painting was one of the first, dated 1949.

Look carefully. See how the colours move gently between dark and light. Notice how the edges blur into one another - only slightly. Think about the time it took to paint these. These are delicate, careful paintings, even if they are enormous.

Rothko wanted viewers to be 'enveloped within' the vertical canvas. In his view, small paintings made you feel like an outsider, large paintings drew you in. Sometimes, the larger the painting, the more intimate the experience.

The art critic Harold Rosenberg considered these works to be a revelation. Ever since their unveiling, they have been regarded as some of the greatest artworks of the Twentieth Century.

Night Harbor (1957) by Milton AveryChrysler Museum of Art

Milton Avery, Night Harbor, 1957

But Rothko didn't develop his paintings alone. He was inspired in-part by Milton Avery. In fact, it was Avery who inspired Rothko to become a professional artist in the first place.

In the 1930s, Avery's distinctly modernist paintings attracted a group of young artists: Adolph Gottlieb, John Graham, Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, Louis Schanker, as well as Rothko. The group spent time working and vacationing together, and exchanging ideas on art.

In the minds of these artists, Avery's work remained resolutely representative - it drew on images and objects, rather than feelings or thoughts.

Given the growing importance of conceptual art over the second half of the century, perhaps this is why Avery's paintings didn't achieve the same fame as Rothko's, despite the fact that Avery shows the same careful consideration for color.

The placement of paint isn't random, but it isn't strictly ordered. Dark and light blues appear and disappear across the subtle canvas. His brush seems to have barely touched the canvas.

See how the thin gold band separates the lower field of fluctuating blues from the calmer, solid upper band. This simple band offers only the suggestion of a horizon separating sea and sky.

Night Harbor represents the ocean as seen from Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Avery spent the summer of 1957 with Rothko. Painted toward the end of his life, this simply composed work is the most abstract of his career.

Avery died in 1965 at the age of 79, after succumbing to a long illness. Later that year, Rothko gave a commemorative lecture on Milton Avery at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where he described Avery's work…

"What was Avery's repertoire? His living room, Central Park, his wife Sally, his daughter March, the beaches and mountains where they summered; cows, fish heads, the flight of birds; his friends and whatever world strayed through his studio: a domestic, unheroic cast…"

"…But from these there have been fashioned great canvases, that far from the casual and transitory implications of the subjects, have always a gripping lyricism, and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt."

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