Wednesday, March 07, 2012

`The Poetry of Sheer Loveliness'

Barbara Haskell reports in Milton Avery (1982):

“The Averys could seldom afford movies; instead, Milton would read aloud at night. When reading to himself, he selected mystery stories, but reading out loud involved the beauty of language, and over the years their reading list included Melville, Proust, Thoreau, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot—ambitious choices for a man with a relatively limited academic background.”

Excuse the condescension of that final phrase. Enjoyment of such writers has nothing to do with a college degree. Consider Avery’s lovely Poetry Reading from 1957, Summer Reader (1950) and Reclining Reader (1950). His paintings are notably civilized and celebrative, never “subversive.” Hilton Kramer said of Avery, “There is scarcely a more refined aesthetic intelligence in American art than his…” (Milton Avery: Paintings 1930-1960, 1962). Alfred J. Appel would have placed him on “the top, shortest Yes Celebratory Shelf,” with Stevens, Marianne Moore and the painter whose sensibility most resembles Avery’s, Henri Matisse. Look at Avery’s Blue Trees and Matisse’s The Blue Window.

About Avery’s connections with Wallace Stevens, Robert Hobbs writes in Milton Avery: The Late Paintings (2001):

“Both had lived for extended periods in or near Hartford, Connecticut; both were committed to the ongoing project of modern art; both had benefitted from substantial and lasting connections with New York City; and incidentally, but not inconsequentially, both had worked for insurance companies, so that practicalities found a place in their poetics.”

Look at Avery’s Birch-Trees in Snow (1954) and read Stevens’ “The Snow Man”:

“…the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

Avery was born on this date in 1885, in Altmar, N.Y., fifty miles north of Syracuse, and died Jan. 3, 1965. In a tribute to his friend read at Avery’s funeral four days later, Mark Rothko said:

“Avery is first a great poet. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness, of sheer beauty. Thanks to him this kind of poetry has been able to survive in our time.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Calling a painter a poet is an interesting concept, like calling sight hearing. “Ut picture poesis,” [As is painting is poetry] says Horace, following Plato and Aristotle. Wallace Stevens agreed, noting how often painterly details are of interest to poets and vice-versa, concluding “it would be possible to study poetry by studying painting, or that one could become a painter after one had become a poet.” This would make no sense in China, of course, where deciding what part of the work is painting and what part poem requires discernment worthy of the most brilliant scholars. In the West, though, it’s more obscure, as are most discussions of aesthetics. I remember Paul Klee, in particular, being labeled a poet, I suppose because there’s so much literal/symbolic meaning in his paintings not just formal properties. What other names would follow this standard: Goya, Caravaggio, Breughel, Delacroix? Does that mean El Greco, da Vinci, Rembrandt and Courbet are not poets? Of American painters, I think Edward Hopper is the closest to having the sensibility of a poet, in that he calls upon us to see what is not there, the poignant aura coming off of things, the inward human dimension that would get painted over by representations. I see that quality in these lovely Milton Avery paintings as well, the “furious beating” [to quote from a particularly painterly Stevens poem, “Grey Room”] behind the postures. I do also see Matisse, in the colors and distended shapes, but it’s a flintier, more American version of it, keeping its relentless elegance and the styles of a veritable gallery of modernists, from Cezanne to Jacob Lawrence, at a respectful distance. As he got older, though, I do see more of an outright embrace of Rothko’s aesthetic, which is also to my view sublimely poetic, seeking out the purest essence of feeling, unencumbered by all the shapes and distractions we settle for labeling as ourselves.

All of this is a roundabout way to say how jealous I am that you live in Houston, where Rothko’s Chapel, his Sistine Chapel, can be seen in all its purple transcendence.