M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT
"The visual...is the subject of painting." ---Patrick Heron
"The artist's function is the mythologization of the environment and the world." ---Joseph Campbell
Milton Avery's Girl in wicker chair  (1944) is one of the best modern paintings in the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) collection. Perhaps only the Juan Gris, "Still life with guitar," 1917, is more importantthough not better.

Palazzo Barberini Rome

The Avery is an advanced work, and it instructs on many levels—chromatically, technically, formally/compositionally, as well as intellectually. The following is based on my notes of 8.29.98, one of the many days I've spent time pondering—in awe and wonder—this small masterwork.
Here are 7 qualities of this sleeper that are worth observing:
1. Amplitude
Underlying the painting's relaxed and wonderfully cheerful character is rigorous control of the spatial attributes of actuality and illusion, allowing us to look simultaneously at the stunning two-dimensional surface and deep into the light and elegant spatial matrix. The spatial dimension is in flux, alternating constantly between a flattened z-dimensionless world of paint and a deep expansive spatial void of surprising amplitude. Various devices set up this tension, much of which is activated by the ambiguity as to whether the curtains are floor length or sill length. I.E., is the two-part idiosyncratic lavender-rose figure that spans the center of the painting (interrupted by the girl in wicker chair) a vertical wainscot in a traditional room? Or is it rather, as I prefer to see it, an extension of the horizontal plane, thus functioning as the threshold between inside and outside in a modern room? In the first case, the space seems compressive, shallow, and contained. In the second, it seems expansive, deep, and unbounded. These two different perceptions coexist, endowing the painting with an almost magical spatial flux, as the wainscot-floor figure folds up one second and down the next.
Consequently, the question I find myself asking? How BIG is that room??? It seems at once ridiculously large and claustrophobic. It strikes me as a fresh and relaxed place of surprising spatial generosity, yet a place that intimately contains the impenetrable seclusion of the contemplative figure within her sheltered private world. This is the stunning result of Avery's subtle conscious game of spatial flattening/recession.
2. Chroma
Avery's remarkable color intelligence is expressed through finely tuned chromatic relationships. The palette is edgy, quirky, intriguing, at once representational and a departure from "reality"—best seen perhaps in the pink birch tree and bark-like curtains. The high-value luminous lemon yellow (an irregular trapezoid, functioning, through flattening and recession, as a diaphanous gridded xy-plane—a window—as well as an uncannily deep z-axial horizontal plane—a landscape) is rendered with such refinement and finesse that it somehow magically, ironically, yields the exterior somber and the interior sun drenched and gay. As if the light from outside is on loan to the inside. Borrowed light.
The reds of the lower half of the painting combine with the yellow of the upper half to form a vibrant warm surface that advances optically, thus asserting the xy planar structure and "truth" of the flatness of the painting. At the same time, interpreted illusionistically, the perspectival recession of these 4 interconnected figures provides continuity of the horizontal field, or ground plane, as it extends from inside to outside in z-space. This double-reading reinforces and contributes to the underlying theme: dramatic tension between spatial compression and expansion, that is, between plane and volume, shallow space and deep space.

In a way, the painting is a simple stage, artfully composed, for playing out forms of resistance.

3. Temperament
The theme of flattening/recession or compression/expansion of the picture space is signified by, and encapsulated in, the spatial disposition of the woman (in the wicker chair) herself. Thus setting up what I would call a temperamental tension, expressed mainly as an ambiguity between restlessness and repose. This, too, is central to the underlying structure of the painting. The implication of movement, a dancing lilting lyricism, intertwines with stasis and calm. The girl seems to be not only sitting, but also standing (if not doing a jig). She is at once upright and reclining. We perceive her one moment as tilted forward, standing on her right leg, and the next moment as sitting and leaning back deep into the chair. You might say she suggests a counterbalancing subtext, complementary to the suggestions of the painting's title. And one that functions as a kind of subordinate shadow reading. For, as I see it, she is as much "Girl standing in front of wicker chair" as she is "Girl in wicker chair." She oscillates between potential and kinetic energy . . . and seems therefore both alert/ready and also laid back/relaxed. Again, this phenomenon underscores the tension-beneath-calm properties—the dynamic/static drama—that infuses the painting.
4. Rhythm
Jazz-like relaxed precision threads it way through other aspects of the painting, including the easy balance and counter-balance of its asymmetrical structure . . . ever so subtly disruptive of a latent neo-classical symmetrical system. Avery sets up an understated game in regard to the cyclopean wicker chair (the eye in the center of the painting, as it were). Through shift, tilt, and rotation, the girl in wicker chair contests the center and causes us to question its precise place within the rectangular field. Perception is heightened especially of the significance and double-reading of the organizing cross-diagonals that run from lower right to upper left and lower left to upper right corners. It's a low-key, but beautifully calculated and executed, rhythmic jostle between centering and decentering of elements, as well as between assertion and suppression of controlling axes.
5. Figure|Field
The underlying theoretical form-space structure of this painting involves the refined interlocking of the jigsaw puzzle pieces that comprise its unified figure/field. Through thoughtful control of incidence and contingency, disruption and displacement, continuity and continuation, and the deployment of small, medium, large, and extra-large shapes, Avery provides a satisfying mise-en-scène of codependence among the various components of the painting. The girl in wicker chair dwells in figure/field space. She resides within a visually literate architectural  field comprised of subtly adjusted interconnected polychromatic figures.
6. Technique
This is a text book of masterful brushwork and control of paintof technical devices and materials. The two trees are a marvel in their own right. Each is endowed with a unique identity in terms of the brushwork.
Edges, lines, laps and overlaps, carving, chiseling, fuzzying, scumbling, thin paint/thick paint . . . pencil lines? . . .look especially at the remarkable hands and the chiseled negative sculpting of the face. Avery's didactic facility reminds us that painting is not simply imagery. It exists on two levels: imagery and textural, physical reality. The former can be discerned through simulacra (such as the images reproduced for this article). The latter can only be truly appreciated when you see the actual work.
This painting tells us what it means to hold a brush or knife in your hand and apply paint to a canvas.
7. Abstraction
The serene struggle between convention and invention is palpable. The painting strikes you as being at once familiar and unfamiliar. We recognize everythingwoman, chair, curtains, window framing, trees, sunlight, floor, etc. But when you step back . . .
. . . you realize that no garden, no exterior realm, no atmospheric "vertical" surface or solid horizontal ground plane, really looks like that, awash in yellow. Trees don't really dance quite like Avery makes them dance here. A real window's mullions aren't sketchy and freehand like these. No woman really looks like her. She's different. Human . . . but not really human. When you step back? You see that it's all new. Wonderfully new. Still new. Still fresh and spirited. Over 50 years later. Realism and whimsy, representation and abstractionspirited and inventive affirmations of and departures from the everyday worldare so very beautifully balanced.
What has Avery done? Well, as I see it, he has invented a language . . . a new world of form, one that is uniquely the point of view of the artist myth-maker. It's a quiet revolution. But a revolution all the same. The kind that can pass an average museum-goer by (I know: I've watched from afar on more than one occasion as visitors gather round the nearby emotionally-charged Hopper and totally ignore the unassuming Avery).
The visual is the real subject of his painting. Avery is an outlaw. He has displaced the everyday. He has bent the form-space figure-field rules of architectural and anthropomorphic depictiongone outside the boundaries of expectation in order to bring to us a vision of art. He is among those that Campbell called "the gifted . . . whose ears are open to the music of the universe."
e-mail MadisonGray@thearchitectpainter.com


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