Painting of two people on a sailing boat

March Avery’s languorous paintings are richly evocative of the summer. The American artist celebrates the in-between moments. In her 2017 oil painting A Light Breeze, two pink-skinned figures lounge at the front of a boat, one looking out to sea, the other with sunglasses fixed to his face and a striped jumper draped casually over his shoulders; Sunbather (1989) shows a female body with blurred-out facial features lying back on a lilac-sanded beach under an umbrella, her hands placed calmly over her stomach. In other works, the human body disappears entirely, giving way to scenes of rolling sage green mounds dotted with terracotta red-roofed dwellings (Hill Town, 1975), or dense lines of dark green trees reflected in perfectly still purple and blue water (Cooper Lake Diptych, 2019). Avery captures a timeless sense of leisure, depicting a seemingly endless holiday.

Her homage to the summer months has deep roots in her childhood. Growing up within a creative family, Avery painted from a young age. Her parents, the artists Milton Avery and Sally Michel, often holidayed over long summers in Mexico, California, or Vermont’s Green Mountains. They would be joined by fellow painters such as Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Avery has continued to travel to different summer destinations throughout her career, which has had a particularly marked impact on her work as she shifts between oil paints in the winter, and hazier watercolours in the summer.

“This was a familial thing that was already set: in the winter they paint in oils and in the summer they paint in watercolours,” says her son Sean A. Cavanaugh, who is also an artist based in New York City. “Some of that is logistics, because you can just stick a stack of watercolour paper in the back of the car and have enough to do for months. It’s easier and more mobile. Also, watercolours dry faster. The freedom of those long summers out of the city were very important for my grandparents and my mother too. My parents continued that because my father was teaching English, so he had the whole summer off and we’d go away for a month or more. It was a time to see something different, go on tour a little bit. You gain all this new material, these new images, and once you’re home you can mine it all.”

In March Avery: A Life in Color, a new artist monograph released this summer by Black Dog Press, Lynne Tillman writes about the formal freedom that can be seen in Avery’s summer paintings. “One watercolor (Quiet Cove, 2020) uses a much looser or even languid brush stroke. The scene is a familiar Avery subject: sky, lake or sea, trees, mountains. Rather than creating well-defined waves, Avery strokes and dots blue paint across the paper. For hills or boulders, she uses a mottled dark grey, making dark mounds in the foreground; three green fir trees sit on the top of a mound jutting into the sea, while the sky behind the sea is a streak of paler blue. Several other fir trees have been painted to frame the central image. This familiar scene has been painted as if lying flat on the ground, and the dark, solid grey mounds overwhelm the blue sea and sky.”

Growing up in an artistic family greatly impacted Avery’s attitude towards her career. She didn’t train formally at art school, but has always been a prolific creator, making not just paintings but also ceramics, stone carvings, and books. While she has seen a huge surge in art world interest over the last decade, now working with the prestigious BLUM gallery in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and New York, art was initially a life calling that she didn’t attach to commerciality or financial success. It was purely something that she did, that was the lifeblood of those around her too.

“It was a different time,” says Cavanaugh, about Avery’s childhood in the 1930s and ‘40s. “No one had any ideas about being famous or financially successful. That was so not part of their world. It was just about making art and sharing it. It just seemed so normal that everyone made art. She felt there weren’t other jobs; everyone was a painter, a poet, a writer. She always took the schedule very seriously. People have this dream of artists staring up at the sky, having a cocktail, but she treated it like an office job.”

Her painting now is both deeply rooted in her family and universal. The figures in her works are often those known to her, from her grandchild playing in the outdoors to friends conversing on the sofa. “She would make books; they were always very personal,” says Cavanaugh. “When my daughter was very little she’d make a book for her birthday all with watercolours in it. At the end there would be photographs of all the paintings she’d done of my daughter through the year.”

Painting of trees reflecting on water

While there is a personal aspect in the artist’s selection of subjects for her work, their faces and bodies are often neutralised and minimised. Her works are figurative, but they take on elements of abstract painting, with body parts, clothing, plants and human-made structures reduced to their base components, with muted features. There is an intimacy to her works, particularly in the well-observed quirks and nuances in her subject’s physical positions and movements, but they speak to a more general sense of closeness than her specific connections with the subjects. “They’re just a shape, no different from a tree,” laughs Cavanaugh, about her inclusion of figures in the work. “Don’t overthink it. It could be a famous person; a homeless man sitting on a bench; a pigeon. It’s really all about good shapes crafted into something.”

 For the last two decades, Avery has been working with photography as the initial stage of her paintings, using a point-and-shoot camera to quickly capture the activity around her, before moving into the studio to form her paintings. “It was a way to be able to capture more things at any one time,” says Cavanaugh. “The prints are just taped into her sketchbooks, and there would be a sketch, then a watercolour, and then it would go to canvas. Her drafting has always been amazing.”

Throughout Avery’s expansive oeuvre there is a uniting, magnificent use of colour that has become instantly recognisable. Her tones rarely match what one would assume to be the source material, but they induce something beyond this, calling to mind the feel of a place rather than the strict look of it. She has carried what feels like a quintessentially 1970s palette through to her twenty-first-century work, with warm, rich earth tones punctured by bright oranges, turquoise and blue. Many of her paintings seem to pulse with heat, conjuring the sleepy, sweaty days of August that begin to merge into one; or the warmth of a mother cuddled with her newborn in a protected living room. In both solitude and companionship, her figures seem at peace, and her paintings invite the viewer to join them, falling outside of time and place into a moment of blissful serenity.

March Avery: A Life in Color is published June 2024. You can pre-order the book here

Words by Emily Steer.

© 2023 March Avery / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the artist and BLUM Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York.

Image 1: March Avery, A Light Breeze, 2017. Oil on canvas. Photo: Makenzie Goodman. 

Image 2: March Avery, Hill Town, 1975. Oil on canvas. Photo: Makenzie Goodman

Image 3: March Avery, undated. Photography by Philip Cavanaugh. 

Image 4: March Avery, Reflected Firs, 1987. Oil on canvas. Photo: Lance Brewer.

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