DRAW A LINE. Simple. Any six-year-old can do it. But what line? And where? How in relation to the paper, and to other lines? In printmaking, line is all the artist has to work with--no color, no smudges, no thick oil paints to cover up the mistakes. The artist cuts his line into copper or wood, and there it stays--he can't erase it. The supreme test of an artist's ability comes as he reduces his images to the bare skeletons of form--for a master puts a power into his line that obviates the need for anything else. Milton Avery is such a master.
This exhibit of Avery's work now at the Fogg Museum gathers together prints of all 60 of the images he produced between 1930 and 1955. Avery worked in the opposing techniques of woodcut and drypoint: in drypoint, the artist cuts into copper the line he wants to print, while in a woodcut he digs out what he doesn't. The results in each style are very different, but Avery has command of both techniques. He controls his line to model and shade, indicating the subtleties of mass and movement.
Frank Getlein, in the exhibit's excellent catalogue, contrasts Avery with Matisse: both are removed from Cubism and Surrealism, the dominating forces of early 20th century art, but, unlike Matisse, Avery neglects in his subject matter the process of artistic creation. "His art effaced itself before the importance of the subject." comments Getlein, "And the subject was not just the subject but the subject as containing and manifesting a kind of divine energy."
AVERY'S SUBJECTS manifest this energy because he forms them with lines that breathe and kick and cry with the force of a newborn child. In his drypoint "Umbrella by the Sea" (1948), he expresses the size and movement of an ocean by the spacing and fluidity of the line alone. In the foreground he makes his lines wide and gently curving, like lapping waves, gradually becoming choppier as he moves out to sea. Then lines become crowded, quick slashes of his stylus. In the same way, in his three reclining nudes (1939, 1941 and 1948), the surety of his stroke as he cut into the copper plate forms a line that is not a boundary for the human form, but a result of the swellings of the women's breasts, hips and thighs. Line never holds in his form, whether it is Mark Rothko's profile or a rolling hillside. Always, his line is an extension of the energy and force he finds in the world around him.
Avery suffered a heart attack in 1949, which forced him to turn from the strenuous drypoint technique to the easier one of cutting in wood. He produced eighteen woodcut images in six years, mostly birds or seascapes almost childlike in their simplicity. Again, in search of energy, Avery strives not for sophistication but for the power of a basic form--a way to demonstrate the vitality of his world. He expresses all the pride and grandeur of a fan-tailed pigeon with nine zig-zagged lines. A dancer caught in mid-turn prepares to leap from the page, and a startled bird stretches across a dawning sky of four stars and a third-quarter moon.
Ten years before his death in 1965, Avery made his last woodcut. In it, for the first time, he acknowledges the end as well as the continuum of life. For "Birds and the Sea" includes something none of his other landscapes have--the boundary of a horizon line. It is a simple line--ruler straight, no special tone or twist to it. Anyone could draw a line like that. But Milton Avery never did before, and he startles and shocks us with its finality. It is a tribute to Avery's exquisite skill that the most basic element in art can, in his hand, express the experience of both life and death.