Sally Michel Avery


Sally Michel Avery Biography

Sally Michel Avery (1902-2003)

Milton Avery and Sally Michel met as young artists during the summer of 1924 painting out of doors in Gloucester, Mass. They were married in 1926. When Milton followed Sally to New York, he had not yet experienced the modernist art out of Europe that was taking New York by storm. Through the late 1920s into the 1940s, Milton Avery and Sally Michel developed their approach to art together.

Sally Michel did commercial art work for twenty years so Milton could devote all his time to painting. She did her commercial illustration jobs at home, so the Averys were almost constantly together. They sketched on paper and developed their sketches into oils. Art was the Holy Grail for them and under discussion all the time. Friendships in New York with Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnet Newman began in the 1930s and continued on vacations taken together in Vermont, Gloucester, and Provincetown. On those vacations everyone had a space to work by themselves, but they met on the beach and at dinner to talk art. Looking at each other’s art helped add ideas about making a new kind of art. The group would verbally take a painting apart and suggest other approaches to color, shapes, and form. It was the old story of young artists finding their personal style while trying to differentiate their art from that of previous generations. The group built on Pierre Bonnard’s exploration of color and forms to express personal feelings and to alter the viewer’s perspective by flattening space. For Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman, thinking about color and perspective led to Abstract Expressionism. For the Averys, it led to a new kind of abstracted realism, different but related to Abstract Expressionism. These artists were at the fork in the road when Abstraction took two different paths. That is why the Averys are important artists.

The core rule for Avery and Michel was to never invent imagery. Representational references provided an inexhaustible supply of motifs that was continually replenished by the visible world. This freed them from the struggle to come up with new series of paintings, which became a problem for the Abstract Expressionists. The Averys’ goal was to present nature within an abstracted two-dimensional design rather than the traditional three-dimensional view. To achieve their desired perspective, the Averys had to figure out how to flatten the space in a painting. They used devices such as diagonal thrusting lines, steep perspective, tilted planes or overlapping planes of color, as well as minimized the detail or number of shapes in a painting. Michel simplified her landscapes, yet kept their natural order. Her trees are always rooted to the ground. All of this can be seen in Autumn Hills, 1984. However, Michel and Avery’s paintings moved away from the description of individual parts of a subject in order to achieve a harmony of the whole similar to Color Field abstraction.

Michel was interested throughout her life in exploring the effect of color and the flattening of perspective to achieve realist-abstraction. In some of her paintings in the 1980s, she mixed in large amounts of turpentine to achieve a dry and unobtrusive surface and more muted color harmonies. She also applied thin washes of paint over one another to flatten perspective while adding a sense of transparency and atmosphere. Her choice of canvas, slightly absorbent but not too rough, was also selected to help flatten perspective. Colors suggest Michel’s emotional response to her subject. This can be seen in the titles of some of her paintings, like Fall Hills, 1963 or Snowy Field, 1975, where the color choices don’t immediately bring to mind the season.

New ideas about how the size of paintings change the viewer’s perception were being discussed by artist friends in the 1950s. Rothko had taken from reading Plato that size had a relationship to beauty, and reasoned that large scale paintings would take up the viewer’s entire vision to make a greater impact. Rothko’s and Gottlieb’s large canvases stimulated the Averys to try their own the summer of 1957 when they were all in Provincetown. Michel’s paintings remained under 18 x 20 inches until 1957 because only Avery had the studio space to work on larger canvases, but in Provincetown she painted some 24 x 30 inch canvases while Avery’s moved from 40 x 50 to 60 x 70 inches. In the 1970s with studio space of her own, Michel further increased her canvas size to as much as 40 x 50 inches.

For 40 years Sally Michel painted beside Milton Avery and they discussed art constantly. Together they developed a synthesis of abstraction and realism. Michel built her personal style in an atmosphere of discussion and experimentation with great American abstract artists. She and Milton retained their realist references, but they used unusual perspectives, simplification, and overlapping and non-objective colors to create a modern picture.


Selected Solo Exhibitions

Mr. and Mrs. Show, Gallery 14, Inc., Palm, Beach, Florida (c. 1962).

Sally Michel: Mountain Landscapes, The Erpf Catskill Cultural Center, Arkville, New York.

Ulster County Council for the Arts, Kingston, New York.

Kleinert Gallery, Woodstock, New York (now the Byrdcliffe Kleinert/James Center for the Arts).

Sally Michel: The Other Avery, University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, IA. Robert Hobbs, curator. Exhibition traveled through 1988.

Sally Michel, Fresno Art Museum, California. Catalogue with essay by Nancy Acord.

Sally Michel: Retrospective, Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, Massachusetts.

Selected Group Exhibitions

Painting and Sculpture by Wives of Painters and Sculptors, Contemporary Arts Gallery, New York.

New York Center Gallery, New York.
Woodstock Art Center, New York.
Sid Deutsch Gallery, New York.

Village Art Center, New York (First Prize – oil paintings).

Village Art Center, New York (Second Prize – drawings).

Two Husband and Wife Painting Teams, Rudolph Galleries, Coral Gables, Florida (Sally Michel, Milton Avery, Arnold Blanch, and Doris Lee)
Paul Kessler Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Milton Avery, The Richmond Artists Association at The Carillon, Byrd Park, Richmond, Virginia.
Milton Avery, Sally Michel, March Avery, New Arts Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia.

Avery Family Group Show. The Rye Free Reading Room, Rye, New York.

Paul Kessler Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Milton Avery and Family: “An Album of a Contemporary Family of Artists,” Gallery Reese Palley, Atlantic City, New Jersey. Catalogue.

The Milton Avery Family, The New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut. Catalogue.

Paintings by Milton Avery and His Family, Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Catalogue with text by Frank Getlein.

Woodstock, An American Art Colony, 1902-1977, Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, New York.

The Avery Family: Milton Avery, Sally Michel, March Avery– An Exhibition of Paintings, Saint Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut.

American Masters: Works on Paper from The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1986. Traveled to: Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK; Queens Museum, Flushing, NY; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Burling Library, Grinnell, Iowa; Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; The Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, FL. Catalogue with essays by Edward J. Nygren and Linda Crocker Simmons.

Elders of the Tribe, Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, New York. Catalogue.

Seventy-five American Modernists, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

American Women Artists: The Twentieth Century, Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee. In conjunction with Bennett Galleries, Knoxville, Tennessee. Traveled to Queensborough Community College Art Gallery, Bayside, New York. Catalogue with text by Elsa Honig Fine and essay on Sally Michel by Robert Hobbs.

Relatively Speaking: Mothers and Daughters in Art, Sweet Briar College Art Gallery, Virginia, 1994; The Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Staten Island, New York, 1994-1995; Rockford Museum of Art, Illinois, 1995; Rahr-West Museum, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1995; Hofstra Museum, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1996. Catalogue with essays by Charlotta Kotik and Judith Swirsky.

Preserving the Past, Securing the Future: Donations of Art, 1987-1997, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Celebration of the Horse, Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.

Sally Michel/Milton Avery: A Portrait, Knoedler & Company, New York.

Provincetown Artists: A Survey of American Modern to Abstract Art, Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, Endicott College, Beverly, Massachusetts.

Summer with the Averys: Milton / Sally / March, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut. Catalogue with text by Kenneth E. Silver and interview with March Avery by Stephanie Guyet.


Bok Fellows, The Research Studio, Maitland, Florida. (1949/1950, 1951/1952)

MacDowell Colony Fellowship, Peterborough, New Hampshire. (1953, 1954, and 1956)

Yaddo Fellowship, Saratoga Springs, New York. (1955)

Museum Collections

Art & History Museums, Maitland, Florida

Art Gallery, University of Saint Joseph, Hartford, Connecticut

Brooklyn Museum, New York

William and Uytendale Scott Memorial Study Collection of Works by Women Artists, Bryn Mawr College Art & Archeology Collections, Pennsylvania

Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

Fresno Art Museum, California

Housatonic Museum of Art, Bridgeport, Connecticut

Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut

Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, Florida

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts

National Gallery of Art (Corcoran Collection), Washington, DC

National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Massachusetts

Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania

Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts

University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City

University of St. Thomas–Minnesota, Saint Paul

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, Woodstock, New York


(Source: D. Wigmore)