|For six decades, Sally Michel’s wondrous artwork hid in plain sight. That fact is all the more remarkable considering she painted side-by-side with husband Milton Avery throughout their happy forty-year marriage, serving as constant inspiration for one another. Together, the couple developed a fresh vernacular in American Modernism, humanizing abstraction in celebration of everyday simple pleasures. |
But early on, Michel (1902-2003) freely chose to support her husband professionally, emotionally, and financially to further his career. “I felt the need to paint pictures,” she explained, “ but not to show them.”
As women’s art historian Elisa Honig Fine wrote of Michel, “Like many artist-wives of famous artists, Sally painted in the privacy of her home – she made art, but allowed Milton to make art history.”
In viewing Michel’s works from the 1950s and ‘60s at Childs Gallery, one can’t help but share in her obvious joy at capturing the freedom, playfulness, and amusement of a leisurely moment in life, as in an impromptu piano concert in Duet (1960) or a lazy beach day in Sheltered Cove (c. 1950s). The effervescent color palette and delightful scenes are an immediate draw, but it’s the abstracted forms and offbeat depth of perception that make one want to linger.
The artist couple “took their own personal environment and showed others how it could become abstract without being totally alienating, strangely distant and yet familiar, modern and still comforting,” explained art historian Robert Hobbs in an article on Michel for the Woman’s Art Journal in 1987.
Smitten after their first meeting in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Avery followed the Brooklyn-born Michel to New York City where they made museum and gallery hopping a major pastime. Though their art influences were wide-ranging in the beginning, the couple’s style was highly original, and once formed, seemed unsusceptible to modern art movements of later decades.
As Robert Hobbs wrote, the paintings of Avery and Michel featured “American ingredients: the naïve, caricatured, slightly awkward charm of folk art, the harmonious and refined intimacy of turn-of-the-century Tonalism, and the democratic ebullience of the Ash Can School. If one adds to these the grace and gaiety of Fauvism and the joyous, intensely saturated, yet quite arbitrary color of Matisse, there emerges a thoroughly delightful American folk art version of Parisian Modernism.”
But there were differences in their interpretations. Michel’s paintings were more intuitive and less systematic than Avery’s, using color to express the mood of the moment. Painting on a smaller scale also gave her work greater intimacy. In comparing their styles, Michel said, “My work is more staccato, and the colors aren’t exactly what you’d see, but are related to what you’d see.”
In an interview with Robert Hobbs, Michel spoke of her spontaneous painting process, “Each color dictated what the next color was going to be. You see, every time you put down one color, it changes what else may happen . . . So you can’t really tell what’s happening until it happens.”
Always a very happy, humorous, and optimistic person, Michel discovered the joys of art when she was just five years old. That lightheartedness and a generosity of spirit are clearly evident in portraits of family and friends, a favorite subject, along with summer vacation spots at the beach or countryside. Close artist friends Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman often accompanied Avery and Michel on their working holiday adventures.
Though great fun, those summer idylls were strictly low budget, as the couple had little money until Avery’s works began to sell in the 1950s. They often returned to Gloucester where they met in 1924 - she a 22-year-old Art Student League pupil from New York City, he a 39-year-old struggling artist from Connecticut. They also spent time in Provincetown, rural Connecticut, Canada, and Mexico.
Michel supported the family, soon to include daughter March, by drawing editorial illustrations for many publications, including the weekly “Parent and Child” page in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Even in her commercial work, Michel brings a charm and devilish whimsy to domestic scenes, with added graphic dimension provided by Edouard Vuillard-like clashing pattern mixes.
Michel’s works of the 1950s and ‘60s hold particular interest, as Avery’s financial success made it possible for the couple to visit Europe for the first time in 1952. And with daughter March grown up, there was the additional freedom to accept invitations from the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and the Yaddo art community in upstate New York.
Time spent in Paris museums and art galleries is evident in the beautiful nudes of this period: Long Pose (1955), an amalgam of Cubist influences, and the Matisse-inspired Pink Nude (1962). Michel’s nature scenes also benefited from renewed exposure to Fauvists like Andre Derain, with Raoul Dufy’s scratched surface technique used to great effect in Old Orchard (1953.) Almost violently colorful, Michel’s abstracted landscapes recreate her initial impressions. It’s like the difference between a fond memory and a vacation photo, with the latter often less emotionally fulfilling.
Michel’s wonderful sense of humor also infuses her works of this period, from whimsical chickens to a still life of a toilet, perhaps an ode to the readymade Fountain urinal (1917) of Marcel Duchamp who she befriended one summer at the MacDowell Colony.
And how did Michel’s six-decades worth of work finally come to light? A representative of Childs Gallery, as well as several art historians and curators, visited her New York City apartment to purchase or borrow an Avery painting after his death in 1965. There on the floor in the background were works of equal talent, vitality, and originality.
It took some convincing, but Michel slowly began showing her own work publicly in the 1980s, with success and acclaim quick to follow. She is currently represented in museums across the country, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The National Museum of Women in the Arts and The Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., and The Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.