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Arts & Entertainment

Meet Milton Avery, America's 'most famous unknown artist'

Milton Avery (1885–1965), Burlesque, 1936, oil on canvas, 36 × 28. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Milton Avery (1885–1965), Burlesque, 1936, oil on canvas, 36 × 28. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Milton Avery Trust/Artists Rights Society

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He was so good at color, he wowed Mark Rothko. But Milton Avery’s been criminally underrepresented in local museums. Until now.

Sometimes museum acquisitions are international news — like when the Met bought Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.” But when the Huntington acquired an important, unusual picture by a major American painter, it generated about two lines of copy in the local press.

The painting is “Burlesque Show,” the first Avery to be permanently displayed in L.A. County. Obtained from an unnamed dealer at an unspecified price, it hangs in the Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries.

Curator Jessica Todd Smith says Avery, who lived from 1885 to 1965, didn’t get the respect he deserved in his lifetime. "In his day," she says, "he was pushing  the envelope of abstraction while maintaining these representational subjects, so people considered him a little too out there, too crazy. When abstract expressionism came to the fore, he wasn’t abstract enough."

Artist Milton Avery
Artist Milton Avery
Alfredo Valente/Archives of American Art

But critic Hilton Kramer called Avery “… without question, our greatest colorist” and said he beat out all Europeans except Matisse. Mark Rothko claimed him as a major influence. Some called him America’s most famous unknown artist.

He was known for landscapes, seascapes and brightly hued interiors filled with the clashing fields of color that so impressed abstract painters. But the Huntington’s acquisition is as far as possible from Avery’s placid, deeply hued works, and it memorializes an extinct American art form.

“Burlesque Show,” from 1936, portrays the old Palace Theater, just before all New York burlesque houses fell victim to reform Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

"Burlesque of the day really consisted of performances that included stand-up comedy, some song and dance, and then striptease that was meant to be sort of classy … made more elegant by costumes and stage sets," Todd Smith says.

On stage, the stripper fronts a nude chorus line. A black feather surmounts her blonde coiffure, which Todd Smith notes is meticulously delineated with strokes from the artist’s brush handle.  She has just removed a black wrap. There is pink in her cheeks and her thick black eyebrows arch in an expression of not quite convincing shame. Her arms don’t quite cover her nude bosom.

Says Smith Todd, "Art historically, this fits into a long tradition, the Venus Putica, or the modest Venus. So it goes back to classical representations of Aphrodite. Perhaps the most famous example of this pose would be Botticelli’s Venus, where she is somewhat covered, so it’s a gesture of what in this case I think we could call feigned modesty."

Great strippers like Sally Rand, who fan danced at the 1939 World’s Fair, and Gypsy Rose Lee, who became a popular mystery novelist and TV celebrity, were immensely talented women who used their sexuality as a resource against the man-dominated entertainment world. Burlesque also had its clowns and comics: the notorious Top Banana in his preposterous plaid floppy cap and yellow windowpane-check suit, telling jokes far too gamey for vaudeville. Great top bananas like Phil Silvers throttled down their raunch to dominate '50s TV.

And Milton Avery left us this perfect keepsake of what it all felt like at its peak, from the first row of the Palace Theater, way back in 1936.

Check it out in person: part of the Huntington's Virginia Steele Scott Galleries are closed for renovation, but the Avery is still up for you to see.