On the evidence of Milton Avery's career, being a pioneer can be a thankless job.
Not that Avery (1885-1965) didn't eventually win a meas- ure of recognition for his high- ly individual art, or for his role as an influential early American modernist.
But much of the acclaim heaped on the artist, including the Avery retrospective that opens Saturday at the Phillips Collection in Washington, has come in the decades since his death.
Avery has been called an American Matisse for his highly simplified forms and bright, flat colors. During his life, however, he often found himself out of step with his contemporaries. In the 1940s, for example, when Jackson Pollack and others were developing the nonrepresentative style called abstract expressionism, Avery continued to paint figurative works.
Mark Rothko, who became an important abstract-expressionist figure, listed Avery as a major influence. But Avery somehow never enjoyed the success of the ab-exers, even after the foremost critic of the day, Clement Greenberg, became his champion.
Nevertheless, the artist did find a number of important -- and loyal -- supporters, among them Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, who over 30 years bought many paintings by the artist for his museum.
Another staunch patron was Louis Kaufman, a successful violin soloist for Hollywood movies, who in 1926 purchased the first of several paintings he would acquire from Avery over the years.
The Phillips show, Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips, traces the artist's career through the works acquired by these two great patrons.
In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes many examples of Avery's drawings and prints, and pages from his sketchbook, which the Phillips has methodically assembled with the aim of creating a rounded portrait of the artist's oeuvre.
Avery was an individualist who refused to be pigeonholed in any single style or school. As a result, he often found himself swimming against the tide. Yet today, his work seems so fresh and natural and of a piece with its time that it is hard to believe he was once an isolated loner.
This is a lovely show of a still somewhat underappreciated artist whose signal contributions to the development of modernism in America will only become more apparent with the passage of time.
The show runs through May 16. The museum is at 1600 21st St. N.W., Washington. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 adults, $8 students and seniors. Call 202-387-2151.
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