Avery was born in the village of Sand Bank, New York. As a teenager he moved with his family to Hartford, Connecticut. There he took a correspondence course in lettering and studied at the Connecticut League of Art Students with the idea of becoming a commercial artist. The school’s director, Charles Noel Flagg, encouraged the young artist to study drawing with him, and in the course of his instruction taught Avery the importance of shape in all categories of picture-making. During the ensuing years Avery worked at a variety of odd jobs, including as an assembler, lathe man, and factory mechanic, and painted the local landscape in his free hours.
Avery moved to New York in 1925, and the following year married the commercial illustrator Sally Michel. His wife’s earnings as an illustrator helped him to focus his full attention on painting. By 1930, he began to introduce the simplified forms and flattened space that were to become hallmarks of his art, and which evolved from his study of the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In 1935, he had his first solo exhibition, held at the Valentine Gallery. In the course of this decade he became friendly with the future Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, and his generalized, undetailed treatment of form, and flattened color masses influenced his associates’ subsequent work.
Avery began to achieve critical success in 1944. That year his first museum exhibition was held at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. During the early 1940s his work was also shown at the prestigious Paul Rosenberg and Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York. Major showings would follow, including his first retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1952. The Whitney Museum organized retrospectives of Avery’s work in 1960 and 1982. Following Avery’s death in 1965, Rothko remarked: “Avery is first a great poet. His is the poetry of sheer loveliness of sheer beauty. Thanks to him this kind of poetry has been able to survive in our time . . . . There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush” (“Commemorative Essay,” essay in Milton Avery [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art. 1982], p. 181).