Milton Avery's claim to aesthetic fame is as Matisse's U.S. ambassador. A self-taught painter, Avery (1893-1965) played a seminal role in dispersing the French master's Post-Fauvist style to younger American artists in the '30s and '40s. At the top of his form, Avery created figure paintings from flat areas of color, suggesting form and gesture without detail and mollifying Matisse's crisp authority with shimmering pastel pillows of pigment.
Avery is not always at his best in a current show of 38 drawings, prints, watercolors and paintings, but so rarely do we see his work in Southern California that this uneven selection is welcome. "Sally," a 1943 oil portraying a seated woman intensely involved with drawing on a lap-held sketch pad, is vintage Avery. Etchings from the '30s and '40s are startlingly fine--if uncharacteristic--in their depictions of heavy-legged nudes and expressive, angular faces. Here we find a master of raspy line managing splendidly without color.
A batch of figure drawings is disappointingly spineless, but watercolors from a recently discovered 1959 portfolio provide a view of Avery's Expressionistic aspect. These seaside themes--a speedboat slicing through lines of water, a breaking wave that might be a rocky monument, and gulls standing alone or assembled in committees--offer more insight into ideas than evidence of polish. These casual-looking works reveal an abiding interest in accounting for one's surroundings with an economical sense of drama. (Mekler Gallery, 651 N. La Cienega Blvd., to Dec. 15.)