On one wall of a room in the Phillips Collection hangs a striking painting of a famous violinist’s wife by the American modern artist Milton Avery. He has captured her in the fullness of her womanhood with auburn hair and golden eyes and turquoise buttons on a black dress adorned with an enormous pink bow.
Not 15 feet away sits that same woman, now an octogenarian. The eyebrows are still sharp and expertly drawn, though the now-light brown hair, you will later be told, is “from a bottle” and the still-beautiful visage wears a fine cobweb of lines. In her black suit and oversized turquoise broach, you could be forgiven for mistaking her for one of the many well-heeled docents and dowagers who dot the Washington art scene.
But something about the assuredness of the clear, deep voice makes you do a double take. “March did those,” she says, gesturing toward an Avery sketchbook in a glass display case, while gallerygoers drift by. “He let her sketch in it,” she says of the awkward doodles of the naked human form Avery’s daughter wrought on one page of the notebook facing a more polished female nude by her father. “They should have a sign there, a little notice.”
She has come to the Phillips on the opening day of the exhibit, “Discovering Milton Avery: Two Devoted Collectors, Louis Kaufman and Duncan Phillips,” hoping, just maybe, to see old Washington friends.
She is Annette Kaufman, after all, the widow of the great Hollywood violinist Louis Kaufman and an accomplished pianist in her own right; 32 of the works on display are from her and her husband’s personal collection.
“It’s sort of like a mother with her children,” she says, when asked which work is her favorite. “You really can’t say.”
Louis Kaufman began collecting Averys in his early 20s after an artist friend, disgusted by the mediocrity of the works on the walls of Kaufman’s New York apartment, insisted he go see Milton Avery, “a real painter.” It wasn’t long before the young violinist made an acquisition: a $25 work titled “Still Life with Bananas and a Bottle.” The purchase marked the first time anybody had ever paid money for an Avery painting.
A few years later, when Kaufman took the future Mrs. Annette Kaufman, then a 17-year-old piano student from North Dakota studying at New York City’s Institute of Musical Art, on their first date, it suitably concluded at the Averys’ one-room loft on West 72nd Street.
“We went rowing. We had a Chinese dinner, then he said, ‘Would you like to meet Milton Avery?’ I said, ‘Certainly.’ So we went up and I fell in love with the Averys just the way he did,” Kaufman recalls.
Louis Kaufman also bought a painting that night: a mellifluous rendering of Avery’s wife, Sally, dressed in a disheveled white slip.
The Kaufmans left New York after their April 1933 marriage, but the friendship with the Averys, nurtured over a steady stream of letters and frequent visits, endured. Mostly, the missives, which number about 200 and are now archived in the Library of Congress’ Music Division, were about exhibits and concerts and the ordinary, day-to-day marginalia of life, she says.
But every once in a while, Avery “would write and say stuff like, ‘The nicest young artist from California came to see us — his name is [Richard] Diebenkorn.’”
Over the years, the Kaufmans amassed an art collection of more than 200 items in their West Los Angeles home, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Lloyd. In addition to the Averys, the collection encompasses works by Louis Kaufman’s former classmate, the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko — whom he introduced to Avery, Rothko’s future mentor — as well as by David Parks and James Weeks. Their taste knew no geographical boundaries, however, and they also acquired pre-Columbian, Cambodian, Tahitian and Mexican art.
“He didn’t have any patience for minimal art or for things that were done, how should I say, to shock people. He felt that was wasting your time,” Kaufman says, referring to her husband’s aesthetic preferences.
Kaufman would gain acclaim for his performances in the scores of more than 500 Hollywood movies, including “Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca” and “The Sound of Music.” He was also the first to make a recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” — an undertaking that won him the 1950 Grand Prix du Disque.
But whenever they returned to New York City — for CBS radio broadcasts and music festivals and recitals (Annette was Louis’ frequent accompanist) — the first stop was always the Averys’. Over plates of arroz con pollo at a local Spanish restaurant, the two couples would “catch up on who got married and who got divorced and who had some success in the galleries.”
“[Louis] always felt he was a pupil of Milton’s,” Kaufman says.
As the day progresses, a crowd ebbs and flows around Annette Kaufman’s corner perch. A set of middle-aged twins, both artists, stops by and divulges it’s their birthday. “I think it’s wonderful to be a twin,” Kaufman tells them. “You know, the Soyers were twins,” she adds, referring to the Russian-American painters Moses and Raphael.
Jill Udall, wife of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), heads over to reminisce about “one of the best” Averys she ever saw, at Vice President Cheney’s residence.
Just before 3 p.m., Kaufman is whisked to an adjoining room. First lady Laura Bush has arrived, a small clutch of Lone Star State friends in tow.
“Tell us about the painting of you,” suggests Bush, as if on cue.
It took just three hours to paint because Avery worked fast “like Matisse,” Kaufman relates. It was the last portrait he ever did.
She points to another Avery portrait, completed a year earlier, which depicts the then-ailing modern artist Marsden Hartley in the dyspeptic tones of a boiled artichoke. That painting, she tells Bush, she will give to the Phillips Collection.
Later, Bush, who declared herself an Avery enthusiast, says of Kaufman: “She made seeing all the works more personal in a way because she could tell us about them.”
By late afternoon, the 89-year-old Kaufman is still standing — her cane forgotten against the wall — as she recounts a long-ago journey through Europe in search of Vivaldi’s “Opus 8,” waxes rhapsodic on the state of Los Angeles museums, and charms a group of fellow Californians with her thoughts on television’s role in the moronification of the American public.
“I don’t know what’s more fascinating — the paintings or her conversation,” confesses a visibly smitten Italian expatriate from Seattle, who urges Kaufman to bring the exhibit to his homeland.
As closing time arrives, Kaufman wanders through the Phillips’ now-quiescent rooms, reliving for a moment the portraits Avery painted of her and Louis.
She stops in front of an image of a young girl in a green dress with lacy sleeves. There is the same reddish hair and stunning eyebrows, but on this occasion Avery has shaded the area just below her eyes dark green, much like a baseball player’s eye black.
It was a painting intended to be used as publicity for the budding concertizers, who had recently become engaged. “I was 18 and I had a lovely green dress,” she remembers. “He told Milton, ‘You might want to paint Annette in the green dress,’ and he did.”
Across the room, a portrait of Louis Kaufman, completed after a trip to France, reflects the same stylistic inclinations. Here, a haggard, sallow-skinned Kaufman sporting a pair of red suspenders glares out at the viewer — hollow exhaustion emanating from his eyes.
“Louis had come back from Paris, and Avery said, ‘You must be very taken by French life.’ He was sort of dissipated in the painting,” says Kaufman, emphasizing that in reality he had “lived a very chaste life in Paris.”
She returns to the picture of herself with the pink bow and the black dress.
“The artist transmutes something in the act of painting,” she says, staring closely at the image’s buttons. Avery got it mostly right, she says, but the buttons were white, not turquoise.
“Discovering Milton Avery” will be on exhibit through May 16 at the Phillips Collection, located at 1600 21st St. NW. On April 21, Kaufman will give a lecture titled “An Artistic Friendship: Collecting the Art of Milton Avery.” For more information, go to www.phillipscollection.org.