Sally Michel: Abstracting Tonalism

The Mennello Museum of American Art will present Sally Michel: Abstracting Tonalism from September 20, 2024 to January 12, 2025.  This exhibition will be the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in over 23 years and her first in Florida, a location where she sought both colorful inspiration and secluded respite in the state’s natural beauty.

Sally Michel: Abstracting Tonalism will bring forth a fresh and innovative consideration of Michel’s legacy outlining a new, non-linear narrative of paintings created between 1930s and the 1990s that address Michel’s distinctive use of color, abstraction, and form.  Through their own personal moments of familiar critique, painting side by side for years, Michel and husband Milton Avery developed a style that has been described as the bridge between Realism and Avant-Garde – The Avery Style.  The style describes how Michel incorporated still-recognizable imagery (genre scenes like landscapes, still lives, or portraits) simplified through abstraction and constructed of interconnected fields of bold, emotive color.  Beyond the similarity of the family’s style, Michel’s paintings reflect her own interests in the everyday, landscape, and human figure as well as her exposure to the blossoming New York City art world and artists of the European Avant-Garde – Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso. Looking toward more traditional art forms, Michel found inspiration in the Tonalism movement wherein artists were concerned with conveying how a landscape felt in one’s spirit – a reality beyond appearances.

Curated by Katherine Page, Curator of Art & Education, Sally Michel: Abstracting Tonalism establishes a curatorial framework for reconsidering the painterly genius of Michel.  The narrative begins with how Michel began painting seriously after finishing high school in Brooklyn but chose to work as an illustrator for Macy’s and The New York Times Magazine to support her family for over three decades while she encouraged her husband, artist Milton Avery to pursue success in the New York art world.

This exhibition considers 33 paintings and 17 works on paper unfolding across seven decades that impart a lyrical expression of the everyday and share Michel’s respect for humans, animals, and deep admiration for nature and its corresponding ever-changing light.  A force in abstraction, figuration, tonalism, and color, Sally Michel’s extraordinary production is a rich, varied, and compelling story that commands a more inclusive consideration that did not manifest in her lifetime.

Accompanying this exhibition will be a hardbound, scholarly catalog featuring two new essays: one exploring Michel’s abstract language and tonalism in relationship to figuration and one new essay by Eleanor Heartney, well known as a curator and critic and a long-time contributing editor of Art in America and the author of numerous books, including Art & Today, Postmodernism, and After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art.  The museum also plans to tour the exhibition at one venue between March 2025 and March 2026.

Sally Michel, Bill and Friends, 1988. Oil on canvas. Collection of the MennelloMuseum of American Art, Museum Purchase with Funds from the Friends of the MennelloMuseum of American Art, 2018-001-001. Photographer: Noel Allum. © 2023 The Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork