Balcomb Greene (1904-1990)
Balcomb Greene has been described as “an iconoclast, a painter who has refused to conform to the latest artistic trends.”1 This comment was apt, for Greene was an independent-minded artist who followed his own aesthetic inclinations regardless of what was in vogue among critics and the public. At the outset of his career, he eschewed Depression-era realism in favor of a cutting-edge geometric abstract style that set him apart from the mainstream art establishment and from many of his fellow abstractionists. During the 1940s, when non-representational painting came into fashion, he began to incorporate the human form into his work, creating enigmatic figure paintings in which variations of light and shadow played a vital role in creating mood.
Balcomb Greene was born in Millville, New York, near Niagara Falls, on 22 May 1904. The son of Bertram Greene, a Methodist minister who christened him John Wesley Greene, he grew up in small towns in Iowa, South Dakota and Colorado, where he had little exposure to art. Greene initially intended to follow in his father footsteps and become a preacher. With this pursuit in mind, he enrolled at Syracuse University in 1922, funded by a scholarship for the sons of Methodist ministers. However, finding himself increasingly drawn to philosophy, literature and art, he eventually turned away from religion, graduating in 1926 with a degree in philosophy. While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art during his final year at Syracuse, he met the sculptor and painter Gertrude Glass (1904-1956) (Gertrude Greene) whom he married shortly thereafter. In 1926, the couple went to Austria, where Greene had won a fellowship in psychology at the University of Vienna.
In 1927, Balcomb Greene moved to New York City and resumed his studies at Columbia University, going on to receive a master’s degree in English literature. From 1928 to 1931, he taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, while writing fiction in his spare time. A turning point in his career occurred in 1931, when Greene and his wife traveled to Paris to further their understanding of vanguard art and literature. Although Greene intended to write novels in his Montparnasse studio, he soon found himself drawn to the art world and decided to become a painter. He subsequently worked independently at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and familiarized himself with contemporary European art, especially Cubism and Neo-Plasticism. He was especially inspired by the example of Piet Mondrian, Juan Gris and the Abstraction-Creation painters, who sought to eliminate all references to nature, literature and anecdote by focusing on pure abstraction.
Greene returned to the United States in 1932, going on to develop his own hard-edged abstract style, creating what he referred to as “straight line, flat paintings.”2 Indeed, while many of his cohorts, including his wife, explored the biomorphic forms of Surrealism, Greene was more of a purist, focusing on even lines, two-dimensional areas of color and interlocking geometric shapes in which he created a sense of space––a geometric landscape, of sorts. In 1937 he became a founding member and first chairman of Abstract American Artists, established to promote the cause of abstraction in national art circles. Taking advantage of his writing skills, he helped draft the charter of the organization and edit its yearbook. In the 1930s, Greene found employment with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, under whose auspices he created a mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project. He also designed a stained glass window for a school in the Bronx and created an abstract mural for the Federal Hall of Medicine at the World’s Fair of 1939.
In 1940 Balcomb Greene began studying art history at New York University, going on to receive a master’s degree in 1943. During this period, his aesthetic approach changed as he abandoned the crisply rendered and brightly colored forms of his geometric work in favor of the figure shown against a backdrop of fragmented planes. He went on to create paintings, often naturalistic depictions of the female nude, that were characterized by an expressionist handling of paint and a limited palette of whites, greys and other muted tones that derived from his interest in photography. In 1947 Greene purchased some land on Montauk Point, Long Island, where he built a home on a high bluff. With the exception of a trip to Paris in 1958-60, he spent most of his time on Long Island, where he was one of the pioneers of the East End art colony. Inspired by the proximity of the ocean, he painted a number of marines, using dynamic brushwork to evoke the energy and spirit of the sea.
Greene had his first one-man show at the Dartmouth College Art Gallery in 1931. Retrospective exhibitions of his work were held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1961 and at the Guild Hall in East Hampton in 1978. In addition to painting, Greene taught aesthetics and art history at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (1942-47), where his students included Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein. He was a member of the Artists Union, the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and the International Institute of Arts and Letters.
Greene died at his home at Montauk Point on 12 November of 1990 at the age of eighty-six. Examples of his work can be found in many public collections, including the Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Guild Hall, East Hampton; the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis; the Newark Museum, New Jersey; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
1 Barbara Delatiner, “”Honor for an Iconoclast,” New York Times, 18 June 1978.
2 Balcomb Greene quoted in Robert Beverly Hale and Niké Hale, The Art of Balcomb Greene (New York: Horizon Press, 1977), 12. Many of Greene’s early paintings were lost in a studio fire of 1941.