(Niagara Falls, New York, 1904 - 1990)
In the 1930s, when Regionalism, realism, and subjects from American life were in their ascendancy, American artists who painted abstractions were overshadowed—if not by the Regionalists, then by the European originators of the abstract idioms who were still going strong. To compete with Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was challenging enough, but confronting the titan of American realism, Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), and the critics allied with him, required organization. In this context, the group calling itself the American Abstract Artists emerged, in January 1937, to “bring before the public their individual works, and in every possible way foster public appreciation for this direction in painting and sculpture.” (1)
The first chairman of the American Abstract Artists was Balcomb Greene, a thirty-four-year-old writer, philosopher, poet, and painter. The son of a Methodist minister, Greene attended Syracuse University, in central New York, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps. While at the university, his study of contemporary literature and psychology fostered an interest in the concept of personal expression rather than the ministry. (2) He received a BA in philosophy and moved to New York City, where he married the artist Gertrude Glass. In 1926, shortly after their marriage, the couple traveled to Europe, where Greene received a fellowship in philosophy at the University of Vienna. After a year in Vienna, Greene transferred to Columbia University in New York. Before he could complete his PhD, he accepted a position as a professor of literature at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. After leaving Dartmouth in 1931, Greene and his wife returned to Paris, where his pursuits shifted from literature and philosophy to art. After a year, he returned to New York, where his early work reflects his interest in the painters Juan Gris (1887–1927) and Piet Mondrian (1872–1944).
Greene’s abstract paintings dating from the late 1930s were influenced by the philosophy of the group “Abstraction-Création, Art Nonfiguratif,” which promoted geometric abstraction and included Piet Mondrian, the Russian Constructivists, Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), and other Bauhaus artists. As scholars have pointed out, Greene’s understanding of the theories of abstraction espoused by these artists led him to seek “a private geometry, exploring a statement of visual and personal memory. He no longer expected traditional perspective to make explicit weight, mass and space in his picture, and geometry renders spatial illusion in his work, an evocation of rest rather than action, of permanence rather than the transitory.” (3) In 1938 Greene himself explained his commitment to abstraction thus: “It is actually the artist, and only he, who is equipped for approaching the individual directly. The abstract artist can approach man through the most immediate of aesthetic experiences, touching below consciousness and the veneer of attitudes, contacting the whole ego rather than the ego on the defensive.” (4)
(1) From the charter of the American Abstract Artists, quoted in Robert Beverly Hale and Niké Hale, The Art of Balcomb Greene (New York: Horizon Press, 1977), p. 14.
(2) Ibid., p. 10.
(3) Ibid., p. 15.
American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2006, cat. no. 81, p. 194