Balcomb Greene

born NY 1904-died Montauk Point, NY 1990
Media - greene_balcomb.jpg - 90010
Courtesy Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, 1935-1942, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Also known as
  • John Wesley Greene
New York, United States
Montauk Point, New York, United States
Active in
  • New York, New York, United States
  • American

Balcomb Greene began his art career only after he married Gertrude Glass in 1926. He had studied philosophy and psychology as a student at Syracuse University, and spent a year doing graduate work in psychology in Vienna. In 1927, the Greenes returned to New York, where Balcomb pursued advanced study in English literature. For the following three years, Greene taught English at Dartmouth College and wrote fiction. After the couple went to Paris for a year late in 1931, Greene began to experiment with painting. He worked independently at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, but beyond this brief exposure to art school, he taught himself by frequenting the cafés of Paris and by looking at the new art to be seen in the French capital. He was fascinated with both Picasso and Matisse, but Juan Gris, Piet Mondrian, and the members of the Abstraction-Création group exercised special influence on Greene's development of a personal, artisticstyle.

In Paris, Greene quickly developed an acute analytical sense for modernism.After he and his wife settled in New York early in 1933, Greene published articles on art in Art Front, the magazine of the Artists' Union, as well as in several other publications. With his wife, he was active in several artists' organizations; in 1935 and 1936 he served as editor of Art Front, and he became the first chairman of the American Abstract Artists, a post to which he was twice reelected. In addition, Greene helped draft the group's charter, served on the editorial committee for the 1938 yearbook, and designed the cover for the first publication.

Until the WPA was formed in 1935, Greene made a precarious living writing for two sensationalist newspapers, Broadway Brevities and Graft.(1) After joining the WPA, he painted abstract murals for the Hall of Medicine at the 1939 New York World's Fair and for the Williamsburg Housing Project, and he designed a stained-glass window for a school in the Bronx. About 1940, Greene began working on a master's degree in art history at New York University. In 1942, he accepted a post at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he taught art history until 1959. The Pittsburgh move did not mean cutting New York ties for the Greenes. The couple commuted between the two cities, and in 1947 purchased land atMontauk Point, Long Island, where they spent as much time as possible.

It was not until the 1950s that Greene began to exhibit with any frequency. He had shown his earliest paintings—admixtures of realism, fantasy, and incongruous stylistic elements— in Paris in 1932. His work was featured at J.B. Neumann's New Art Circle in 1947, and in 1950, Greene began exhibiting at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. By this time his painting had undergone a fairly dramatic stylistic shift. During the 1930s, Greene worked with angular, geometric planes, intersecting and overlaying color to create distinctive spatial configurations. Completely nonobjective, his forms often functioned as objects in space, their perspectives controlled through the juxtaposition of diagonal and rectilinear structure. Greene often worked out compositions by making small paper collages, such as the Untitled works identified as "34–8", "35–4", "35–7", and "39–03". Intended as preparatory studies, these collages represented a thinking-through process and lack the surface finish that characterized his oils.(2)

Around 1943, Greene again began using the human figure in his work. Although not conscious of Surrealist influences, Greene's odd merging of geometric space with organically abstracted human figures—evident, for example, in Way Down Blue of 1945— represents a distinctly Surrealist impression.(3) By the late 1940s, Greene began a clear transition to the figurative style for which he is now well known. Light entered his work as an abstract compositional device, as did a desire to reflect fundamental humanist concerns. Beyond his involvement in artists' groups and his own paintings, Greene contributed significantly to the modernist cause through his eloquent and perceptive essays. He believed that the artist had a special gift for speaking directly to the individual:

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)

He also argued specifically for a new language in art:

: "Without denying that [the artist's] ultimate aim is to touch the crowd, he sees the futility of addressing it in the language commonly used by the crowd. He must employ his own language … in order to move, dominate and direct the crowd, which is his especial way of being understood. … The point in abstractionism, actually, is that the function of art and the means of achieving this function have been for the first time made inseparable."(5)

1. John I. H. Baur, "Balcomb Greene," in Balcomb Greene Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., roll N658: 504.

2. Much of Greene's early work, along with his early manuscripts, was destroyed in a studio fire in 1941.

3. John I. H. Baur, "Balcomb Greene," in Balcomb Greene Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

4. Balcomb Greene, "Expression as Production," American Abstract Artists: Three Yearbooks (1938, 1939, 1946) (reprint, New York: Amo Press, 1969), p. 30.

5. Balcomb Greene, "Abstract Art at the Modern Museum," Art Front 2, no. 5 (April 1936): 8.

Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)

Luce Artist Biography

Balcomb Greene followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Methodist preacher, traveling around the country and earning ten dollars a sermon. He studied philosophy and English literature, but decided to devote himself to art after visiting Paris with his wife, who was a sculptor. During the 1930s, he helped found the American Abstract Artists. He edited the group’s magazine and organized protests against museums for their reluctance to show abstract art. In 1942, however, he resigned from the group and moved to Pittsburgh to teach at Carnegie Tech. He not only removed himself from the New York art scene, but soon rejected pure abstraction as a “dead end” and focused instead on semiabstract compositions of figures and landscapes. (Hale and Hale, The Art of Balcomb Greene, 1977)