Charles Shaw began painting when he was in his late thirties. A 1914 graduate of Yale, Shaw completed a year of architectural studies at Columbia University. In 1927, he began to take a serious interest in art and enrolled in Thomas Hart Benton’s class at the Art Students League in New York. He also studied privately with George Luks who became his friend. Prior to this, Shaw enjoyed a successful career as a free-lance writer for The New Yorker, Smart Set, and Vanity Fair, chronicling the life of the affluent theater and café society of the 1920s. Shaw, born into a wealthy New York family, had entrée and moved easily in the social circles of New York, Paris, and London in the late 1920s and 1930s.(1)
In addition to his witty and insightful articles, Shaw was a poet, novelist, and journalist. He published several books—a novel entitled Heart in a Hurricane and a collection of interviews with New York literary figures called The Low Down.(2) Once he had dedicated himself to non-traditional painting, Shaw’s deft ability with pen made him a potent defender of abstract art.
After initial study with Benton and Luks, Shaw continued his artistic education in Paris by visiting museums and galleries. During the first week of a 1932 trip, he surveyed thirteen galleries, and was particularly impressed by the work of Cézanne and Picasso.(3) From 1930 to 1932, Shaw’s paintings evolved from a style imitative of Cubism to one inspired by it though simplified and more purely geometric. In 1933, having returned to the United States, he began a series of works entitled the Plastic Polygon that occupied his attention until the end of the decade. The best known of these are drawn from the architectural forms of the New York City skyline and are often painted on shaped canvases that echo the architectural silhouette of the skyscrapers. Within this structural framework, overlapping rectangular forms allude to different heights and widths of adjacent buildings. In them, illusory space is compressed; only the tonal variations of the colors and the subtle manipulation of rectangles evoke a sense of three dimensionality.
The Plastic Polygon series, which Shaw described in an article for Plastique, earned him a respectable reputation among the individuals and galleries interested in American abstract art in the 1930s. He had a solo exhibition at Valentine Gallery in 1934, and in 1935, Albert Gallatin organized a show of Shaw’s work at the Gallery of Living Art.
Shaw traveled to Paris again during the summer of 1935 with Gallatin and George L. K. Morris. There he met John Ferren and Jean Hélion. The following year Gallatin organized an exhibition, called American Concretionists, at the Reinhardt Gallery that included Shaw, Ferren, and Morris, as well as Alexander Calder and Charles Biederman.
Shaw became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists and exhibited in the first annual exhibition. His article, “A Word to the Objector,” was included in the group’s first publication. In it, Shaw chastised “anti-abstractionists” for their prejudice against abstract art. He also, in the article, expressed his profound belief that abstract painting was “an appeal to one’s ‘aesthetic emotion’ alone [rather than] to those vastly more familiar emotions, which are a mixture of sentimentality, prettiness, anecdote, and melodrama.”(4)
During the 1940s Shaw strayed from the strict geometrical format of the polygon paintings. Untitled of 1941 is awhimsical and delicate painting of tents in a nocturnal landscape reminiscent of Paul Klee’s work. Here and in Untitled Abstraction of 1943, Shaw softened both his palette and his edges in favor oflyrical balance and subtly modulated color.
Throughout his career as an artist, Shaw made montages of antique playing and tarot cards, game boards, and other paraphernalia associated with games. Reflecting his study of the history of cards and games, Shaw mounted cards on old textiles in symmetrical and asymmetrical designs. Although most are undated, the composition of the earlier montages is randomly ordered and spontaneous, while the more highly structured later works relate to the geometric formulation of the plastic polygon paintings.(5)
These montages were personal works for Shaw. He never exhibited them, although they were installed from floor to ceiling throughout his apartment. Indeed, the enigmatic quality of the cards provides an intriguing twist in the study of Shaw’s art and contributes additional clues to his multifaceted character.
1. George L. K. Morris described Shaw as “well over six feet tall and sturdily built. His appearance was elegant, with a neatly trimmed mustache and a slightly florid countenance. He might have passed as one of the elusive characters in a British spy movie. ” See “Charles Shaw,” Century Yearbook (New York: Century Association, 1975).
2. For more information on Shaw’s literary accomplishments and acquaintances, see Buck Pennington, “The ‘Floating World’ in the Twenties: The Jazz Age and Charles Green Shaw,” Archives of American Art Journal 20, no. 4 (1980): 17–24. His accomplishments as a poet won Shaw the Michael Strange Poetry Award in 1954.
3. During his first trip to Europe, in 1929, Shaw spent only a month in Paris. In his diary entries from this trip he does not mention incidents related to art. His accounts of the 1932 trip, however, are filled with discussions of museum and gallery visits and the progress of his own painting.
4. Charles G. Shaw, “A Word to the Objector,” American Abstract Artists: Three Yearbooks (1938, 1939, 1946) (reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 11.
5. Shaw wrote a fascinating history of the imagery of playing cards in an article entitled “Before Kings and Queens Had Two Heads,” Connoisseur 127, no. 524 (January 1952): 162–66,201. Susan Larsen has discussed Shaw’s montages in “Through the Looking Glass with Charles Shaw,” Arts Magazine 51, no. 4 (December 1976): 82.
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)