Balcomb Greene (1904-1990)
An iconoclast, intellectual, and forward-thinking artist, Balcomb Greene maintained an active career in which, over the course of six decades, he held to his own individualistic aesthetic and ideological outlook, often turning in the opposite direction from trends in the art world. In works he created from the 1930s through the 1980s, he sought to face up to the risks and challenges that he set for himself.
Greene was born in Millville, New York, near Niagara Falls, and spent his childhood in small towns in Iowa, South Dakota, and Colorado, where his father served as a Methodist minister. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1926 with a degree in philosophy, he enrolled at the conservative Leonardo da Vinci School in downtown New York. In that year, he married the artist Gertrude Greene, and the two went to Paris and Vienna, where Balcomb studied psychology. He subsequently obtained a master's degree in English literature from Columbia University, and then was hired to teach at Dartmouth College. When the Greenes departed again for Paris in 1931, Balcomb's aim was to become a novelist (he had already written three novels, although none in the end were published). However, art became his focus in Paris, where he studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and absorbed a knowledge of Cubism, Dada, and the paintings of Piet Mondrian. When the Greenes returned to the United States in 1932, he had become a painter. Committed to abstraction, he developed his structural approach at this time, creating hard-edged works that he referred to as "straight line, flat paintings." An example is Tilted Blue , begun in 1936, in which overlapping geometric shapes imply urban spaces and reveal the artist's sophisticated understanding of principles of Cubism and Neo-plasticism.
In the years ahead, Greene promoted abstraction in America through his chairmanship of the Abstract American Artists, created murals for the WPA, and taught art history and aesthetics at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where students included Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein. In the 1940s he sought a more natural, spontaneous action in his art, turning to a representational approach as well as incorporating biomorphic and anthropomorphic forms into Surrealist images; he also produced photographic work. 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 artists' 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. In 1961 the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, held a large show of his work, and in 1978 Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, New York, organized his retrospective.
Examples of Greene's work can be found in many private and public collections, including the Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Newark Museum, New Jersey; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.