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 Balcomb (John Wesley) Greene  (1904 - 1990)



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Lived/Active: New York/New Hampshire / France      Known for: modernist seascape and figurative painting, teaching

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Ad Code: 3
Balcomb Greene
from Auction House Records.
Shadows and Sea
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Vered Gallery:
I do not believe that art should be explicit. It should be suggestive and ambiguous so the viewer has to enter in."

Balcomb Greene
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 abstract artists.  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.

The sea has been a major theme of the artist.  Inevitably following the rhythm of the waters, the boats lose their solid form, they merge in the broken light and the depth of an unknown space in the sea, and in the sphere of the artist's imaginative world of nature.

Balcomb Greene was born in Millville NY in 1904.  He was graduated from Syracuse University with a B.A. in Philosophy in 1926.  He went on to become an instructor in English at Dartmouth College where he taught from 1928-1931 before making the choice to focus entirely on art.  In 1931, he studied at the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere in Paris*.  In 1935 he became the first president of the Artist' Union and the Editor of The Art Forum.  Greene along with many other artists during the depression, was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA*).  Greene worked in the mural division from 1936-1939.  It was during these years that the American Abstract Artists* union was formed.  In 1937, Greene became its first President.  He served as president during the years 1939 and 1941, resigning from the group in 1943.

Greens's abstract-cubistic style was influenced by Juan Gris and Piet Mondrian as well as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.   His semi-abstracted compositions with emphasis on angular planes and muted tones are signature works.   His first one-person exhibition in New York City was at J. B. Neumann's New Art Circle Gallery in 1947.  The following year, he bought property and began building his home and studio on the cliffs of Montauk.  In 1950, Bertha Shaeffer Gallery held the first of many exhibitions of his work, exhibiting there annually through 1961.  In 1959 Balcomb Greene was one of 23 artists included in The Museum of Modern Art's important "New Images of Man" exhibition.

Success followed and in 1961, he was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  At that time, John I. H. Baur, director of the Whitney Museum wrote:  "He is, above all, an intuitive painter who will not be bound even by his own concepts?In on form or another he will continue to explore the deep inner springs of mind and emotion that make man what he is."

By the time Greene joined the Saidenberg Gallery in New York in the early Sixties, important museums, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art*, the Whitney Museum of American Art; The Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, already owned his work.  Noted collectors, among them Joseph Hirshhorn, Roy Neuberger and J.M. Kaplan, bought his paintings. 

Art News
in 1962 had the following: "Stating his vision with naturalness that makes the world 'style' seem too contrived, he has left behind any limitations of the studio situation, the props and the model, to enlarge the experience and its scope?." During the following four years Greene exhibited annually at Saidenberg Gallery NY - during the years 1962-1965.  In every new exhibition, critics found excitement and power in Greene's work.  As Saidenberg Gallery focused more exclusively on the works of Picasso, Greene sought and found a more vital contemporary gallery in Bela Fishko's Forum Gallery where he showed from 1970-1977.

He was honored by his colleagues twice during 1976.  First with the prestigious Altman Prize in Figure Painting, and again in the same year with his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters*.

Of his earliest work, little exists.  Much was destroyed in 1941 in a fire in a studio he shared with Albert Swinden.  Fire again swept his studio some years after his death, severely reducing the numbers of available works.


Allentown Art Museum; Art Institute of Chicago; Ball State University Museum of Art ; Baltimore Museum of Art; The Berkshire Museum; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie; Cincinnati Art Museum; Columbus Museum of Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Solomon R Guggenheim Museum; Guild Hall Museum and Art Center, East Hampton NY; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Indianapolis Museum of Art ; Joslyn Art Museum; Lowe Art Museum; M. I. T.; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts;  Museum of Fine Arts, Houston TX;  Museum of Modern Art, NY; Newark Museum; Neuberger Museum of Art; Pasadena Art Museum ; Parrish Art Museum; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Portland Art Museum; Sheldon Museum of Art; University of Nebraska Art Galleries;University of Texas, Austin TX; University of Virginia Art Museum; Vassar College Art Museum; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art; Walker Art Center; Weatherspoon Art Gallery; and Whitney Museum of American Art

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary


Biography from Southport Galleries:
Balcomb Greene, christened John Wesley Greene, was born in Milleville, New York in 1904.  His childhood was spent in small towns across the Midwest, where he had little exposure to the world of art.   Greene's initial intention was to become a preacher like his father, and in 1922 he entered Syracuse University to study religion.  While at Syracuse, he realized that he was more interested in the liberal arts and eventually changed his course of study from religion to philosophy. 

In 1926, shortly before graduating from Syracuse, Greene met and married the sculptor and painter Gertrude Glass.   In 1931, after teaching at the University of Vienna in Austria, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and receiving a Masters in English Literature at Columbia, Greene and his wife moved to Paris to experience the art scene abroad.

While in Paris, Greene became familiar with the contemporary European art world, especially Cubism and Neo-Plasticism, and eventually decided to become a painter himself.  Greene's early style was completely non-objective and heavily influenced by the geometric abstraction of painters Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, and especially, Piet Mondrian.

When he returned to the United States Greene continued to develop his own abstract style, which he referred to as "straight line, flat paintings."  He began to make collages of cut colored paper to create the flattened compositions he desired. In 1937, he helped found the Abstract American Artists and became its first chairman.

In 1942, Greene abandoned abstraction, a genre which he believed was limited and sterile, in favor of figuration, atmospheric light and natural space.  This was a bold refusal to conform to the mainstream world of abstract art, a world that he was very influential in forming.  Using an expressionistic brushstroke and a nearly monochromatic palate of soft grays, blacks and whites, Greene painted nudes against a fragmented landscape.

In 1947 Greene moved to Montauk Point, New York, where was inspired by the dynamism of the sea and painted many energetic seascapes and maritime scenes.

Greene lived the rest of his life in Montauk and died there in 1990 at the age of 86. His work is found in prominent museums across the United States and his influence on American art is significant.

Biography from Spanierman Gallery:
Balcomb Greene has been described as "an iconoclast, a painter who has refused to conform to the latest artistic trends."  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.

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) 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, 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." 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, 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.


© The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC, nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

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