December 23, 2008
Balcomb Greene: Coming Full Circle
I’ve been thinking a lot about Balcomb Greene lately, not just because of his paintings, which are on view at Spanierman Modern in New York, but because he appears to have had the kind of life most of us dream about.
With movie star looks and a knack for writing his own rules along the way, he is a compelling figure and, frankly, it must have been good to be he at least on some days. On the other hand, given his independent and often singular approach to painting, it might have been lonely as well.
His father was a Methodist minister, and he emerged from a starchy Midwestern upbringing with a determined pursuit of knowledge that translated into college teaching posts, three unpublished novels, and a successful artistic career pursuing his own path in New York, Paris, and Montauk.
He was born at the turn of the last century near Niagara Falls and spent his last moments at Montauk Point in 1990. He lost his first wife to cancer, but found a new love in Paris whom he married and brought back to America. He did graduate work in both English literature and art history, receiving a master’s degree in the latter from New York University, and taught at Dartmouth and the Carnegie Institute of Technology.
As a painter, Greene first fell under the sway of Piet Mondrian’s utopian purity in Paris during the early 1930s. That was before Mondrian came to New York and inspired a generation with “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” At the time, American artists were moving away from abstraction and beginning to embrace social realism.
Greene’s paintings from that period have more in common with American interpreters of Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, such as Ilya Bolotowsky, who was also a friend. Although he spent a decade using this approach to abstraction, the exhibit features particularly strong works from 1935.
Even in these completely nonobjective paintings, a slight reference to organic and structural forms remains. In “Untitled #23” and “Floating Forms,” hints of a streetscape or a landscape viewed from the air, such as in the work of Kasimir Malevich or other early modernists, are evident or at least alluded to.
Christine Berry, who organized the exhibit using pieces from the artist’s estate, noted that Greene took part in the Works Progress Administration and also painted realistic public murals. But in his studio at that time, one found only abstraction.
The works she has chosen are particularly well suited to serve as reference points as the artist made the transition away from this austere form of abstraction in the 1940s.
“Black and Red Tension” is a fascinating iconoclastic work that appears intended to explode the neat precision of Mondrian with a set of missile-like forms and a fluid red patch that overlays the black linear bounds of the work. While not entirely freeform, the red section expresses a certain frustration with the limits of the master’s formalist grid.
An untitled work from 1941 demonstrates an increasing complexity and layering of geometric forms. This then evolves or devolves, depending on your viewpoint, into a much more fluid abstraction in “The Nautical Land,” from 1943. That painting and the ones that follow from 1946 through 1951 were also chosen to highlight Greene’s subtle return to the form even before he returned to true figuration.
This period illustrates the artist’s increasing dissatisfaction with the strictures of geometric abstraction after achieving his goals of clarity and balance, according to the catalog essay written by Lisa N. Peters.
While the show is not hung chronologically, Ms. Berry noted that in the catalog “you can see how the work changed. Page by page, he’s pulling out of geometric abstraction.”
Greene continued in a similar vein through the 1940s, increasing the amount and saturation of color along the way. At the same time he began taking photographs of nude figures, using light to manipulate the way shadows created their own forms, which complemented and contrasted with those of the body.
Greene’s renewed fascination with the figure stood in great contrast to the postwar reaction to it, which equated figuration with Fascism. His first months in Montauk coincided with explosive breakthroughs occurring in the Springs studios of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
Although it appears from his statements from the time that the artist mostly ignored the work of his Abstract-Expressionist neighbors, the painting titled “The Women” from 1958 might even be seen as a reaction to de Kooning’s “Woman” series of the 1950s. In de Kooning’s series the women are deconstructed in hot, fleshy colors with threatening teeth and crazed expressions.
In Greene’s painting, his own high-toned palette is replaced by moody grays, blues, and browns, but the figure is in full flower. The expressive language is still abstracted, but the subject is recognizable yet murky, as if seen through a fog. The content is suggestive but not overtly sexual.
In “Champs de Mars” from 1962, the Parisian figures, while captured in an instant, have a kind of implied hip kinetic energy — and a jerky modern rhythm similar to that in the then-radical work of Jean-Luc Godard in his first movie, “Breathless.” One expects to see Jean Seberg hawking The Herald Tribune in the background.
The rest of the figurative works in the show from the 1960s to the 1980s tend to be more akin to “The Women” in their generalized treatment of setting and intimate renderings of the female form. In “Rue de Brangue” in 1973 the two are merged, placing a nude female figure smack-dab in a recognizable cityscape.
Greene bought his Montauk property in 1947. After his second marriage he settled there and the dramatic vistas became important influences in later works. In “Island Harbor” from 1969, the allusion to the landscape is apparent. In “The Sea at Night” from five years later it is less so. In fact, the artist appears to have come full circle, redefining a naturalistic setting back into more generalized geometric forms.
What’s not apparent in reproductions is how varied Greene was in his approach to paint. At times he seems to have left portions of the canvas bare and then built other areas into impastoed thickness. In some of his early paintings, the translucent but deeply hued application of paint results in a glassy quality that contradicts the otherwise frank presentation of his geometric forms.
In those paintings, as in his figurative and landscape works, it is clear he was not afraid to make art that is beautiful. The exhibit is on view through Jan. 3.
This article can viewed on The East Hampton Star website.