Charles Green Shaw was active as a novelist, poet and journalist, associating with such luminaries of the Jazz era as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and H.L. Mencken. Until his death in 1974, only a few of his close friends and contemporaries were aware of his career as an artist and his role in the promotion of non-objective art in the United States.
Born in 1872 to a wealthy New York family, Charles Shaw was educated at the Friends Seminary and the Berkeley School. He later attended Yale College, where he studied architecture. During the Great War, he served as a supply officer in England, before receiving a commission in the Army Air Force. At the end of the war he worked briefly as a real estate salesman; however, lacking the desire to pursue a business career, his attempt to uphold his family's traditional occupational ventures was short-lived.
During the early 1920's, Charles Green Shaw began working as a writer, contributing articles and interviews to such periodicals as Smart Set, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, his prominent social background giving him access to such personalities as Sinclair Lewis, George Nathan and Michael Strange (Mrs. John Barrymore). Like other of his era, Shaw often felt an overwhelming sense of disillusion with his generation; in his writing, he subsequently became the "master of the bon mot, the glib remark, the clever definition."
Charles Green Shaw's interest in art began during his childhood, when he began to paint and draw on his own. Throughout the twenties, he frequently made sketches of celebrities, including Mencken and Lewis, that were used as illustrations for his articles. While writing his book, The Low Down (1928), Shaw got to know the Ashcan painter George Luks, with whom he began to study privately. Shaw also took instruction at the Art Students' League under Thomas Hart Benton. In 1928, intent on developing his skills even further, Shaw travelled to Europe. During the next four years, he divided his time between Paris and London, familiarizing himself with the latest artistic trends and working in style that combined cubist design elements with fauvist color. He was also influenced by the aesthetic principles of De Stijl and Neo-Plasticism.
Returning to New York in 1932, Charles Green Shaw began developing another facet of his personal style which he referred to as "concretionist." Taking his cue from such artists as Jean Arp, whom he had met in Paris, Shaw frequently worked with tooled biomorphic shapes of wood, which he painted and attached to a masonite background. He also produced an important series of cubist-inspired paintings under the collective title, "Plastic Polygon," exploring geometric pattern through shaped canvases based on the profile of the Manhattan skyline. His commitment to abstraction was such that in 1935, the critic-artist, Albert E. Gallatin, stated that ". . . there is no question that Mr. Shaw is doing the most important work in abstract painting in America today."
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Charles Shaw had one-man exhibitions at several New York galleries including those of Curt Valentin, Bertha Schaefer and Georgette Passedoit. He also became a staunch defender of abstract art in an era when realism was the dominant aesthetic mode. In 1936, along with George L.K. Morris and others, Shaw helped found the American Abstract Artists Group. During that same year, he was invited to join the Museum of Modern Art's Advisory Board, where, for a period of five years, he continued to promote the advancement of avant-garde art. Shaw eventually became one of the few abstractionists to gain a following for his work, which was acquired by such noted institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Later in his career, his work became more painterly, consisting of monochromatic planes of intersecting color.
Charles Green Shaw died in New York in 1974. His personal papers, now in the collection of the Archives of American Art, reflect his contributions to the fields of both art and literature as well as chronicling the cultural life of New York, especially during the Jazz and Depression eras.
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