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Over a lifespan of 86 years, Balcomb Greene followed his muse wherever it led, unfettered by what had come before, unafraid of where the future might lead. Despite a series of different pathways explored, his purpose remained ever constant: to express truth as he found it and communicate it to a broader audience. In the 1930s, Greene was a young artist committed to abstraction as his expressive language. Greene’s paintings and collages of the 1930s reflect the influence of Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian and put him in the company of fellow Americans, including Ibram Lassaw, Josef Albers, Ilya Boltowsky and George L. K. Morris, all among the founding members, in 1936, of American Abstract Artists. 

John Wesley Greene, his christened name which he never legally changed, was born in 1904 in Millville, New York, the third child and only son of Methodist minister The Reverend Bertram Stillman Greene (1864–1929) and Florence Stover Greene (1876–1911). His family on both sides were Revolutionary-era colonists, originally living in Connecticut and Vermont before joining the Yankee migration to the western frontier of New York State. In 1922, John Wesley Greene enrolled at Syracuse University aided by a scholarship for the sons of Methodist ministers and intending to fulfill the promise of his name and follow his father into the ministry. As with so many before and after him, the liberal education he absorbed at Syracuse broadened his horizons and reshaped his life plan. Studying philosophy, psychology, and literature, along the way he separated himself from organized religion. During his senior year, on a visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Greene was introduced to Gertrude Glass (1904–1956), an art student and the Brooklyn-born daughter of Latvian Jewish immigrants.

Following Greene’s graduation, the two married in 1926 and went to Europe. They stopped briefly in Paris but spent most of their time in Vienna where Greene had a fellowship to study psychology. When they returned to New York in 1927, Greene enrolled in a master’s program in ‘English literature at Columbia University. When his thesis advisor rejected his essay topic on the “fallen woman” in seventeenth-century literature as inappropriate, he left without a degree. From 1928 until 1931, Greene taught English at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. At some point, he stopped using his given name, John, and began to call himself, more distinctively, Balcomb, the family name of his paternal grandmother.

While Greene wrote three novels (all unpublished) during his teaching years at Dartmouth, his wife was a working artist, and he eventually developed an interest of his own in painting. In 1931, Greene gave up his teaching position and he and Gertrude went to Paris, determined to immerse themselves in the modern art ferment they had briefly experienced in their earlier visit. For young Americans with no prescribed agenda, a receptiveness to innovation, and wide-open eyes and minds. Paris, in 1931, offered a rich stew of approaches to modern art. The city absorbed and transmuted an international mélange of styles—cubism, orphism, futurism, dadaism, constructivism, neoplasticism, suprematism, de Stijl, Bauhaus—France encountering Holland, Germany, Italy, and Russia with Pablo Picasso from Spain, Constantin Brancusi from Romania, and Jacques Lipchitz from Lithuania. As a sculptor, Gertrude Greene was fascinated by the constructivism of the Russian brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner as well as the work of Brancusi, Jean Arp, and Jacques Lipshitz. Initially, according to plan, Gertrude sculpted while her husband continued to write. Soon, however, Greene felt the pull of the expressive possibilities of paint and registered for instruction at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an inexpensive and loosely organized school. 

Balcombe Greene found in abstraction the means of communication that had eluded him as an aspiring minister, as a psychologist, and as a teacher and writer of fiction. Artists had long recognized the influence of hidden geometries in influencing viewer’s perceptions and reactions to their works. Twentieth-century abstraction or “non-objective” art, dispensed with recognizable figural images and manipulated geometry and color, aiming, as with earlier art, to reach the viewer on a level below conscious awareness. This would be art in a new language for a new society, appealing to the senses but free from the baggage of the past and the accusation that photography had rendered art pointless. Balcomb Greene’s abstraction was essentially an optimistic art, its clean geometries conveying the anticipation of the better future that science and technology appeared to promise to citizens of the twentieth century, most especially to Americans. 

Balcomb and Gertrude Greene returned to New York City in 1932, invigorated by the possibilities for their art, but facing a catastrophic general financial depression that severely curtailed the ability of fine artists to earn a living. They settled in Greenwich Village surrounded by fellow artists. The Greenes plunged into arts advocacy, active participants in the American Artists’ Union, founded in 1933 to agitate for government support for struggling artists. Balcomb Greene’s literary powers of persuasion found an outlet in Art Front, the magazine of the Artist’s Union published from 1934 to 1937 where he was a regular contributor as well as a member of the editorial board. He scrambled for any work he could find work, until about 1935 when political pressure was rewarded with a series of New Deal programs designed to put artists to work to produce public art funded by public money. Abstract art, however, continued to be an outlier, both for public money and for acceptance of work by Americans into major museum shows and collections. Politically it proved an irresistible target for elected officials who happily appointed themselves as the sensible guardians of the taxpayers’ money. Even in the art world where abstraction was appreciated as a European avant-garde import, the work of Americans working in the style was dismissed as derivative and thus largely ignored. 

In 1936, a group of abstract artists began meeting to explore possibilities for group exhibitions. Balcomb and Gertrude Greene were among a nucleus of nine artists involved in the discussions. A general call to expand the effort went out. In January 1937, a large meeting of artists agreed to form an organization to be called American Abstract Artists, a general enough name to accommodate the diversity of styles included within the group. Balcomb Greene served as the first chairman of American Abstract Artists and as chairman again in 1939 and 1941. He was a major contributor to its charter and edited and wrote for its annual yearbook. In 1937 the group staged its first exhibition at the Squibb Gallery in New York featuring the work of 39 members including both Balcomb and Gertrude Greene. Gertrude Greene was the group’s first paid employee, sitting at the show’s reception desk. Instead of a catalogue the group issued a portfolio of lithographs of the works in the show, printing 500 copies. The exhibition received wide publicity and predictably mixed reviews ranging from sneers to enthusiasm. Second and third and fourth exhibitions with publications followed in 1938, 1939, and 1940.

Balcomb Greene was fundamentally an intellectual. In 1940, he went back to school once again, this time for a master’s degree in art history from the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. From 1942 to 1959, he taught art history and aesthetics at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University). Although Greene never stopped painting, his art began to change, reflecting as always, his openness to use whatever means he thought most suitable to express his meaning. He commuted between his obligations in Pittsburgh and his life in New York. With new time constraints and a changing world, he resigned in 1942 from American Abstract Artists. (Although in Pittsburgh, in 1944, he was among four co-founders of “The Abstract Group.”) In 1947, he and Gertrude purchased property in Montauk, Long Island where they built a studio home.

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