Between Figuration and Abstraction: Rediscovering Stephen Greene

Life Magazine, 1950


Between Figuration and Abstraction: Rediscovering Stephen Greene

Author: Alan London

PHD Student, HAA

I spent time this past summer researching some mostly forgotten twentieth century American painters who negotiated, in assorted individual ways, the treacherous mid-century intersections of figuration and abstraction. One of the most interesting of them is Stephen Greene (1917-1999) who, after an extended crisis of artistic confidence, was inspired by a 1958 series of six lectures by Clement Greenberg to change, abruptly, his painting style from Renaissance-inspired realism to a kind of refashioned color-field approach.  

What luck for me to discover that the best before-and-after illustration of Greene’s turnabout is right here at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which owns an excellent example of each of Greene’s two major periods, Mourning (Five Figures with Candles) (oil on canvas, 1947) and Violet Light (oil on canvas, 1969). And what a boon to have the cooperation of Elizabeth Tufts Brown, CMOA Associate Registrar, and Hannah Turpin, Curatorial Assistant for Photography and Modern and Contemporary Art, in arranging for me to see these two paintings.

Stephen Greene’s work is virtually unknown today, and most museums that own his paintings, including the CMOA, do not have them on display. But it was not always so. In the March 20, 1950, issue of Life, Greene was featured as one of the magazine’s nineteen best artists in the United States under the age of 36. And seven months later, in its October 23, 1950, issue, Life gave Greene his own two-page spread, citing him as a highly successful painter whose work was bought up quickly by important museums and collectors. The CMOA picture, Mourning, while not reproduced in the article, is clearly in the same formal and emotional mode as his works about Holocaust themes that Life did reproduce, with the same dry, chalky tonality and the same bald, manikin-like figures, sharing space and sorrow but not communicating. Indeed, several of the figures in Mourning are variations on the candle-holding mourner in The Burial.

It’s rare to find examples of Greene’s figural work on the market, but there are plenty of opportunities to see his abstract paintings. In 2016, the Jason McCoy Gallery in New York had an exhibition of Greene’s large abstract paintings from the 1960s, curated by the artist’s daughter, Alison de Lima Greene, the Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Although the color worlds of the paintings in the 2016 exhibition are different from that of the CMOA’s example of Greene’s abstract work, Violet Light, the general formal impression the viewer gets is similar. As Ms. de Lima Greene explained in an exhibition presentation accessible at the above website: “As gesture and hue gained in importance, [Greene] brought a new quality of light to his paintings, working through subtle layers of oil washes, and bringing a quiet drama to his nuanced orchestrations of primary and secondary colors. At the same time, he allowed certain shapes to resonate, and fragments of ladders, props, and the human anatomy persist like latent memories.”  In my encounter with the later Greene picture in the CMOA collection, I see a boomerang (or a wishbone), a disposable razor, and maybe a kidney, all disbursed among the soft mauves and greys and brighter orange flashes of Violet Light.

If I consider Stephen Greene as a case study in my dissertation, one theme through which his work could be explored could be that proposed by Michael Fried (who in the 1950s was Greene’s student at Princeton, as was Frank Stella) in a May, 1963, Arts Magazine article titled The Goals of Stephen Greene. “The crucial problem raised by Stephen Greene’s work is this: can a painter today make paintings which are meant to express a particular mood or attitude toward reality and which yet manage to satisfy the imperious and rather restricting demands of a sensibility trained on the abstract painting of the past twenty-five years?”

This remains an important question for the history of midcentury American art. The museum records that Elizabeth and Hannah were kind enough to share with me suggest that Mourning was a museum purchase in 1982 using the A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund and that Violet Light was donated to the museum in 1983 by the art dealer from whom Mourning had been purchased.  There appears to be no record of either painting ever being exhibited in the Museum’s galleries, a fascinating reflection of Greene’s own position within the shifting sensibilities of American painting during and since the 1950s.

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