Balcomb (1904-1990) and his wife Gertrude (1904-1956) were painters in New York, N.Y. John Wesley Greene (known professionally as Balcomb Greene), born May 22, 1904 in Millville, New York, was the youngest child of Reverend Bertram Stillman Greene, a Methodist minister. After his wife died in 1907, Reverend Greene and the children moved several times when he accepted assignments at small town churches in Iowa, South Dakota, and Colorado.
The recipient of a scholarship for sons of Methodist ministers, Greene entered Syracuse University in 1922, intending to become a minister. He studied philosophy, psychology, literature, and art, eventually deciding to pursue a career as a writer. When visiting the Metropolitan Museum during his senior year, Greene was introduced to Gertrude Glass by her cousin. They married soon after his graduation in 1926.
The newlyweds moved to Austria where he had a fellowship to study psychology at the University of Vienna. Greene was very interested in Freud's work and hoped to become his student; although he attended Freud's lectures and met the eminent psychologist once, this ambition was not realized. After returning to New York in 1927, Greene began studying for a master's degree in English literature at Columbia University. He specialized in the novel, and wrote three (none were published). When his thesis about prostitutes as portrayed in seventeenth century literature was submitted, Greene's major professor was on sabbatical; although the subject had been approved, the interim replacement rejected it as unsuitable. Greene left Columbia without obtaining a degree.
Greene then accepted a position at Dartmouth College where he taught literature from 1928-1931. The Greenes spent summers together in the city and visited frequently throughout the academic year. He continued writing and in 1930 began painting. Because there were already two artists named John Green then in New York, Greene soon adopted the name Balcomb (his maternal grandmother's maiden name). Although he was known as Balcomb for the remainder of his life, his name was never changed legally.
Balcomb Greene's first solo exhibition was held at Dartmouth College in 1931. After his resignation from the Dartmouth faculty in 1931, Balcomb and Gertrude spent a year in Paris. She found a studio and set to work. He planned to write, but was distracted by the desire to paint. He began independent study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and in 1932 exhibited his work in Paris. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s Greene produced very flat geometric abstractions, adding biomorphic and anthropomorphic forms over time. By the mid-1940s, he found himself bored by pure abstraction and introduced figures, focusing on mass and space rather than line.
Greene quickly established himself as an artist, developed a wide circle of friends and was recognized as a leader of the abstract movement. He and Gertrude were both drawn to political causes that affected artists; along with friends they began the Unemployed Artists' Group (which later became the Artists' Union) and staged public demonstrations demanding government assistance so that artists would not be completely dependent on private patronage. He published articles in
, the magazine of the Artist's Union, and served on its editorial board between 1935 and 1936. Balcomb and Gertrude Greene were among the founding members of American Abstract Artists; he served as the group's first chairman.
Like many artists during the Great Depression, Balcomb Greene found it very difficult to maintain a steady income. During this period he held many different jobs, among them: writing for the sensationalist newspapers
, serving on the crew of a schooner searching for pirate gold in the South Pacific, and working at the non-profit Emily Francis Contemporary Gallery. Eventually, he secured a teaching position with the Federal Art Project. He later switched to the mural section where assignments included painting murals for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn and the Federal Hall of Medicine at the 1939 World's Fair, and designing a stained glass window for a school in the Bronx.
Because he did not want to support his career by teaching painting, in 1940 Balcomb Greene began graduate work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He earned a master's degree in 1942 and that same year began teaching history of art and culture at Carnegie Institute of Technology, a position he held until 1959. Gertrude set up a studio in their Pittsburgh home, but continued to maintain her New York studio, commuting between the two cities until war conditions made the trip too difficult. They returned to New York each summer, and in 1947 bought property on Long Island at Montauk Point where Balcomb constructed a modern house of cement blocks.
In addition to teaching and painting, Greene continued to write. Several articles about art and philosophy appeared between 1936 and 1950 in publications such as
College Art Journal
. He also wrote many poems. During his tenure at Carnegie Tech Balcomb Greene worked on but did not complete a book tentatively titled "The Villain and the School" and formulated ideas for another.
While Gertrude was terminally ill with cancer, and after her death in 1956, Balcomb reduced his teaching commitments, staying in Pittsburgh for only one semester each year. After retiring in 1959, he painted at Montauk and traveled. While in Paris, Greene met journalist Terryn Trimpen, whom he married in 1961.
Balcomb Greene was represented by Bertha Schaefer Gallery, Saidenberg Gallery and ACA Gallery, in New York, and by the Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples, Florida. He exhibited widely, participating in the annual exhibitions of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Art Institute of Chicago, and in group shows at the Walker Art Center, Brooklyn Museum, and other venues. Solo shows included exhibitions at the Forum Gallery, ACA Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Fairweather-Hardin Gallery, Chicago; and the Oceanographic Institute and Harmon-Meeks Gallery in Florida. Greene's work is in the permanent collections of many museums, among them the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
During the last five years of his life, Balcomb Greene was in frail health and unable to paint. He died November 12, 1990 at his Montauk Point home.
Gertrude Glass (who worked as an artist using her married name Gertrude Greene) was the daughter of Siegfried and Berta Glass, prosperous Latvian immigrants who owned a Brooklyn department store. At age 18, Gertrude and an older sister left home and organized a pre-school. From 1924 to 1928, Gertrude attended evening sculpture classes at the newly opened Leonardo Da Vinci Art School, a very traditional school in Manhattan that offered free instruction. Although the school itself was conservative, there Gertrude met and identified with a group of fairly radical students who were interested in the abstract art then emerging.
Glass and Greene were married in 1926 and spent the next year in Vienna. Upon returning to New York, she continued to make sculpture. Once they relocated to New Hampshire Gertrude was able to have her own sculpture studio. New Hampshire did not suit her and she gradually drifted back to the art world of New York. After Balcomb resigned from the Dartmouth faculty in 1931, the couple spent a year in Paris. They met many artists and frequented galleries where they saw the latest contemporary art. Gertrude worked on her sculpture and Balcomb, who had planned to write, began concentrating on painting; this was the only time the two shared a studio. When they moved to Pittsburgh, Gertrude kept her New York studio, expecting to commute regularly between the two cities, but war constraints soon made that plan impractical.
Gertrude Greene was active in liberal political causes, especially ones that affected artists and encouraged the formation of WPA programs to help struggling artists. She was an active member of the Federation of Painters and Sculptors, the Artists' Union, and a founding member of American Abstract Artists. As AAA's first paid employee, Gertrude served as gallery attendant. Before moving to Pittsburgh, both Greenes were very active on AAA committees, worked to further acceptance of abstract art, and picketed on many occasions. Typical of AAA actions was a 1937 demonstration against Museum of Modern Art exhibition policies that gave short shrift to abstract work by American artists.
Gertrude Greene was among the very earliest of American artists - quite possibly the first - to produce non-objective relief sculptures in the early 1930s. Over time, she absorbed Cubist tradition and ideas of the Russian Constructivists, synthesizing them into her own work. By the 1940s, she had become interested in Mondrian and Neo-Plasticism, influences that are reflected in her constructions of the period. Her final sculpture was produced in 1946 and for the remainder of her career she focused exclusively on abstract painting.
She participated in many group exhibitions, the first of which was at Wildenstein Gallery in 1945. Grace Borgenicht Gallery presented the first solo exhibition of Gertrude Greene's work in 1952, and another was held at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in 1955. In 1982, there was a major retrospective of her work at ACA Gallery. Gertrude Greene's work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.
Gertrude Greene's health began deteriorating in 1956; eventually, cancer was diagnosed. Later that year, on November 25, she died at a New York City hospital.