Preserving The Riddle of Life
By Stephanie Buhmann
Effortlessly seductive in their lush palette and dynamically unraveling forms, the works from the last two decades of Stephen Greene's oeuvre radiate in their honest celebration of human existence with all its desires and darkness. As a group, the eight paintings and additional drawings featured in this exhibition translate as deeply felt reflections on a life that was defined by over fifty years of creative work, embraced as both artist and influential teacher. As the exhibition unfolds, the impression crystallizes that Greene's ambition was not to solve the riddle of life, but rather the contrary: to preserve its mystery.
Pleasure Dome, a title used by Greene in a series of his works from the 1990s, in retrospect becomes both a reference to the erotic undertones humming within Greene's abstractions and a metaphor for the arch that spans his reservoir of work. Over the course of decades, Greene's focus shifted from figurative compositions with overtly Christian themes of sacrifice and redemption (Greene himself was Jewish), to almost entirely abstract compositions - a progression significantly propelled by a lecture on Barnett Newman given by Clement Greenberg at Princeton in 1957.
Intertwined and semi-fused forms describe Greene's late imagery, which has been applied to the canvas in multiple layers, then sporadically scraped off into translucent thinness or even relief-like scars that reveal the white of the primed linen. Loosely arranged in vertical rhythms, compositions such as Pleasure Dome and Voyage lure the viewer into the texture of their unique landscapes, in which each color banner functions as a mystifying veil. Vivid flesh tones and vibrant blue-greens are offset by dark maroons or subdued browns, for example, providing each work with a musical quality that gains from the strong visual dialogue between fore- and background shapes. As the viewer's eye traverses the broader formal spectrum, occasional details draw particular attention.
In Expulsion No. 5, a fine white line captures the ghost image of a lily's leaves and stamen. Embedded in dark reds and a hazy black cloud that dominates the lower center, this floral fragment, in combination with the title's Old Testament reference, serves as a narrative key to the painting. Not unlike a slowly dimming light, the lily, a symbol of purity, life and sensuality, manifests as a vanishing afterthought to what has been lost due to the Expulsion from Eden. A passionate admirer of the gardens of Arshile Gorky and Jean-Antoine Watteau, Greene created a world from within, exclusively sparked by his own perception and based on his hopes, fears, and desires. In this context, the idea of a garden contains an almost romantic notion, as it serves as a symbol for a safe haven. For Greene, the Expulsion from this spiritual sanctuary equaled death.
In fact, inspiration hovered close by as Greene's studio was surrounded by flowers much of the spring, summer, and fall. Yet, whereas the surroundings of his creative space are well documented, its interior secrets were not to be revealed. In contrast to Greene’s creative process, which was strictly private and to be experienced in solitude, the finished works encouraged the response of a larger audience, leaving room for unique interpretations.