Between Narrative and Mystery
Marshall N. Price
Stephen Greene’s interest in classical antiquity, late Gothic, and Renaissance precedents provided the foundation upon which the artist built a visual vocabulary that reveals as much as it enshrouds. Greene drew inspiration from the humanist content of these earlier periods. The series of works that he painted in the 1980s was in many ways the culmination of his interest in and distillation of these elements. For Greene, humanism was always part of the equation and existential themes were a rich source for the subject matter he mined for an entire career. By the time he painted the Gardens of the Night, Apparition, and
Enigma series, Greene had carried forward the narremeto borrow a literary term meaning the building blocks of a narrativeof his early career, albeit in a metamorphosized, now mostly abstract format, to create intensely personal, often sensual, and unquestionably enigmatic paintings. Mystery was a constant in Greene’s work and the vaguely figurative references to body parts, bones, and totemic shapes situate the artist vertiginously between representation and complete abstraction. These ghostly apparitions are wisps of an idiom the artist had engaged with for years, and they point to the adaptation of a language employed by Greene that created potent metonyms for emotive content. On another, very subtle level however, these images serve an eidetic purpose, linking them not only to his earliest works, but also to the Renaissance masters which Greene so revered.1
The larger universal theme of betrayal, punishment, and suffering derived from a Greek tale provided the inspiration for the Prometheus series of paintings. Prometheus, a Greek Titan, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. As his punishment, he was chained to a rock only to have an eagle come and devour his liver daily. Preceding the moment of struggle between man and beast in this repeated tragedy, Prometheus No. 13 is punctuated by the frenetic strokes of blue, orange, and red, above which dangles a looping premonition of excruciating pain. It is in many ways a Hellenistic depiction of a timeless subject and recalls the equally dramatic and writhing figures of the Laocoön. Greene worked as a visual alchemist distilling the elements of a narrative to treat its broader universal themes in an abstract idiom. It proves that long after Greene had removed the figure from his work in the late 1950s, his interest in and compassion for human travails remained constant. Even more important for him, however, was the need to transcend the constraints of literal representation in order to communicate motifs of unassailable humanism. He recognized that people are inherently responsible for their actions and transposed this notion into his work. “In my own work, the tragic sense informs the entire image and Everyman, so that in a flagellation it is not only the Christ figure that suffers but also his torturers. We are all involved, we are all responsible.”2
A similar sense of tragedy is found in the artist’s Expulsion series. A dagger-like protrusion pierces the dark layers of thinly applied paint in the middle of the composition in Expulsion No. 1. Numbering his series establishes an intrinsic progression. In Expulsion No. 10, the sinuous forms and fragmented bone-like shapes suggest a temporal dimension and perhaps even the conclusion of a narrative. Going beyond the corporeal references of ossified silhouettes in works such as Expulsion No. 10 we penetrate deep into the heart of what the artist intended. Excavating Greene’s work reveals an inner stratum of emotion conceived by veils of paint and evocative forms. By the 1980s, the figure, long since vanished from his work in any recognizable form, now played a very different role. Two decades earlier the artist articulated, “The figure appears from time to time in my present work but in a different manner and is not easily recognizable. This does not mean that I am less interested in making human contact in painting, or that the passion has gone underground. I now want the painting itself to be the passion rather than to illustrate it.”3
Contrary to what has been written about Greene’s work in the past, illustrating tragedy (literally or metaphorically) is not its raison d’etre.4 Admittedly, notions of tragedy and human suffering play a primary role certainly in the early work of the artist and do continue to do so throughout much of his career. Beginning in the early 1980s with series such as Gardens of the Night, however, and furthered by The Garden Revealed, the Apparition, and Enigma series, a revelatory tenor enters his oeuvre. These works reveal humanism’s “other side” in which conception, evolution, and redemption are suggested by the welling forms in Apparition No. 3, preserving what came to be a repeated theme
of enigmatic allegory for the artist. The torqued and tortured forms of Prometheus and Expulsion series now give way to succinct dashes, sweeping curves, and small totemsof embryonic, life-affirming character. In many of these paintings such as C No. 2 and Apparition No. 11, Greene builds his composition around a central motif with circular embracing contours. Fluid areas of neutral tones are punctuated with colorful slashesand numerous gestural layers of color that keep literal representation at bay. While notentirely sanguine, these paintings provide a hint of the artist’s incubatory optimism.
Greene’s work is perhaps the antithesis of the formalist declaration by Frank Stella, who wasonce Greene’s student, of “What you see is what you see.” Greene preserved the mystery andenigma of mythology and narrative through his veiled washes, abstract totemic forms, andsuggestive corporeal allusions. Universal themes are treated with sibylline ciphers. Thesepaintings are neither abstract nor representational but seem to reside in a visual purgatory, anambiguous place where categorization is transcended and oppositional forces of the Dionysianand Apollonian, representation and abstraction, tragedy and ecstasy coexist. Indeed, in thecase of Greene’s paintings what you see is not only what you see, but also infinitely more.
1 The link between Greene’s representational paintings of the 1940s and 50s, the early abstract paintings of the 1960s, and their Renaissance inspirations was recognized by Michael Fried. See Michael Fried, “The Goals of Stephen Greene,” Arts Magazine 37 (MayJune 1963), 26.
2 Stephen Greene, “The Tragic Sense,” in From Sophocles to Picasso: The Present-day Vitality of the Classicist Tradition, edited by Whitney J. Oates, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1962), 166.
3 Stephen Greene, “A Case in Point,” Art in America 49 (1961), 84.
4 John Yau, “Luminous Shrouds: The Recent Paintings of Stephen Greene,” Arts Magazine 58 (November 1983), 84.