A Light That Did Not Fail A Source That Never Ran Dry
I can’t remember when it was, or where it was or how it was that I first met Stephen Greene. It must have been around 1981 and it could have been anywhere I moved in those days as a new New Yorker seeing shows, hanging shows, surveying the downtown horizon. That an artist of Steve’s reputation and generation was so ubiquitous and so open to someone younger who had nothing much to offer as proof of their seriousness except immature seriousness itself gives some indication of the remarkable person he had been and remained until the end. Of course, I knew who he was. As an avid collector of art magazines and catalogs I had come across his name and images of his work many times. And as a great admirer of Philip Guston, I knew about their pivotal friendship and, more importantly, saw the spark of devotion to old master painting as well as to Beckmann and “Gothic” modernism pass from the older prodigy to the younger prodigy in their pictures of the 1940s.
Eventually some questions about Guston that I had in connection with a book on him I was writing put me in regular touch with Steve, and in due course I was invited to Valley Cottage, New York to have lunch with him and his wife, the writer Sigrid de Lima. Scattered around the house were emblems of his ties to artists of his generation and of more recent ones. In addition to a small study of a harlequin by Guston was a small early 1960s abstraction by Frank Stella, who had been Steve’s student at Princeton, and there was a beautiful 1970s print by Jasper Johns. A call one day to come to Valley Cottage to share a meal with another friend ended in a long afternoon in lively conversation with Steve and Jasper. As usual Steve was the most animated person at the table and Jasper the most careful with his words, though his manifest affection for Steve resulted in his being by his own standards quite talkative.
I have set the stage this way to give the reader some sense of Stephen Greene’s place in the world in the decade or so before his death in 1999, and of his associations and long career dating back to his training with Guston at the University of Iowa toward the end of the Second World War, his stint in St. Louis where he replaced Guston at Washington University after Guston took over there from Beckmann, and the 1950s and 1960s heyday of the New York School of which he was an integral part. Naturally all of this was known to me and to anyone else who kept their eye on things since until the last decade or so having an art world reputation meant that artists kept track of each other remembering where their peers and predecessors originated, when and how they appeared on the scene, and what happened to them season by season thereafter. However, these days, it often seems, art critics and historians simply move on with the crowd when attention shifts away from an artist, ignoring art’s extended rhythms and cycles what the critical theorists call “longue durée” with the result that history collapses in on many who have done much to extend art’s scope. Yesteryear? What did we see yesterday?
Greene, a rising star of his generation who painted into his eighties, is, in fact, only ten years gone. Of relative recent sensations Jean-Michel Basquiat died over twice that long ago, and Keith Haring almost that long ago. But if fate can be especially cruel to meteoric talents, it reserves other hardships for those who must watch the spotlight wander back and forth across the stage for the entire time they are on it, drawing attention to them one minute, engulfing them in shadow the next. During the dark interludes the loyalty of contemporaries or near contemporaries and the friendship of younger generations seems to make all the difference. They did so for Steve. But except for his presence in group shows and periodic solo exhibitions as a free lance art handler I was lucky to have hung such exhibitions and learned that there is no better way to discover the nuances of someone’s painting access to Steve’s work required making a studio visit, which meant leaving the house filled by his collection and Sigrid’s books and entering the outbuilding beyond it.
What one found there, or, with luck saw in gallery shows around town, were paintings in which a sweeping grasp of modernist tradition was filtered through a keen intelligence and an innate lyricism. To say this is not to imply that the work was derivative, only that it was informed, layered and the site of a sure-handed poetic synthesis. Spanning almost a decade, the paintings in this exhibition evidence all of that and more. In them a fluid touch explores fields of tone and color that have been divided and subdivided by a hand hypersensitive to pictorial interval and cadence. Often that field is vertically bifurcated but rarely does that split
fall at dead center of the rectangle it traverses, so that every gesture or placement of forms that follows tease the symmetry of the implicit formal grid rather than yielding to or affirming it. Likewise, major abstract elements of the composition lean toward or away from that off-true spatial divide, or arc and curl in relation to it, adding to the tension that it imposes while sending currents through the washes that lap up against it like eddies against a breakwater.
But if the paintings seem almost aqueous in some areas, in others they give an entirely differ-ent impression, as if they were cross sections of a fractured agate or a spectral photogram of a rainbow bright aurora borealis. That Greene titled several of these paintings “Apparition” and “Enigma” suggests that he too was uncertain of what they represented or how stable and substantial the image really was. The clear delineation of an ear in Apparition No. 11 with all its anomalous Neo-Dada qualities in an abstraction of this kind, and the overt allusion to Johns’ use of a ruler as a compass to inscribe a curve in Enigma No. 14 accents greater ambiguities by causing flux to pivot on a recognizable image only to increase awareness of how little we know about what we see except insofar as the marks and pools of paint declares themselves as paint.
That Greene titled other series of the 1980s “Expulsion” and “Gardens of the Night” is an unequivocal reference to Eden and a reminder that as a figurative painter forty years before he had frequently depicted religious or quasi-religious scenes. That another theme of his latter life was Prometheus also recalls the preoccupation mid-century American art had with the mythic - this Greene had in common with the other proto Color Field painters, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko in particular - but in the work of the 1980s Greene reprises such themes without recourse to story-telling or blatant symbolism. Rather, the paintings of the latter phase of his life are moody and elegiac but also driven by a firm will to affect closure and distill from his past an essence that would provide him with everything he needed to live in the present and make fresh work to the last. This he achieved, and that freshness abides. Indeed it radiates, suffusing the rooms in which these paintings hang and the memories and imaginations of those who have seen them with a vitality Greene’s friends and admirers never lost sight of during his lifetime, a vitality that can be renewed as often as one revisits the vessels into which he so generously, indeed so rapturously poured it. If, with all the ups and downs that artists must endure, there is any guarantee of longevity in art then it is the match between the public’s thirst for refreshment of the senses and of the spirit and an artist’s capacity to provide it. Greene’s work does so unstintingly.