PRINT April 1991


ROBERT GREENE'S PAINTINGS ARE so unapologetically dedicated to pleasure that it is easy to underestimate them. But art doesn’t have to look important in order to be serious. There is nothing wrong, as Claude Debussy once remarked, with a little charm. It is worth a long second look at Greene’s beach scenes out of Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini and his langorous, visionary fêtes galantes.

The beach scenes, with their tidy rows of pastel cabanas, bathing machines, and backdrops of vague, palatial structures, look like nostalgic evocations of pre-1914 Europe, until one notices certain disconcerting incongruities. Yes, there are two women walking by the sea carrying parasols and wearing heavy, Edwardian dress, but just behind them is an ultra-chic black woman wearing a canary yellow sheath dress, while another woman is alluringly naked except for a pair of bright red high heels, and in the mid distance two more women, dressed in costumes from Fellini’s Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the spirits), are striking poses beside a harp (I Sang of Her, 1987). A harp on a beach? The Imp of the Perverse has tampered with Mr. Greene’s time machine. Moving over to the lawns of Long Island’s North Shore we discover a large bush shaped rather like a fan apparently growing out of a classical statue that turns its back on us, as if in some strangely blended allusion to the myths of Pygmalion and Apollo and Daphne (Private Thoughts, 1986).

It is all, in Ronald Firbank’s phrase, “as charming as the top of an apple tree above a wall,” but something more than charm is involved, something a little unsettling and melancholy—an atmosphere of faintly perverse eroticism à la plage, intimations of mortality in the lush shadows that stream across the lawns of summer, a touch of sinister animation in Manhasset’s burgeoning rosebushes. Greene’s images are the product of an authentically strange and original imagination that one can envisage being put to use designing sets for Francis Poulenc’s Les Biches (The does), or illustrating the nocturnal garden fete from Firbank’s Valmouth, at which a various cast of eccentric and impassioned characters mills about exchanging fugitive lines of dialogue beneath “wide azure spaces stabbed with stars like many Indian pinks.”

Greene’s clarity of line, his alternately blithe and moody palette, and his mania for picturesque detail recall the work of early-20th-century illustrators of fairy tales and children’s books. Boys and their dogs are much in evidence, and Greene’s titles often evoke childhood reading—Happyland, 1985, for example, a dreamy idealization of Central Park in which one is more likely to encounter dancers than muggers and rapists, or Wendy and the Lost Girls, 1988, or We Set Off in High Spirits, 1986. The last named is a personal favorite: a young man in boxer shorts has tossed a deep blue beach ball into the air, and a naked woman, holding a jump rope, walks toward him across a shade-striated lawn from a Palladian pavilion in the background. These insouciant adults seem to exist in a completely innocent and carefree world (their own idealized childhood perhaps), but the figures are tiny and the painting is dominated by the great masses of roughly scrubbed-in, dark bluish foliage that tower against a pale yellow sky far above them. As in Watteau and Fragonard, these trees of late August or early September imbue the whole scene with a sense of transience and impending loss. This is the pathos that necessarily infects all art that frankly celebrates pleasure. How long can the idyll last? What will happen when the ball returns to earth?

We Set Off in High Spirits is unusual in one respect: Greene’s cast of characters is typically much larger, and his implied narratives are correspondingly more complex. The cast includes Greene himself, his friends, acrobats, figures from commedia dell’arte, musicians, happy children, whole tribes of well-bred and companionable dogs (especially borzois, collies, and poodles), and parades of women in ’60s haute couture. Greene once worked for a fashion photographer, but this does not entirely explain his ’60s fashion complex. It is explained, I think, by the presiding presence of his glamorous mother Eve—whom Greene has compared to Lee Radziwill—and her “very theatrical” twin sister, his Aunt Lenore. It is no accident that their names suggest myth and late-Romantic symphonic poems. These are the two Graces of Greene’s world. The parade of mannequins on an island in a lake that is the focus of Black Swans, 1985, is surely a wry evocation of Eve and Lenore as they must have appeared to Greene at the age of ten. Like many another 20th-century artist he has gone in search of lost time, but in this case we should perhaps resist the allure of Proustian or Freudian exegesis, and accept that, for Greene, the act of painting is “like reading poetry in an abstract way.” His paintings are not earnest exercises in self-analysis or episodes from a roman à clef: they are part of a single, evolving, poetic autobiography in which we can detect themes but no plot.

If asked, Greene would probably say that he just puts all the things he likes into a painting in order to celebrate them, but his remarks about his work are ingenuous to a fault. Asked about the ubiquitous dogs he replies, “I love the quality of vast lawns with dogs,” but dogs obviously have a central place in his scheme of things: these affable, elegant, and immaculately groomed creatures mediate between nature and artifice, and, of course, a carefully tended lawn is the perfect setting for such mediation. Greene is certainly fond of wide horizons, vast, variegated skies, and looming trees, but attempts to link him to the American Romantic landscape tradition are not particularly convincing. His art is a version of pastoral—always self-conscious, always aware of its own artificiality—and his attitude is a mixture of knowing innocence and sophisticated naïveté. Nature is never untouched or untamed: beyond the trees there are porticoes and pavilions or the glowing windows of apartment buildings; the sea is always calm; rosebushes are sculpted into perfect globes. Greene admires Albert Pinkham Ryder and Florine Stettheimer, and he has named his poodle after Marsden Hartley, but Fragonard, Corot, Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, and Kees Van Dongen are just as often mentioned by the artist and his admirers. It should be evident that Greene’s style is an exotic Franco-American hybrid that is more rococo and symbolist than it is romantic or realist.

The problem with such a resolutely hedonistic, arcadian, and fin-de-siècle art is that it must work within very narrow limits, and if we once begin to doubt the sincerity of the artist’s passion for his subject matter, it can seem airless, oppressive, and overrefined like some stupendously expensive Upper East Side apartment stuffed with Louis Quinze chairs and asphyxiating flowers. Luckily we rarely doubt Greene’s passion. This is partly because his art is so obviously rooted in memories of a child’s solitary expeditions along Long Island’s North Shore, but it also has to do with the freshness of his palette, and the deliberate unevenness of his technique. His small human and canine figures may be painted in meticulous detail so that their friends or relatives would recognize them instantly, but skies and foliage are often improvised out of a few rough and fervent daubs and streaks. If Greene’s technique were more uniformly “finished” he would be in danger of lapsing into slickness and preciosity, but what finally saves him is the sheer festive oddity of his images.

Take As the World Turns, a painting from 1989, for example. Two lanterns rise up on tall poles out of a landscape with classical ruins. As they tower against a boldly streaked, midnight blue sky they lean in toward each other, and somehow balanced on top of them, in a blaze of light, are three acrobats (one of them female and naked) and a large white poodle that seems to be surveying the scene with a detached air of intelligent curiosity. The image manages to be baffling, silly, and genuinely poetic all at once, and it is impossible to imagine anyone else conceiving anything remotely like it—although, if Erik Satie or Poulenc had composed a piano piece called Le Caniche sur la lanterne (The poodle on the lantern), it would doubtless have had something of the same general atmosphere.

In some of his more recent paintings Greene seems to be moving in the direction of greater simplicity and boldness. The paintings are less crowded with incident, and much less whimsical. In Smiling Memory, 1990, an exquisite 9 1/2 -by-13-inch miniature, a woman in the lower foreground directs a compelling gaze toward the viewer, though most of the painting is taken up by a fierce painterly explosion of foliage. In Captive, 1990, overarching trees are expressed in rough tangles of abstract arabesques and slashing diagonal strokes. Beneath the trees, three small figures in a boat are about to set sail on a melancholy expanse of water that stretches to the horizon, where a solitary windmill is dimly apparent. We do not know where they are going, from or to, but Watteau is surely invoked, and if Mr. Greene continues to paint as well as this, he should have no difficulty in creating a Cythera for the ’90s.

John Ash is a poet and critic who lives in New York. His next book, The Bum Pages, is forthcoming from Random House.