New York

Robert Greene

Robert Miller Gallery

There is something very American about Robert Greene’s paintings. Although his Arcadian landscapes—peopled by a plethora of dogs and tiny figures in airs of distracted contemplation, eccentric activity, or self-inflated beauty—hearken back to 18th-century French Salon painting, stylistically Greene can be linked to Marsden Hartley, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and even Arthur Dove. Beneath the decorative amiability and vanity of his paintings is a foundation of angular compositional rigor and a bare-bones, encrusted-oil-on-board surface, as opposed to the compositional swirls and luminous varnished surfaces of the French Salon. In Greene’s lushly painted skies exists a gestural freedom where, in the American tradition, paint stands as paint, and the painter’s mark is not sacrificed for illusionism.

This work does not assume an intellectual posture, nor does it claim more for itself than the creation of a personal high style. Though obviously personal, it is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Greene’s paintings have the quality of those dreams in which everyone we know or have known (or anyone who has even made a momentary impression on us) seems to enter and exit, assuring us of their continued existence and well-being, as in the last act of a Restoration drama. But these are the artist’s people and places and thus a distance is imposed between object and audience. Although these paintings may be objects of reverie, they are also beautifully realized extracts from a specific sensibility and a particular vision of the good life.

Song of a Secret Garden (all works, 1989) is a nocturne dominated by a gigantic American flag lying on a grassy expanse; a dark blue night sky looms above. In the background is a forest and a farmhouse. A row of pyramidally cut hedges defines the middle ground. Seven figures with blue and white umbrellas stand around the hedges. Greene depicts the types of parties we have never been to but would love to be invited to—gatherings in luxurious plein-air settings, filled with beauty and glamour, and the possibility of distraction and contemplation.

The artist’s own image is frequently present in his work. In Georgica, he stands in front of a gated pool with a woman, in a kind of Hugh Hefner pose. That this painting touches on self-parody is evident. Judging by the effete nature of Greene’s sensibility, it is hard to imagine the artist himself as a married power broker with a house on affluent East Hampton’s Georgica Pond. Happy Valley, perhaps a “truer” painting, depicts a nude man (possibly Greene) playing Eve, picking an apple off a tree with a collie beside him.

Greene’s paintings often contain images of tents and beach cabanas. The sequences of rows of white and striped tents in bright sunny expanses are visually irresistible and show Greene off at his most inventive formally. In Sound of Their Distance, five rows of tents stretch into the background like an ocean of little white peaks. Behind the limit of the tents is a neoclassical cityscape. The sky is painted in swirls of cotton-candy colors. Interspersed among the tents is the usual litter of tiny figures. Five men scale a freestanding wall, two women build a fire, three girls pose in figure-skating outfits, a nude woman with a bouffant poses, a priest stands among doves, and a solitary man sits in a chair surrounded by a halo of pale green light. These are paintings imagined from a lawn chair.

Matthew A. Weinstein