New York

Stephen Greene

David Beitzel Gallery

By virtue of his age, Stephen Greene is often called an Abstract Expressionist, but this selection of fifteen of his paintings from the past forty-five years shows he is nothing of the sort. An abstractionist, yes, at least since the end of the ’50s, but not an expressionist, Greene has never focused on either gestural liberty, ideographic signs, or the allover field. The eighty-four-year-old artist is as unconcerned with the strivings after myth, mysticism, and the sublime that characterized his older contemporaries as he is immune to the repudiation of symbolic, nonvisual meaning typical of the generation of abstractionists that followed his.

Nor is the highly sublimated hedonism of Greene’s art belied by the penchant, in his early work, for subjects involving torment (seen in paintings like The Rack, 1953; The Flagellation, 1956; and the transitional, almost abstract The Fall, 1957). Here we are reminded that intensity of sensation may be more pointedly conveyed by evoking pain rather than pleasure—something poets have been aware of at least since Petrarch. Greene has been so consistent in his sense of breadth in composition—in a highly personal sense of measure, spacing, and rhythm, and in his way of disguising abrupt disjunctions as sweeping transitions—that the inclusion of these early figurative paintings only served to emphasize that, with him, abstraction may be a purification but it is never pure. Now as then, Greene’s paintings feel dense with allusion and heavy with introspection, though not without a sense of the theatrical. Forms and colors echo from work to work yet always speak as well of some other, perhaps unrecoverable source. Abstraction here means the distillation of a sequence of mundane perceptions into a distinct but stylized entity—not through an analysis of the motif into discrete, recombinant signs, as in early Cubism, but through a process of substitutions or transpositions: by metaphor rather than metonymy. The result of this metamorphosis no longer resembles its source yet somehow retains its perfume, like the Mallarmean object whose efficacy lies in being unnamed, the flower “absent from all bouquets.” This is an essentially symbolist idea, which in painting probably reached its most sustained development in Braque’s Ateliers of the late ’40s and early ’50s with their metaphor of the studio as the painter’s embodied interiority.

It is the spirit of Braque’s studio paintings, I think, that hovers behind the impressive work that Greene has produced over the last two decades. You can feel it above all in the deliquescent darkness—formed not so much of black as of deep browns or grays saturated with red—which is the pedal note underlying so many of Greene’s paintings of the ’80s and early ’90s. It is there as well in the way the paintings, for all the broad, open passages they accommodate, can feel so laden, their contents so compressed and compacted, yet without becoming airless or claustrophobic. In paintings from Expulsion #10, 1984, to Pleasure Dome, 1994, this shadowy substance is comforting and seductive, and the bright hues that flash out from it like signal flares are hair-raising. Yet in the most recent paintings here, Greene has urged himself toward the “confrontation of lightness,” to borrow the title of a 1998 work. The palette has not only become achingly pale, but the very medium has grown thinner and more watery, the gesture more abrupt yet decisive even when it seems to consist of little more than the scrubbing away of some other gesture altogether. Eschewing the strong contrasts the darker paintings allowed, these new works are not brighter so much as possessed of an immaterial radiance that’s harder to localize.

Barry Schwabsky