Stephen Greene at Zierler

Art in America (March/April 1976): 105.

stephen

In the 30 years since Stephen Greene had his first solo exhibition, the critical response has been consistently positive. His reputation as an unaligned “painter’s painter” developed as it became necessary to distinguish his allusive abstractions from the work of either Abstract Expressionists or Color-Field painters. Although Greene left the figure behind in the 1950s, his work has retained veiled references to a pained, personal mythology, which has led some to view him as a Symbolist. Yet when we admire his power as a colorist and his skill as a draftsman, Greene seems closer to a Mannerist esthetic than to anything else. Like many of those 16th-century painters, Greene cannot live without ambiguity and contradiction. There is an enigmatic substructure of thought in his work, and the older he gets, the more devious (his own description) he becomes.

This recent group of 11 canvases and seven works on paper was completed after a two-year stay in Rome. As in Greene’s earlier work, line is a significant compositional factor. As well as serving to suggest space, it also functions as a controlling funicular cable, transporting us above and across the variegated textures of pigmented terrain.

Greene abjures the juicy sensuality of his oil medium and modifies it with wax, charcoal and chalk to achieve a range of opaque and transparent effects that are all cool, dry and matte. Dense static color shapes are played against fluid areas where the crackled edge of a thin wash is permitted to trickle at will. Heat radiates from the restricted zones of saturated pigment. Against a neutralized purple field a long strip of bright pumpkin can serve as a repoussoir deflecting us inward, while also asserting the literal limits and topmost surface of the picture plane.

Similar compositional situations are defined in his drawings, where the white of the paper speaks for itself as a field in place of the pale mauve, gray and blue of the canvases. There is an archeological flavor to his penciled notations that evokes the irregular ground plans of ancient dwellings. Beautifully drawn bone fragments turn up here and there, and these can be read as thematic vestiges of his earliest figural concern with death and suffering. This new group of paintings reveals Greene working at full strength, invigorated and reinforced in his preference for “off” color, mysterious allusion and controlled bravura by the rich visual resources of Rome.

Publication:

Judith Stein, “Stephen Greene at Zierler,” Art in America March/April 1976: 105.

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