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Balcomb and Gertrude Greene papers, circa 1880s-2009, bulk circa 1905-1990

Balcomb and Gertrude Greene papers, circa 1880s-2009, bulk circa 1905-1990

Greene, Balcomb, 1904-1990

Painter, Author

Collection Information

Size: 9.8 linear feet

Summary: The Balcomb and Gertrude Greene papers, circa 1880s-2009, bulk circa 1905-1990, measure 9.8 linear feet. Balcomb Greene's career as a painter, educator, and writer - and to a lesser extent his personal life - is documented by biographical material, letters, subject files, writings, artwork, audio-visual recordings, printed material, and photographs. Documentation about sculptor Gertrude Greene, from 1926 until her death in 1956, consists of printed material, photographs, two letters to her, and a brief handwritten list of paintings and constructions.

All biographical material relates to Balcomb Greene. Letters are almost exclusively incoming letters; two copies of outgoing letters written by Terryn Greene are included. Those addressed to Balcomb Greene regard articles, his will, an appraisal of a painting by him, and greeting cards with notes from friends. The two letters addressed to Gertrude Greene are photocopies. One from A. E. Gallatin concerns her work selected for the permanent collection of the Museum of Living Art at New York University; the other, a fragment from an unidentified correspondent, is about American Abstract Artists dues and exhibitions. The letters addressed to Terryn Greene concern her husband's career or mention him.

Subject files relate to activities and topics of interest to Greene or aspects of Greene's career; some concern estate matters. Of particular interest are: "Balcomb and Gertrude Greene in the WPA," consisting of Terryn Greene's research correspondence on the subject; and a file documenting a Judith Rothschild Foundation grant for conservation of paintings damaged in the 1996 fire that destroyed Balcomb Greene's studio.

Writings are by Balcomb Greene, Gertrude Greene, and other authors. Balcomb's writings include articles, novels, short stories, poems, journal entries, lecture notes, student writings, and a thesis. Gertrude Greene's writings consist of a handwritten list of paintings and constructions, noting the dimensions, date, and price of each piece. The writings of other authors are about Balcomb and Gertrude Greene. They include notes for an interview, a poem, student papers, and a thesis.

Art work consists of a collage probably by Balcomb Greene, and a sketchbook containing two of his drawings dated January 1976. Another drawing is signed [H?.] R. Balcomb Greene's register of paintings documents each completed painting on a separate sheet containing a small photograph or sketch, title, date of execution, and code or negative number, along with notes relating to exhibitions, loans, and ownership; some sheets bear the notation "destroyed." The register is incomplete, and the surviving portion bears evidence of the 1996 fire that gutted his studio. The least damaged portion documents works from 1941-1948, 1963-1964, and 1980-1982; the remaining part of the register consists of partial pages that are missing titles, dates of execution, or other salient information.

Exhibition catalogs and articles from newspapers and periodicals represent the majority of the printed material about or mentioning Balcomb and Gertrude Greene. In addition, there are articles by Balcomb published in a number of periodicals. Museum publications, annual reports, bulletins and newsletters mention the Greenes. Also found are issues of Art Front, 1934-1938 (Balcomb served on the editorial board and contributed articles), and his well-used copy of, "Modern Art" by Katherine S. Drier.

Audio-visual recordings consist of interviews with Balcomb Greene and a "McCarthy tape" (Balcomb and Terryn helped organize "Montauk's Day for McCarthy"). Among the video recordings is a videocassette of Greene's 1990 memorial service.

Photographs are of art work, events, exhibition installations, miscellaneous subjects, people, and places. Art work of both Balcomb and Gertrude is documented. Among the photographs of people are images of Balcomb Greene, Gertrude Greene, Terryn Greene, family, friends and other individuals (identified and unidentified). Greene family photographs, some surviving from the 19th century, portray three generations. Photographs of events include documentation of the damage caused by the 1996 fire that destroyed Balcomb Greene's studio. Installation photographs document exhibitions that featured Balcomb Greene, the couple, and Gertrude Greene. Of particular interest is a view of Gertrude's contribution to the American Abstract Artists' 1937 show at Squibb Gallery. Miscellaneous subjects are Greene's Rolls Royce and pets. Places recorded include Greene's boyhood homes and churches, the house Balcomb built at Montauk, Gertrude's studio, and travel pictures of Europe and Asia. Also found are a small number of negatives, 35-mm slides, and color transparencies of art work, miscellaneous subjects, and people.

Biographical/Historical Note

Balcomb (1904-1990) and Gertrude (1904-1956) were painters in New York, N.Y. Balcomb and Gertrude were married. After Gertrude's death, Balcomb married Terryn Greene.


Donated in 2009 by Terryn Trimpen Greene, Balcomb Greene's widow.

Related Materials

The holdings of the Archives of American Art include several interviews with Balcomb Greene. In 1972, he was interviewed by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art's oral history program (reel 4210). Greene is included among the Karl E. Fortess taped interviews with artists conducted 1963-1985 (not transcribed). Marian L. Gore's "Art Scene" interviews aired on Los Angeles radio station KPFK, 1962-1964, include one with Balcomb Greene (not transcribed). An interview with Balcomb Greene (transcribed) is among the Brooklyn Museum interviews of artists conducted by Arlene Jacobowitz, circa 1965-1985. The Anne Bowen Parsons collection of interviews on art, 1967-1968, contains an interview with Balcomb Greene (transcribed). Susan C. Larsen's interview with Balcomb Greene is part of oral history interviews relating to the American Abstract Artists Group, 1973-1978 (not transcribed).

Also available at the Archives of American Art is a video recording (VHS videocassette) "Balcomb Greene: 50 Years of Painting, Harmon Gallery," edited and directed by George Mauro, 1982.

A Finding Aid to the Balcomb and Gertrude Greene Papers,
circa 1880s-2009
, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical Note
Balcomb (1904-1990) and his wife Gertrude (1904-1956) were painters in New York, N.Y. John Wesley Greene (known professionally as Balcomb Greene), born May 22, 1904 in Millville, New York, was the youngest child of Reverend Bertram Stillman Greene, a Methodist minister. After his wife died in 1907, Reverend Greene and the children moved several times when he accepted assignments at small town churches in Iowa, South Dakota, and Colorado.
The recipient of a scholarship for sons of Methodist ministers, Greene entered Syracuse University in 1922, intending to become a minister. He studied philosophy, psychology, literature, and art, eventually deciding to pursue a career as a writer. When visiting the Metropolitan Museum during his senior year, Greene was introduced to Gertrude Glass by her cousin. They married soon after his graduation in 1926.
The newlyweds moved to Austria where he had a fellowship to study psychology at the University of Vienna. Greene was very interested in Freud's work and hoped to become his student; although he attended Freud's lectures and met the eminent psychologist once, this ambition was not realized. After returning to New York in 1927, Greene began studying for a master's degree in English literature at Columbia University. He specialized in the novel, and wrote three (none were published). When his thesis about prostitutes as portrayed in seventeenth century literature was submitted, Greene's major professor was on sabbatical; although the subject had been approved, the interim replacement rejected it as unsuitable. Greene left Columbia without obtaining a degree.
Greene then accepted a position at Dartmouth College where he taught literature from 1928-1931. The Greenes spent summers together in the city and visited frequently throughout the academic year. He continued writing and in 1930 began painting. Because there were already two artists named John Green then in New York, Greene soon adopted the name Balcomb (his maternal grandmother's maiden name). Although he was known as Balcomb for the remainder of his life, his name was never changed legally.
Balcomb Greene's first solo exhibition was held at Dartmouth College in 1931. After his resignation from the Dartmouth faculty in 1931, Balcomb and Gertrude spent a year in Paris. She found a studio and set to work. He planned to write, but was distracted by the desire to paint. He began independent study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and in 1932 exhibited his work in Paris. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s Greene produced very flat geometric abstractions, adding biomorphic and anthropomorphic forms over time. By the mid-1940s, he found himself bored by pure abstraction and introduced figures, focusing on mass and space rather than line.
Greene quickly established himself as an artist, developed a wide circle of friends and was recognized as a leader of the abstract movement. He and Gertrude were both drawn to political causes that affected artists; along with friends they began the Unemployed Artists' Group (which later became the Artists' Union) and staged public demonstrations demanding government assistance so that artists would not be completely dependent on private patronage. He published articles in
Art Front
, the magazine of the Artist's Union, and served on its editorial board between 1935 and 1936. Balcomb and Gertrude Greene were among the founding members of American Abstract Artists; he served as the group's first chairman.
Like many artists during the Great Depression, Balcomb Greene found it very difficult to maintain a steady income. During this period he held many different jobs, among them: writing for the sensationalist newspapers
Broadway Brevities
, serving on the crew of a schooner searching for pirate gold in the South Pacific, and working at the non-profit Emily Francis Contemporary Gallery. Eventually, he secured a teaching position with the Federal Art Project. He later switched to the mural section where assignments included painting murals for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn and the Federal Hall of Medicine at the 1939 World's Fair, and designing a stained glass window for a school in the Bronx.
Because he did not want to support his career by teaching painting, in 1940 Balcomb Greene began graduate work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He earned a master's degree in 1942 and that same year began teaching history of art and culture at Carnegie Institute of Technology, a position he held until 1959. Gertrude set up a studio in their Pittsburgh home, but continued to maintain her New York studio, commuting between the two cities until war conditions made the trip too difficult. They returned to New York each summer, and in 1947 bought property on Long Island at Montauk Point where Balcomb constructed a modern house of cement blocks.
In addition to teaching and painting, Greene continued to write. Several articles about art and philosophy appeared between 1936 and 1950 in publications such as
Art Front
College Art Journal
Art News
, and
Art Journal
. He also wrote many poems. During his tenure at Carnegie Tech Balcomb Greene worked on but did not complete a book tentatively titled "The Villain and the School" and formulated ideas for another.
While Gertrude was terminally ill with cancer, and after her death in 1956, Balcomb reduced his teaching commitments, staying in Pittsburgh for only one semester each year. After retiring in 1959, he painted at Montauk and traveled. While in Paris, Greene met journalist Terryn Trimpen, whom he married in 1961.
Balcomb Greene was represented by Bertha Schaefer Gallery, Saidenberg Gallery and ACA Gallery, in New York, and by the Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples, Florida. He exhibited widely, participating in the annual exhibitions of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Art Institute of Chicago, and in group shows at the Walker Art Center, Brooklyn Museum, and other venues. Solo shows included exhibitions at the Forum Gallery, ACA Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Fairweather-Hardin Gallery, Chicago; and the Oceanographic Institute and Harmon-Meeks Gallery in Florida. Greene's work is in the permanent collections of many museums, among them the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
During the last five years of his life, Balcomb Greene was in frail health and unable to paint. He died November 12, 1990 at his Montauk Point home.
Gertrude Glass (who worked as an artist using her married name Gertrude Greene) was the daughter of Siegfried and Berta Glass, prosperous Latvian immigrants who owned a Brooklyn department store. At age 18, Gertrude and an older sister left home and organized a pre-school. From 1924 to 1928, Gertrude attended evening sculpture classes at the newly opened Leonardo Da Vinci Art School, a very traditional school in Manhattan that offered free instruction. Although the school itself was conservative, there Gertrude met and identified with a group of fairly radical students who were interested in the abstract art then emerging.
Glass and Greene were married in 1926 and spent the next year in Vienna. Upon returning to New York, she continued to make sculpture. Once they relocated to New Hampshire Gertrude was able to have her own sculpture studio. New Hampshire did not suit her and she gradually drifted back to the art world of New York. After Balcomb resigned from the Dartmouth faculty in 1931, the couple spent a year in Paris. They met many artists and frequented galleries where they saw the latest contemporary art. Gertrude worked on her sculpture and Balcomb, who had planned to write, began concentrating on painting; this was the only time the two shared a studio. When they moved to Pittsburgh, Gertrude kept her New York studio, expecting to commute regularly between the two cities, but war constraints soon made that plan impractical.
Gertrude Greene was active in liberal political causes, especially ones that affected artists and encouraged the formation of WPA programs to help struggling artists. She was an active member of the Federation of Painters and Sculptors, the Artists' Union, and a founding member of American Abstract Artists. As AAA's first paid employee, Gertrude served as gallery attendant. Before moving to Pittsburgh, both Greenes were very active on AAA committees, worked to further acceptance of abstract art, and picketed on many occasions. Typical of AAA actions was a 1937 demonstration against Museum of Modern Art exhibition policies that gave short shrift to abstract work by American artists.
Gertrude Greene was among the very earliest of American artists - quite possibly the first - to produce non-objective relief sculptures in the early 1930s. Over time, she absorbed Cubist tradition and ideas of the Russian Constructivists, synthesizing them into her own work. By the 1940s, she had become interested in Mondrian and Neo-Plasticism, influences that are reflected in her constructions of the period. Her final sculpture was produced in 1946 and for the remainder of her career she focused exclusively on abstract painting.
She participated in many group exhibitions, the first of which was at Wildenstein Gallery in 1945. Grace Borgenicht Gallery presented the first solo exhibition of Gertrude Greene's work in 1952, and another was held at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in 1955. In 1982, there was a major retrospective of her work at ACA Gallery. Gertrude Greene's work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.
Gertrude Greene's health began deteriorating in 1956; eventually, cancer was diagnosed. Later that year, on November 25, she died at a New York City hospital.
The collection is arranged as 9 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1926-1981 (Box 1; 0.2 linear ft.)
Series 2: Letters, 1936-2005 (Box 1; 3 folders)
Series 3: Subject Files, 1939-2008 (Box 1; 0.2 linear ft.)
Series 4: Writings, circa 1927-1984 (Boxes 1-3; 2.1 linear ft.)
Series 5: Art Work, 1976 (Box 3; 2 folders)
Series 6: Register of Paintings, undated (Box 3; 0.4 linear ft.)
Series 7: Printed Material, circa 1930-2009 (Boxes 4-7, 11, OV 12; 3.9 linear ft.)
Series 8: Audio-visual Recordings, 1963-1990 (Box 7; 0.3 linear ft.)
Series 9: Photographs, circa 1880s-1996 (Boxes 7-11; 2.6 linear ft.)
Donated in 2009 by Terryn Trimpen Greene, Balcomb Greene's widow.
Processing Information
The collection was processed by Catherine S. Gaines in 2009.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

Balcomb and Gertrude Greene papers, circa 1880s-2009, bulk circa 1905-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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