A significant figure in American abstract art, Charles Green Shaw (1892-1974) enjoyed a varied career as a writer, illustrator, poet, modernist painter, and collector. Born to a wealthy family and orphaned at a young age, Charles and his twin brother were raised by their uncle, Frank D. Shaw. At age nine, he was already an avid painter and had illustrated his first book, The Costumes of Nations.
After Shaw's 1914 graduation from Yale, he attended the Columbia University School of Architecture. In the years before World War I he worked briefly in the real estate business, but was primarily occupied as a member of café society. During the war he was a pilot stationed in England with the American Expeditionary Force's aero squadron.
As a young man, Shaw decided to become a writer and devoted his time and attention to this endeavor for a decade. In the 1920s, Shaw spent extended periods living and writing in London and Paris, and contributed many pieces to publications such as The New Yorker, Smart Set, Vanity Fair and Town & Country. Two of Shaw's novels, Heart In a Hurricane (1927) and The Low Down (1928), were published during this period. His play What Next! was produced in New York in 1928, but its run was brief. Later, he published New York --Oddly Enough (1938), and wrote and illustrated children's books including The Giant of Central Park (1940) and It Looked Like Spilt Milk (1947), in addition to illustrating several more books by other children's authors.
A highly accomplished poet partial to haiku and cinquain, Shaw published three volumes of poetry: Image of Life (1962), Into the Light (1959), and Time Has No Edge (1966). More than 1500 of his poems appeared in numerous American and European poetry magazines. He received the Michael Strange Poetry Award in 1954, and was a member of the Poetry Society (London), American Poets Fellowship Society, and North American Poets.
Shaw studied at the Art Students League in 1926 under Thomas Hart Benton and as a private pupil of George Luks. He became aware of abstract art and its various movements while traveling in Europe in the 1920s. When he began painting seriously in the early 1930s, Shaw drew from what he had seen and learned of modernism in Paris to develop his own style that incorporated American themes and technology. His earliest modern work was in the cubist vein. He constructed Arp-influenced wooden reliefs and the plastic polygon series (1933-1939) that foreshadowed shaped paintings developed by the next generation. Shaw's paintings progressed to hard edged abstractions and a return to figurative work in the 1940s was followed by abstract expressionism. Shaw had few connections with other New York artists, although he was well acquainted with A. E. Gallatin and George L. K. Morris and was a member of American Abstract Artists from its inception.
His first solo exhibition was at Valentine Gallery in 1934; in the following year he had a one man show at Gallatin's Museum of Living Art. Shaw was among the artists included in Gallatin's 1936 show, "Five Contemporary American Conceretionists," originating at the Rienhardt Gallery and then traveling to Galérie Pierre in Paris, and Mayer Gallery in London. He exhibited widely and was represented by Passedoit Gallery and Bertha Schaefer Gallery. Shaw's work can be found in major museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of art, Guggenheim Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, and San Francisco Museum.
Around 1945, Shaw began creating approximately 600 montages that included collage and incorporated early prints, dice, antique playing cards, pipes, and fabrics arranged in shadow boxes. Though many of the montages decorated his apartment, they were never exhibited publicly during his lifetime.
Shaw was an avid collector. Among his collections were antique playing cards; figures, folk art, and implements relating to tobacco; tinsel prints, particularly of theatrical figures; prints and paper ephemera relating to the London theater; horse brasses; and antique police truncheons. In addition, Shaw was an authority on Lewis Carroll about whom he wrote a number of articles.
Charles Green Shaw died in New York City in 1974.