Follow that Art! Balcomb Greene's Six-Sided Planes in Context

Last week, we followed Six-Sided Planes into the photgraphy studio where it was shot for record identification. Today we learn about the history and significance of this painting from the curatorial perspective.

My name is Emma Acker, and I’m a curatorial assistant in the American Art department at the Fine Arts Museums. In May of this year, I presented Balcomb Greene’s Six-Sided Planes as a potential purchase to the Acquisitions Committee of our Board of Trustees.

In addition to researching, caring for and interpreting works already in a museum’s permanent collection, curators frequently identify new objects as candidates for acquisition. Curators regularly search auction catalogs, visit galleries and remain in contact with art dealers to stay apprised of works that come up for sale.

Sometimes, a collector will contact the curator and offer to donate a work of art to a museum, or to fully or partially fund the purchase of a work (as in the case of Six-Sided Planes). If the curator feels the work is a good fit for the museum’s permanent collection, he or she must craft a justification for the acquisition and present it to the Board of Trustees. This entails a detailed assessment of the art historical significance, aesthetic quality and condition of a potential acquisition; consideration of the market values for comparable works of art to determine if the object for sale is fairly priced; and perhaps most importantly, analysis of the ways in which the piece will complement or enhance the museum’s existing holdings in a certain area.

The purchase of Six-Sided Planes was generously funded by Maury Gregg, a local collector with a strong interest in the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group, of which Balcomb Greene was a founding member and first chairman. Founded in 1936, at a time when abstract art was met with strong critical resistance in this country, the AAA cultivated the development and acceptance of abstraction in the United States through its ambitious program of exhibitions, lectures and publications. Mr. Gregg has given the Museums several works from the Harriet and Maurice Gregg Collection of American Abstract Art by members of the AAA group, including Charles Green Shaw, Rolph Scarlett and Charles Biederman, whose works are currently on view in Gallery 13 at the de Young.

Rolph Scarlett (American, 1889–1984). Abstraction XI, ca. 1940. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Harriet and Maurice Gregg Fund for American Abstract Art, The Harriet and Maurice Gregg Collection of American Abstract Art. 2007.23

Mr. Gregg recently brought a group of works by Greene to the attention of Timothy Anglin Burgard, the Ednah Root Curator-in-Charge of American Art, and after careful consideration we selected Six-Sided Planes as a candidate for acquisition.

Balcomb Greene (American, 1904–1990). Six-Sided Planes, 1937. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Harriet and Maurice Gregg American Abstract Art Fund. 2011.10

Six-Sided Planes was painted in 1937, just a year after the AAA group’s inception, and is a rare example of Greene’s early abstractions. In 1941, the majority of Greene’s abstract paintings and collages were destroyed in a fire at his studio. He systematically re-created many of the fire-damaged abstractions in the 1970s, but Six-Sided Planes is identifiable as an original because it is hand signed and numbered on the stretcher, using a system that Greene only used for his early works.

Six-Sided Planes is painted using the minimalist color scheme and austere geometry that are characteristic of Greene’s early work. In the early 1930s, Greene spent two years living in Paris studying art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he came into contact with members of the European avant-garde. Upon his return to New York he began painting hard-edged, non-objective works influenced by European modernists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris and Piet Mondrian; Greene described these works as, “straight line, flat paintings.”

Although wholly abstract, the industrial gray tones and architectural quality of the composition evoke a military or maritime structure. The forceful use of diagonals imbues the composition with a sense of dynamism and movement; while the brilliant blue tone and intricate patterning in the lower register of the painting balance the subtle grays and simplified geometry of the upper half, producing an image that is both bold and serene.

Because of the quality and rarity of the painting, its relevance to our existing collections of prewar abstraction and its place in a narrative survey of 20th century American art, our department felt confident about proposing Six-Sided Planes as an acquisition. We are thrilled that the painting was approved for purchase by our Board of Trustees and has officially joined the Fine Arts Museums’ collections.

Stay tuned to see this painting finally go on display next week!