Gertrude Greene

Early American Abstractions

Gertrude Greene was a pioneering artist, active in New York from the mid-1930s until her death in 1956. Along with her husband, writer and painter Balcomb Greene, Gertrude was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists—a group most famous for staging a protest outside the MoMA in 1935 over the museum's collecting practices, which they argued favored European artists over American.

Gertrude Greene

Untitled (36-09), 1936, by Gertrude Greene. Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

While an outspoken leftist, Greene's art did not take such a stance and was instead inspired by the marriage of progressive thought and visual rigor practiced by artists such as Jean Arp, Naum Gabo and Piet Mondrian, whose work she saw in the early 1930s while in Paris. Greene is often credited as one of the first American artists to create painted abstract wood reliefs. Made just a few years after Jean Arp's Constellations, Greene's reliefs are complex, less organic and more angular than Arp's, with earthy hues grounding the anxious shapes—a clamor of moving parts, taut dances and stannic puzzles.

A fantastic 1935 early assemblage by Greene is held in the collection of the MoMA and was recently featured in contemporary painter Amy Sillman's "Artist's Choice" exhibition, The Shape of Shape. Sillman's notes on the prominence of shape in the museum's collection aptly apply to Greene's collages and reliefs: "Often eccentric, poetic or intimate, these works are like bodies that speak, operating at the hub of language and matter, signs and sensations."

"Often eccentric, poetic or intimate, these works are like bodies that speak, operating at the hub of language and matter, signs and sensations."

Greene made paper collages as spatial and color studies for her larger sculptures, which she ceased creating in 1946. Beginning around 1950, her output was largely abstract expressionist paintings, where she explored the limits of painterliness within strict geometric constructions.

An exemplary work from this later period is in the collection of The Brooklyn Museum. Greene had her only solo exhibitions in 1951 and 1955, both of which focused on her later paintings, and she passed away the following year; her collages and reliefs especially, prefigure the importance of assemblage in American art in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Collection of John M. Hall

John M. Hall was an architectural photographer for publications including New York Times Magazine, Elle Decor and Architectural Digest; he saw his work as "telling the story" of what architects built and his process was to "go from the overall to the the details," with a keen eye for the subtleties of line, form, light and shadow. Hall lived with art and design that reflected his refined sensibilities: simple, livable furniture by Eames, Knoll and Aalto, the clean lines and smooth surfaces of 1930s streamlined moderne lamps, china and glassware and minimalist works on paper by Robert Mangold and Richard Serra. Tucked into a small Manhattan apartment, Hall's collection shows the ease with which iconic 20th century designs were meant to be lived with.

John M. Hall photographed his apartment in the Flatiron district for an article highlighting
his collection in the June 1999 issue of House Beautiful

Hall grew up in North Carolina and studied architecture at North Carolina State University; he was also a ballet dancer and moved to New York in the mid-1970s to study at the American Ballet Theater School. In 1977, Hall relocated to Paris and worked as a model. It was during this time that he developed an interest in black and white photography. 

Thank God I missed post-modernism. I guess I'm just a classicist at heart. 
—John M. Hall

His structural, classical style was informed by photographers such as André Kertész and Walker Evans. Hall returned to New York in 1981 and began his career as an architectural photographer, with a particular interest in private gardens, Greek Revival and Biedermeier. He approached capturing these spaces as making "something that is more than just a document, [but] something that is visually exciting." 

The same is true of Hall's personal collection, with its attention to and exuberance for designs that are "clean and clear and simple as possible," while also still captivating. After Hall's passing in 2019, significant contributions from his collection were gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery and his alma mater's Gregg Museum of Art and Design; the present selection of works celebrates Hall's sophisticated and gracious eye for design.

I'm not a design historian. I'm attracted to objects because I find them interesting and, yes, beautiful. And that's where this 20th-century sensibility started for me. There's just something so right about it.

John M. Hall

An Interview with John M. Hall

An interview with Hall from the 1980s shows him on location photographing a home and sharing his philosophies on design, architecture and photography.