On the Beach (1959)
Oil on canvas, 20" x 26"
Through an oeuvre displaying the re-envisioning of figural subjects and the formation of an abstract expressionist style, Byron Browne stands out among the American abstractionists of his generation. Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1907, the artist was a bright talent at the National Academy of Design in his teens. From 1924 to 1928 Browne studied at the Academy under notable artists Robert Aitkin, Charles Courtney Curran, Charles Hawthorne, Alice Murphy, and Ivan Olinsky. Despite the accolades for his academic style, towards the end of his education Browne began to gravitate towards abstraction. Together with friend Arshile Gorky, he observed the modernist advancements of Picasso, Georges Braque, and Joan Miró at Albert Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art. Browne furthered his studies in modernism through the French periodical Cahiers d’Art, and in 1935 studied with abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann. His earlier representational art destroyed, Browne began holding solo exhibitions of his avant-garde work in 1933. Only two years later the first exhibition of his work with the Whitney Museum of American Art occurred at the 1935 “Abstract Painting in America” show, which featured Balcomb Greene, Arshile Gorky, and Stuart Davis. During the 1930s Browne found employment in the New Deal’s Federal Works of Art Project. After brief enrollment in the Easel division he entered the Mural division, designing murals for the United States Passport Office in Rockefeller Center, the radio station WNYC, and the Science and Health Building at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Together with Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Karl Knaths, Willem de Kooning, Louis Schanker, and John Von Wicht, his works became definitive in the conception of abstract mural painting in America.
Committed to the development and promotion of America’s avant-gardes, Browne banded with fellow New York modern artists to form the American Abstract Artists group in 1936. Beyond the group’s successful exhibitions, Browne took a principal role in advocating the AAA’s positions. He participated in the 1940 picketing admonishing the Museum of Modern Art’s neglect of American modernists, and was one of six AAA members to sign a letter to the editor of Art Front responding to the narrow views on abstraction proposed by Baroness Hilla Rebay of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. During New York’s World’s Fair of 1939 Browne exhibited in the “Abstract Painting in America” show held in The Contemporary Art Pavilion among AAA founders Giorgio Cavallon, Balcomb Greene, Carl Holty, George L.K. Morris, and George McNeil. In 1940 Browne became a founding member of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, Inc., with Ilya Bolotwosky, Adolph Gottlieb, Balcomb Greene, and Mark Rothko. The artists, all members of the American Artists’ Congress, formed the Federation with a newfound commitment to aesthetic concerns as the Artists’ Congress found itself embedded in political controversy. The establishment of the Federation marked a new commitment to working towards the diversification and exhibition of nonacademic American art.
After marrying fellow abstract artist and AAA member Rosalind Bengelsdorf in 1940, Browne spent several years working as a guard in the Greek and Roman section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Classicist interests were later developed in Browne’s treatment of the human figure. He also took influence from Catalonian murals, and pre-Columbian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Sumerian primitive styles. In his exploration of the depiction of figural scenes Browne collected a wide range of styles, combining ancient motifs with the techniques of modernism. Having begun his venture into abstraction through cubist fragmentation and the constructivist composition of geometric planes, Browne later branched out into biomorphism, his gestural style influencing the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorsky, and Willem de Kooning. His position on the connection between artistic form and nature, however, made him unique among the many artists seeking to separate nonfigurative art from figurative and declaring their works to be non-objective. As Browne drew attention to the transfer of three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional planes using bright shades of blocked color and the stylized treatment of his figural subjects, he explored his interest in the relationship between art and nature.
Towards the end of his life Browne became active in the artists’ colony of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He spent over a decade teaching at the Art Students League, and also held a position as a professor of advanced painting at New York University. On December 25, 1961, Browne died in New York at the age of fifty-four. Through his distinct interest in the act of representation within the modernist discourse, Browne re-conceptualized figural art for the twentieth century. His approach to the human figure and the advancements of his stylistic techniques left a striking impression on the abstract art movement in America.
Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate