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
1907 Born in Yonkers, NY, June 26
1924-1928 Studied at the National Academy of Design
1927 Visited Albert Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art with Arshile Gorky and saw works of Picasso, Braque, and Miró
1933 First solo show at the Eight Street Playhouse
1935 Studied with abstract painter Hans Hofmann
1937-1946 Exhibited regularly with American Abstract Artists as founding member.
1940 Married abstract painter Rosalind Bengelsdorf. Lived in Lakewood, New Jersey
1948-1961 Teaching position at the Art Students League
1952-1961 Active in Provicetown, MA artists’ colony
1954-1961 Recommenced exhibiting with American Abstract Artists
1959 Position as professor of advanced painting at New York University
1961 Died in New York, December 25
Julius Hallgarten Prize, National Academy of Design
1928 (prize), 1929 National Academy of Design
1928, 1935, 1946 Art Institute of Chicago
1928, 1930, 1947, 1953, 1957 Corcoran Gallery
1930, 1931, 1936, 1946-7, 1951, 1954 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1933 Eighth Street Playhouse
1935, 1937, 1939, 1946 Whitney Musuem of American Art
1936, 1939 Museum of Modern Art
1939 World’s Fair, NY
1945 Audubon Artists
1946 Carnegie Institute
1946 Kootz Gallery
Salons of America
Society of Independent Artists
1947 LaTausca Exhibition (prize)
1951 University of Illinois (prize)
1977 NYC WPA Exhibition, Parsons School of Design
M. Diamond Fine Arts
1983 Academy of Arts and Letters
Newark Museum of Art
Butler Art Institute
University of George
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts
San Angelo Art Association
Rio de Janeiro
University of Minnesota
New School for Social Research
University of Arizona
Walter Chrysler Jr. College
1935 American Abstract Artists (charter member)
Artists Equity Association, NYC
American Artists Congress
Allied Artists of America
Yonkers Art Association
Works by the artist may be found at the Art Institute of Chicago, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Harvard Art Museums, and the Princeton Art Museum.
April J. Paul. “Byron Browne in the Thirties: The Battle for Abstract Art.” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4 (1979), 9-24.
American Abstract Art of the 1930s and 1940s. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University, 1998.
Richard William Lizza. Byron Browne: Classical Figures 1930-1961. Naples, FL: Harmon-Meek Gallery, 1984.
Transforming the Western Image in 20th Century American Art. Palm Springs: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1992.
Art for the New Collector III: Re-Emerging American Artists. New York: Spanierman Gallery, LLC, 2004.
Susan E. Strickler and Elaine D. Gustafson. The Second Wave: American Abstraction of the 1930s and 1940s. Worcester, MA: Worcester Art Museum, 1991.
Francis V. O’Connor, ed. The New Deal Art Projects, An Anthology of Memoirs. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972.
American Paintings and Sculpture in the University Art Museum Collection. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986.
Peter Hastings Falk, ed. Who was who in American art 1564-1975: 400 years of artists in America. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. http://www.fedart.org