In the period before Ab Ex, the multitalented Manhattanite Charles Green Shaw was a powerful advocate for abstract art in America.
To be an abstract artist in the U.S. between the two world wars was to tread a rocky, lonely path. The modernist avant-garde had a hard enough time finding acceptance on these shores, even after the path-breaking Armory Show of 1913, but even by the 1930s abstraction was still seen by American critics and art audiences as basically a European affair. In 1936, when the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator Alfred H. Barr, Jr. mounted an exhibition titled “Cubism and Abstract Art,” hardly any of the more than 100 artists was American. Outraged, a number of the “réfusés” got together and formed American Abstract Artists (AAA). One of that organization’s founding members, Albert Eugene Gallatin, a wealthy artist and collector, had been exhibiting abstract art from his own collection under the rubric of the Gallery of Living Art, which was located in a study center at New York University, on Washington Square. In the wake of the MoMA show, Gallatin expanded the project and renamed it the Museum of Living Art, with the implication that it would, if not rival MoMA, then at least fill in the substantial gaps left by the latter’s curatorial program. The only artist to get a solo show at Gallatin’s gallery was a close friend and colleague named Charles Green Shaw.
Shaw was a writer as well as a painter, and he lent his considerable polemical skills to the defense of the abstractionist cause. He was also independently wealthy and well-connected socially. After harshly criticizing MoMA for its myopic view of the American art scene, Shaw was promptly invited to join the museum’s advisory board, where he remained for about five years, until 1941. He confidently asserted the right of Americans to be creative in a mode of art that may have been pioneered in Europe but innately knew no nationality. In 1938, Shaw published an essay in the AAA yearbook, “A Word to the Objector,” in which he spelled out his principles of abstract art.
“Art, since its inception,” wrote Shaw, “has never depended upon realism. Why, one cannot help wondering, should it begin now? Art, on the contrary, is (has been, and always will be) an appeal to one’s aesthetic emotion and to one’s aesthetic emotion alone; not for the fraction of a split second to those vastly more familiar emotions, which are a mixture of sentimentality, prettiness, anecdote, and melodrama.” As to how “aesthetic emotions” could be successfully appealed to, Shaw explained that “honest painting, regardless of its representational or non-representational merits, embraces certain patent fundamentals. One seeks, for example, rhythm, composition, spatial organization, design, progression of color, and many, many other qualities in any aesthetic work.”
In his own art, Shaw worked in two main modes, which might best be described as linear geometric abstraction and biomorphic abstraction, with a definite preference for the former. Early on in his career he arrived at a conception that he termed the “Plastic Polygon,” in which a polygonal figure, often irregular, would be divided into overlapping, interlacing rectangles of different sizes and colors. To the extent that these paintings suggest any “objective” subject matter, it is the jagged skyline of Shaw’s beloved New York. The paintings are completely flat, without any illusionistic space; the effect they have on the viewer is similar to the loss of distinctions of depth that occurs when seeing clusters of buildings from a distance. The term “plastic,” while today it connotes nothing but a manufacturing material, was used by Shaw and other art writers at the time to mean the pure graphic elements of visual art, as distinct from the representational or narrative elements. In abstract art, the plastic aspect takes over completely. An abstract-art journal to which Shaw contributed, edited by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the wife of Hans Arp, was titled Plastique.
Shaw’s biomorphic-style pieces bear a distinct resemblance to the those of Hans Arp, whom he befriended while on a visit to Paris in 1935 and from whom he purchased some works. He also emulated Arp by making carved and painted wooden constructions in box-like frames, which use shallow relief to add a three-dimensional quality. One of the most charming of Shaw’s efforts in this vein places four abstract shapes, which could be birds spreading their wings, on top of a rich blue background. A reddish circle could easily be the sun. Another amplifies the effect of the Plastic Polygon by taking it one step closer to actual architectural construction.
There is this tendency in Shaw’s work toward frank acknowledgment of materiality, quite at variance with the ethereal, otherworldly nature of much early abstraction, such as the mystical “non-objective” school represented by Wassily Kandinsky, Hilla Rebay, and their followers. He was not seeking access to a Platonic realm of pure ideas; his works were very much of this earth—on occasion he even added sand to his paint to create a gritty texture. In 1936, shortly after the MoMA contretemps, Shaw co-organized an exhibition at Reinhardt Gallery in New York of five abstract artists—himself, George L.K. Morris, John Ferren, Charles Biederman, and Alexander Calder—and coined the term “Concretionists” for the little group because he felt that their works were indeed concrete and that the word “abstract” gave the wrong idea by suggesting that the art lacked physical reality.
Shaw came to art relatively late in life. He didn’t start painting until he was 34, and within just a few years he was showing his work at New York galleries. During the ’20s he was known as a journalist, doing humor and social-observation pieces for arch publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Smart Set. He counted among his friends such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.L. Mencken, Anita Loos, and George Jean Nathan. Cole Porter was a close friend since college days—both were members of the Yale class of 1914.
If anyone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was Shaw. His family inherited a generous portion of the Woolworth’s department-store fortune, and he was brought up in the cosmopolitan Manhattan world that he would later chronicle for the magazines. A tall, elegantly dressed figure, Shaw seems like the archetypal “urban sophisticate” from a ’30s movie, and throughout his life he maintained the same gracious, un-bohemian bachelor lifestyle. His Park Avenue apartment was filled with his own work and with his collections of modern art and folk art. He was especially proud of his collection of cigar-store Indian figures, which was photographed by André Kertész for Town and Country in 1946. Because of their shared upper-class background, Shaw and his friends and fellow artists George Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, and A.E. Gallatin would be known to posterity as the “Park Avenue Cubists”—although the “Cubist” part is a bit of a misnomer.
Although he had drawn caricatures, which occasionally were used as illustrations for his articles, Shaw did not apply himself seriously to art until he enrolled in Thomas Hart Benton’s figure-drawing class at the Art Students League in 1926. In 1928, he interviewed Ashcan School master George Luks for a magazine profile, which led to him joining Luks’ art class and working nearly full-time in his studio, where Luks would critique his efforts. During this period, Shaw was constantly visiting galleries and museums in New York and wherever he went, soaking up contemporary art in particular. In the early ’30s he traveled extensively in Europe, basing himself in London and Paris, seeing shows, collecting art, and meeting artists and critics. The culmination of this feverish activity was the breakthrough in 1933 when Shaw created the Plastic Polygon and became a full-fledged practitioner of abstract art, a creator of that which he had long admired.
Shaw was a man of many talents, not just painting and journalism, and it seems as if no sooner did he become interested in a subject that he would produce something worthwhile in that line. In 1937, he saw an exhibition of posters by E. McKnight Kauffer at MoMA and almost immediately came up with an idea for a poster for Wrigley’s chewing gum, which he made and pitched to the company. It was never made, but Shaw eventually designed posters for the Red Cross and the War Bonds drive during World War II, as well as for numerous art exhibitions. Also in the 1940s, he became a children’s book writer and illustrator, encouraged by his friend Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight, Moon. His 1944 book It Looked Like Spilt Milk introduced children to biomorphic abstract forms in the context of an entertaining tale. He got very interested in collecting antique playing cards, tarot cards, and game boards and used them, along with old tobacco boxes and textile fragments, as collaged-on elements in objects he called montages. Though he never exhibited his montages publicly, he installed them from floor to ceiling in his apartment and gave them to friends as gifts. From the ’50s until his death in 1974, Shaw dedicated himself increasingly to writing poetry, publishing several collections.
One of Shaw’s biggest enthusiasms outside of painting was photography, which he took up in the mid-’30s. Camera in hand, he prowled the streets of New York looking for evidences of the earlier strata of city life. In this pursuit he paralleled the efforts of contemporaries such as Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans, who sought out the quirky, half-forgotten sights of the rapidly modernizing metropolis. In 1938, Shaw published a book of his photographs with accompanying text, written by him, under the title New York—Oddly Enough. The forward describes it as “a selection of relics, of remaining shops and dwellings in unpretentious side streets, of that vanished 19th-century town, skyscraperless New York.” The jacket of the book shows a montage or collage of Shaw’s photos, arranged within the outlines of imaginary Art Deco-looking apartment buildings and office towers, against a bold yellow and blue background. The effect is almost like a Plastic Polygon, shapes within shapes, a palimpsest of urbanism in the mind’s eye of the artist, a true lover of old and new New York.
By John Dorfman