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Byron Browne: Evolution of an American Modernist, 1930s - 1950s

September 21 – October 26, 1991


Press Release

Byron Browne was considered by his contemporaries to be “among the best of our American abstractionists,” “one of the most important creative artists in America today,” and "one of the most accomplished technicians among American painters of his generation.” They admired Browne’s prodigious drawing ability, gift for color, and compositional dexterity. Additionally, they acknowledged his continuous dialogue with modern European artists and Old Master painters, as well as his precocious interest in Mayan and indigenous American art – all by the mid 1930s.

Byron Browne exemplified the interests and passions of the American avant-garde. Shortly after winning a prize at the National Academy of Design for traditional painting in 1928, he became a staunch modernist and destroyed his earlier efforts. Like his peers, he struggled against the more conservative and popular social realist school while working to develop a uniquely American modernist idiom through the exploration of European Cubism, Surrealism, and geometric abstraction. In Browne’s work of the 1940s and 1950s one can trace the evolution of that idiom into maturity, individuality and importance. This manifests itself in his use of line and color, preference for frontal hieratic figures and forms, and placement of imagery on the picture plane or in a negative space. An underlying feeling of monumentality results as confidence imbues Byron Browne’s art.

In the 1940s and 1950s Browne increasingly choses to explore an interior world with suggestions of heraldic icons, archaistic images, primitive organic shapes, as well as circus figures and other human forms. Though we expect his later works to reflect the angst often associated with Abstract Expressionist painting, Browne allowed a spirited optimism to prevail over feelings of violence and gloom. In his work – and this is one of the hallmarks of his style and approach to art – one confronts and is made acutely aware of the image itself, not the autobiographical statement or gesture. One concentrates on the art, not the artist.

As Browne stated, he preferred an “art of deliberation and meditation...rather than an art of swift expression.” Only for a brief time in the 1930s, did Browne venture into complete non-objectivity. Believing that “all shapes, forms, and colors and combinations of such exist in nature,” he said, “I always paint with one eye on nature.” Nature for him included not only his own thoughts and ideas, but the pictorial surface itself – its colors, textures, and organization.

In spite of the wonderfully inventive shapes and figures which populate his art, Byron Browne’s approach was basically empirical and intellectual. Subject balances form, surface design intertwines with suggestions of depth. Simultaneously, content can be obvious, suggestive, and mysterious. always in control of his abundant resources, Byron Browne created some of the most elegantly finished works of his generation.

- Matthew Baigell, 1991 (from the brochure accompanying this exhibition)