An iconoclastic intellectual, Balcomb Greene believed that art should be “ambiguous so the viewer has to enter in.” Over his lengthy career, he executed geometric abstractions which—over time and against the modern trend toward non-representational art—included the human form. Greene was also a philosopher, teacher, and novelist, who in all endeavors defied easy categorization.

The son of a Methodist clergyman, John Wesley Greene was born in Millville, New York; his mother died when he was just a toddler. While his sisters grew up in the care of a maternal aunt, John Wesley accompanied his father on the peripatetic ministry circuit to Iowa, South Dakota, and Colorado. Despite his childhood ambitions to become a preacher, as a young adult John Wesley found himself increasingly disillusioned with organized religion. Shortly after his 1926 graduation from Syracuse University with a degree in philosophy, he shed his given name and its Christian connotations, taking instead his grandmother's surname of Balcomb.

During his senior year at Syracuse, Greene met the aspiring sculptor and painter Gertrude Glass on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While she had trained in the academic tradition, Glass preferred a modern idiom and shared Greene’s bold, inquisitive spirit. The couple married in 1926 and spent a year in Paris and Vienna, before returning to New York. Between 1927 and 1931, Greene worked on a master’s degree at Columbia University, taught literature at Dartmouth College, and wrote fiction in his spare time. 

Greene hoped to advance his career as a novelist during a second and longer sojourn in Paris, but found himself increasingly drawn to art. Living in the Montparnasse area of the city, he was exposed to the latest aesthetic experimentations and became especially intrigued by the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. He studied independently at the progressive—and affordable—Académie de la Grande Chaumière.

The Great Depression necessitated the Greenes’ return to New York in 1932. Balcomb accepted journalism assignments, worked odd jobs, and even crewed on ships to make ends meet, but was determined to become a professional artist. Later that decade, he was employed by the Works Progress Administration and painted murals, including one for the 1939 World’s Fair and another for the Williamsburg Housing Project. Angered by American museums and galleries’ persistent preference for European modern artists, Greene helped found and served as the first chairman of the American Abstract Artists in 1937. Opposed to both the Bauhaus and American Regionalism, the organization’s charter declared its purpose to “unite abstract artists residing in the United States, to bring before the public their individual works, and in every way possible foster appreciation for this direction in painting and sculpture.”

After a 1941 studio fire destroyed many of his early canvases, Greene continued to explore abstract idioms and geometric principles. Yet he steadily began incorporating elements of nature, the human figure, and facial features into energetic compositions executed in muted palettes, believing that “when you get too abstract, things are sterile.” Greene found inspiration in both land and sea, and the purchase of a home on Long Island in 1947 furthered his fascination with the ocean. Having completed his master’s degree in 1943, he accepted a faculty position at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and counted Andy Warhol among his students; his tenure there lasted until 1959. Greene spent the summer of 1946 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he offered lectures addressing contemporary realist art and other topics. His fellow “Third Art Institute” instructors included Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, and Jean Varda.

Following Gertrude’s death from cancer in 1956, art sustained Greene. During this period, he enjoyed commercial and critical success, and important museums acquired his work, leading to a 1961 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Whitney director John I. H. Baur described Greene as “above all, an intuitive painter who will not be bound even by his own concepts.”