Byron Browne (American, 1907-1961), 'Still Life,' 1938. Oil on canvas, 38 by 30 1/4 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Gift of Rosalind Browne

Byron Browne (American, 1907-1961)

Still Life, 1938
Oil on canvas, 38 x 30 1/4 in.
Gift of Rosalind Browne

The Great Depression was in full swing. Contemplating going into the arts as a lifetime profession was the ultimate in an irrational hope and a guarantee of economic and social suicide. Then, of all things, to choose an area of interest . . . that was so coldly received as was abstract painting was yet another step into the twilight zone.

--Ed Garman (1)

Abstraction entered the realm of painting shortly after 1900, but its initial popularity waned in the wake of World War I. The brutalities and massive losses of the Great War fostered a reemergence of conservative tendencies, and pioneering abstractionists--from the Europeans Pablo Picasso and Kasimir Malevich to the Americans Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe--shifted to representational modes in the 1920s. Among the courageous and defiant few who continued to express themselves through abstraction was the New York artist Byron Browne.

From 1925 to 1928, Browne attended New York’s traditionalist National Academy of Design, where his work won prizes. Near the end of that time, he discovered the Gallery of Living Art at New York University--opened in 1927 by the connoisseur and painter A. E. Gallatin to show his international collection of avant-garde art--and quickly converted to abstraction. He became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists (aaa), an exhibiting organization formed in 1936 to advocate for and promote understanding of nonobjective art. In those lean Great Depression years, Browne relied upon mural commissions that his fellow aaa member Burgoyne Diller, then serving as director of the Works Progress Administration’s New York Mural Division, steered his way. Browne executed five murals during the 1930s.

Still Life typifies Browne’s efforts of that period. Occasionally, his compositions bear no resemblance to actual objects. But more often, as here, the imagery is abstracted. The animated jumble of elements and colors recalls the flat patterning of synthetic cubism and the biomorphic forms of surrealism. The syncopation across the canvas of vibrant versus muted colors and motifs contributes to a strong pictorial cohesion, despite the composition’s nervous energy. The still-life references--a floral spray at the upper left and circular fruit forms at the center--are not immediately apparent but emerge upon closer observation. Still Life is a representative example of the bold modernism that certain tenacious American artists produced in the turbulent 1930s.

--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Artist Ed Garman to Virginia Mecklenburg, February 15, 1988, curatorial files, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.