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ALBERT SWINDEN

(1901-1961)

ABSTRACT PAINTER

by Sara Sheppard

As one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists, Albert Swinden was an important geometric painter and was highly regarded by his colleagues. He was a proponent of Neoplasticism and Synthetic Cubism. A studio fire in 1941 destroyed the majority of his early work, leaving a small known oeuvre.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Albert Swinden was born in 1901 in Birmingham, England. He moved to Canada at the age of seven and lived there until he immigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen. Swinden moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute. After approximately eighteen months he decided to relocate to New York City, and began studying at the National Academy of Design. Once again he decided to change schools, and began classes at the Arts Student League where many classes were taught by Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). Swinden spent four years studying and began to teach at the Arts Student League after two years of attendance. His colleagues valued his work and considered him a “painter’s painter”. However, his quiet demeanor and reserved personality made him one of the lesser known painters of the geometric tradition.

Swinden was instrumental in the creation of the American Abstract Artists, and was founder and secretary of the association. The American Abstract Artists was a group of abstract painters that wanted to create an association for themselves. The first meeting of the association was held at his flat that he shared with fellow artist Balcomb Greene (1904-1990). Meetings following the first were also held at the flat, until a fire destroyed it in 1941. This fire destroyed a majority of his work as well, leaving us with few surviving examples of his work. However, his work was very important to the geometric tradition and he was one of the original geometric painters in the United States (In the Geometric Tradition). Swinden participated in the first exhibition of the Arts Student League, an exhibition of abstract painting in 1932.

Albert Swinden painted his entire life; however, he could not depend on his art for a living. Swinden often worked as a craftsman and textile designer to support himself. His best known art was the murals he painted for the WPA Federal Art Project, which provided artwork for non-federal public buildings and employed artists during the Great Depression. Swinden painted murals for the Williamsburg Housing Project in 1938-1939 and for the Chilean Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair from 1939-1940.

In 1938 Swinden wrote an article for the American Abstract Artists’ yearbook titled, “On Simplification.” In this article he commented on the aesthetic concerns embodied in his murals (The Williamsburg Murals). He wrote, “We are moved not only by particular, or individual forms, but by the relationships between the particular forms and their significance as a unity.” Swinden rarely commented on his art, leaving his article as a rare insight into his thoughts.

Swinden married during his lifetime, however the details of whom and when are unclear. He stayed in New York City for the majority of his life, and quietly produced art. He was extremely respected by his peers and had a serious and calm demeanor. His art was classified in two categories; abstract compositions in the Cubist format and completely Geometric Abstraction. Swinden died in 1961 in New York City.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

Albert Swinden left the art world leaving more. As one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists, he was highly regarded for both his work and his professional demeanor. His abstractions have been referred to as “calmly classical visions” (The Williamsburg Murals), and his work has been classified under Neoplasticism and Geometric Abstraction. Much of his early work cannot be analyzed because it was lost in a studio fire in 1941. The majority of his work still available is from 1941 and the years after.

The first category that Swinden’s art falls under is Geometric Abstraction. Geometric Abstraction is a form of abstract art that uses geometric shapes placed in non-illusionistic spaces and combined into non-objective compositions (“Geometric Abstraction”). Swinden used this technique in the Williamsburg Housing Mural. This was one of the first abstract murals commissioned in the United States, and would become what Swinden was best known for. The majority of Swinden’s paintings included pure geometric figures on the canvas. However, his “Objects in a Room” included non-geometric shapes that represented actual objects. This painting differed from his oeuvre and was not typical of his style of painting.

Neoplasticism is the other category in which Albert Swinden’s work falls into. This concept is the belief that art should not represent real objects, but should represent the expressions of the absolutes of life. This meant using only primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines. Artists working in this style, including Swinden, tended to use the colors red, yellow and blue. The distinction between his Geometric Abstraction art and Neoplastic art are obvious; his paintings using red, yellow, blue and black are distinctive and indicate which type of painting they fall under. His untitled geometric paintings on the other hand features soft colors, such as green and pink, not found in his Neoplastic art.

Albert Swinden was best known for his participation in the Williamsburg Murals, located in the Williamsburg Housing Project in New York. The murals were commissioned to create a relaxing environment and were the first abstract murals commissioned in the state. The Williamsburg Murals were located throughout twenty buildings and painted by twelve artists. These artists including the leading Abstract artists of the time, including Stuart Davis (1894-1964), Francis Criss (1901-1973), and Paul Kelpe (1902-1985). Most of the murals are lost today, but art historians are working to uncover the murals located throughout New York. It was written that the more arbitrary colors used enabled the artist to place an emphasis on the psychological potential to stimulate relaxation. “The arbitrary use of shapes provided an opportunity to create color patterns clearly related to the interior architecture and complemented the architect’s intentions” (Diller). While Swinden was best known for these murals, there was still little information known about him at the time. He, along with the other artists who participated in the murals, received positive reactions from critics and hoped to collaborate with the artists on other projects.

Swinden completed most of his work at a young age, and continued to live in New York the remainder of his life. He often worked in other jobs to make a living, leaving a small example of his talented art. However, the work that was left leaves an impressive example of his talent as an artist.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1901 Born in Birminghman, England
  • 1908 Moves to Canada
  • 1919 Immigrates to the United States
  • 1919 Studies in Chicago at the Art Institute for about eighteen months
  • 1920-1921 Moves to New York
  • 1923 Becomes a citizen of the United States
  • 1927-1930 Studies at the National Academy of Design
  • 1928 Explores the formal problems of his style
  • 1930-1934 Decides to study at the Arts Student League
  • 1932 Begins teaching at the Arts Student League
  • 1935 Holds meeting with Rosalind Bengelsdorf, Byron Browne, and Ibram Lassaw to discuss the possibility of exhibiting together
  • 1936 Holds larger meeting with more artists to discuss exhibiting at the Municipal Gallery in New York
  • 1937 Official name of American Abstract Artists decided upon during another meeting
  • 1938 Writes “On Simplification” in American Abstract Artists' yearbook
  • 1938-1939 Holds office of Secretary for American Abstract Artists
  • 1938-1940 Paint murals for Williamsburg Housing Project after being selected by Burgoyne Diller
  • 1939-1940 Paints for the Chilean Pavilion at the New Work World’s Fair
  • 1941 Studio fire destroys much of his work
  • 1950s Begins to introduce figures into his paintings
  • 1961 Dies in New York City
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • New Jersey State Museum
  • Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, NE
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1932 Arts Student League, NY
  • 1934 Salons of America
  • 1939 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1942 American Abstract Artists Exhibition, NY
  • 1945 Riverside Museum, NY
  • 1946 American-British Art Center
  • 1962 Graham Gallery, NY, NY
  • 1978 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1980 Graham Gallery, NY, NY
  • 1993 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1998 Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, NY, NY
  • 2004 William Scott Gallery, Provincetown, MA
  • 2005 Beth Urdang Gallery, Boston, MA
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • American Abstract Artists
  • Arts Student League
  • Salons of America
  • WPA/Federal Arts Project
  • VII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Diller, Burgoyne. "Abstract Murals."Federal Art Project Documents. 26 March 2008. http://newdeal.feri.org/art/art02.htm .
    2. 2. "Geometric Abstraction." Wikipedia. 26 March 2008. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geometric_abstraction .
    3. 3. In the Geometric Tradition: Fritz Glarner, Carl Holty, Albert Swinden. New York: Graham Gallery, 1980.
    4. 4. The Williamsburg Murals: A Rediscovery, Five Monumental Works from the 1930s by Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden. New York: The Brooklyn Museum.

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