As an abstract painter and a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, Charles Green Shaw helped to cement the appreciation of American abstractionists.
Table of Contents
Charles Green Shaw was born in 1892 to a wealthy New York family. He lost both his parents at a very young age; his mother died when he was just three years old. Despite the early loss of his parents, Shaw lived the whimsical life of a New York socialite. As a beneficiary to an inheritance based in part upon the Woolworth fortune, he was brought up surrounded by the well-bred, well-groomed and well-moneyed citizens of New York’s elite social class. His social status as an adolescent was cultivated while spending summers in Newport and attending Christmas balls at Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt’s. At age six, Shaw began to take an interest in drawing, and by nine, he was known to have a fondness for sketching historical costumes.
After graduating from Yale University in 1914, Shaw spent a year studying at Columbia University’s School of Architecture. Subsequently he served for eighteen months as a Lieutenant in World War I. After his service, Shaw returned to New York and tried his hand as a businessman selling real estate, but his attempt was short lived.
In the early 1920s, Shaw began his career as a journalist and novelist. He achieved professional success, writing consistently for magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Smart Set. Shaw’s writing was a record of his approvals and disapprovals of the social crowd to which he belonged. His profession along with his social pedigree, brought him in contact with a number of the most significant figures of the 1920s such as, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, George Gershwin, George Jean Nathan and the American artist George Luks. Some of his profiles included celebrity caricatures used as illustrations, these were the publics’ first look at Shaw’s artistic ability. In 1928, a collection of Shaw’s articles and interviews were published in one volume titled, The Low Down.
Just previous to the stock market crash and the end of the Jazz Age, Shaw left New York and traveled to Paris and London. He arrived in Paris in 1929. In an autobiographical note Shaw suggests it was on this trip when he first began to paint seriously. London also acted as a great source of motivation for the budding artist. He began to sketch everyday in St. James’s Park, making large pastels of its vistas in the style of Cezanne. When he returned to New York in 1932, Shaw considered himself a painter.
Success for Shaw came quickly with his first solo exhibition mounted at the Valentine Gallery in 1934. The following year Albert Eugene Gallatin included works by the artist in an unprecedented solo exhibition at his Gallery of Living Art at New York University. Shaw further cemented his reputation as an artist through his association and friendship with fellow abstract artists Morris and Gallatin. The trio soon was regarded as ‘the Park Avenue Cubists’.
As a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, Shaw became an impassioned defender of the style. His 1938 essay in the American Abstract Artists yearbook, “A Word to the Objector”, acted as a defense against those who failed to see the illustrative quality of abstract art and scolded those who disregarded American artists as serious Abstractionists. He was also an influential force at the Museum of Modern Art, where he sat on the Advisory Board from 1936 to 1941.
In the later years of Shaw’s life he continued to produce abstract paintings, yet in a more private manner. He was known to be a reserved man— a ‘gentleman’; not much is known about his personal life in these later years. During this time he maintained his career as a writer, publishing the well-known children’s book, It Looked Like Spilt Milk in 1940 and two books of poems in 1959 and 1962.
In 1974, Shaw died in New York leaving over fifty boxes of his belongings to the Archives of American Art. This gift consisted of manuscripts for over two thousand poems, sketchbooks filling up ten boxes, his daily journal kept from 1919 to 1972 and hundreds of menus, playbills, invitations and photographs. The value of these papers lies in the extensive history and enormous amount of information they offer a social historian or anyone who desires a peak into the life of the artist.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“…By a broader elimination I have sought to arrive at a greater purity.”
-Charles Green Shaw
Charles Green Shaw came relatively late in life to his artistic vocation; he was close to forty when he turned to painting as a full-time career. Yet even when painting became the primary interest of his life, Shaw remained a man of his class. Even in his most austere abstraction, he continued to be something of a dandy and by no means held the identity of a ‘bohemian artist’. It is well known that Shaw generally painted on small canvases, the reasoning for this being that large paintings could not fit in the elevator of his posh apartment building. The artist’s quest to introduce Americans to non-objective art relied heavily on intelligent prose and his strong social connections.
Shaw’s travels to Europe were the driving force behind his artistic development. Although he had taken a class with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League in New York and studied with painter George Luks, it was in Paris and London where he found inspiration and ultimately decided to seriously apply himself as an artist. Visiting the studios of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger and studying works of the European masters provoked an interest and desire in the then journalist. His work drew influence from this experience and exposure, while still introducing American themes and technical innovations. It was of great significance to him that American abstractionists develop a style unique and separate from the European abstractionists. Although his compositions were influenced by stylistic devices of European artists, their subjects were purely American in inspiration.
Notable in the artist’s style was its clarity of form and unusual architecturally influenced construction. He was known to incorporate building materials within his work. Many of his paintings were made of separate planes of wood or Masonite, joined together at the seams so that three and two-dimensional planes appear to slip over and under one another. These forms were beautifully geometric, regularized and elemental. The artist would create textured canvases by blending oil paint with sand and was also known to use wood as a constructive element. The fundamentals of architecture in his paintings can be attributed to the time the artist spent studying architecture at Columbia University. He incorporated these lessons into his work for the duration of his career.
As a man driven by literary innovation it was only natural for Shaw to develop a name for his own style. ‘Concretionist’ was what he deemed appropriate after claiming, “Abstract…should have been extract and that is why I wanted to make it more to the point and call it concrete. The concrete objects.” Shaw’s Concretionist work took the form of tooled shapes in wood, painted and applied to a background very similar to the style of painter Jean Arp.
Shaw’s first series of paintings were displayed in 1934 at the Valentine Gallery. They were realistic New York cityscapes that gradually evolved into a reductive vertical geometry titled the ‘plastic polygon’. The series became Shaw’s most well known of his oeuvre. They portrayed skylines of Manhattan consisting of several –sided figures divided into a broken pattern of rectangles. Their advanced depiction shaped configurations that emulated the stepped-back contours of the contemporary urban skyscrapers. The series of plastic polygons grafted the essential lines of a New York skyline onto a Cubist scaffolding, thus fashioning a perfect union of form and content. Shaw’s simplification and removal of detail created a sense of purity in the complex urban environment of Manhattan.
The abstract forms of Shaw’s ‘plastic polygons’ sustained the artist for much of his career. They captured an era of constant change and promising modernity along with a bold, non-imitative vision of New York. He altered the series towards the end of his career by subtly transforming its Constructivist and Cubist principles and experimenting with notions of illusion and perception. The artist had a fascination with illusionary devices and was known to collect playing cards from around the world. Shaw’s work had a tendency to mirror his self-professed loves—things of magic and the city of Manhattan.
1892 Born in New York
1914 Graduated from Yale University
1915 Spent a year at Columbia University’s School of Architecture
1914-1918 Great War Served for eighteen months as a Lieutenant in the A.E.F and in the Army Air Force
1915 Spent a year studying at Columbia University’s School of Architecture
Early 1920s Begins a career as a journalist and novelist
1927 Introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald and began studying with artist George Luks
1928 Enrolled in Thomas Hart Benton’s life class at the Art Students League
1928 The Low Down was published, a collection of Shaw’s journalism from The Smart Set, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair
1929-32 Traveled to Paris and London
1932 Returns to New York after living eighteen months in Europe
1933 Began “Plastic Polygon” series
1934 First solo exhibition at the Valentine Gallery, NY
1936 Acted as one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists group
1936-41 Served on the Advisory Board of the Museum of Modern Art
1937 First exhibition of the American Abstract Artists
1938 His article, “The Plastic Polygon” appears in Plastique
1940 Published the children’s book, It Looked Like Spilt Milk
1959 Published a book of poems
1962 Published a book of poems
1974 Died in New York, leaving over fifty boxes of his personal papers to the Archives of American Art
Addison Gallery of American Art
Art Institute of Chicago
Baltimore Museum of Art
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Denver Art Museum
Guggenheim Museum, NY
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Museum of Fine Art, MA
Museum of Modern Art, NY
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
Phillips Collection, Washington DC
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1934 Valentine Gallery, NY
1935 New York University’s Museum of Living Art, NY
1935 Society of Independent Artists
1936 Paul Reinhardt Galleries, NY
1937-46 American Abstract Artists
1939 Jacques Seligmann & Co. Inc., NY
1943 Art Institute of Chicago
1941-58 ? Georgette Passedoit Gallery
1945 Carnegie Institute
1945 Philadelphia Museum of Art
1945 Institute for Modern Art, MA
1945-63 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1945 Bertha Schaefer Gallery, NY
1949-50 Salon des Realites, Paris
1952 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
1954 Passedoit Gallery, NY
1961 Corcoran Gallery Biennial, Washington, DC
1966 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
1967 The Century Club, NY
1975, 1979, 1982-84, 1986, 1988-92, 1997 Washburn Gallery, NY
1987 Richard York Gallery, NY
1988 Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., NY
American Abstract Artists
Michael Strange Poetry Award
- 1. Charles G. Shaw. New York: Washburn Gallery, 1997.
- 2. Jacobs, April Richon. “Charles G. Shaw: Work.” The Park Avenue Cubists. 2002.
- 3. Kramer, Hilton. “Charles Shaw-In the Minimal Tradition.” New York Times. Feb. 21, 1982.
- 4. New York Cubists: Works by A.E. Gallatin, George L.K. Morris, and Charles G. Shaw from the Thirties and Forties. New York: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., 1988.
- 5. Pennington, Buck. “The “Floating World” in the Twenties: The Jazz Age and Charles Green Shaw.” Archives of American Art Journal, 20(4). 1980.
- 6. Rosenblatt, Leah. “Charles G. Shaw: Life.” The Park Avenue Cubists. 2002.
7. Shaw, Charles G. “The Plastic Polygon.” Plastique. 1938.