Balcomb Greene perhaps owes his life in painting to the example of his wife, Gertrude Glass Greene, whose pursuit of an avant-garde aesthetic in Paris in the early 1930s influenced her husband to abandon—around 1931—an early career in philosophy and literature for a life of pigments and palettes. The son of an upstate New York Methodist minister, Greene was a philosophy major in the mid-1920s at Syracuse University; he developed an interest in Freudian psychology and held a fellowship at the University of Vienna in 1926. He seemed destined for a career as a novelist and professor of English literature, teaching at Dartmouth from 1928 to 1931. Paris changed all that; from 1931 to 1932, while traveling with his wife, Greene became profoundly interested in Picasso, Gris, Matisse, and Mondrian. Enrolling himself at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and sharing his wife’s artistic circle—one linked to the Parisian artists’ group Abstraction-Création—Greene painted in a post-Cubist style of geometric abstraction, producing, in his own words, “straight line, flat paintings.” Back in New York with his wife by 1932, he participated in the mural program of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, executing a mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project, Brooklyn, and a stained-glass window for the Bronx School of Arts and Sciences. While studying art history at New York University in the late 1930s, Greene was elected first chairman of the American Abstract Artists, whose charter he helped draft. After World War II, and after moving to Montauk, Greene turned to landscape painting—a rather seamless shift given that his former abstractions frequently evoked a feeling of space by virtue of their inclusion of a horizon line and various forms and volumes. From 1942 to 1959, Greene divided his time between his homes in the East End of Long Island and Pittsburgh, where he taught art history and aesthetics at Carnegie Institute of Technology.
Balcomb Greene, and his wife Gertrude (Glass) Greene moved to the East End in about 1946, where they built a simple house on a deserted cliff in Montauk.