Greenstone was born in 1925 and spent most of her life in New York City. After earning her B.A. in English from Brooklyn College in 1946, she studied for a Masters in Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Although she graduated in 1947 with teaching credentials, she felt a need to explore her artistic impulses and went back to school for an art degree. She studied at the Cooper Union Art School from 1951 to 1954 and then won a Fulbright to Italy, which was renewed in 1955. By the mid 1950s, Greenstone had developed a strong abstract style which she explored in prints, watercolors, and collages.
Greenstone began exhibiting throughout the East Coast at this time, and she was included in the Brooklyn Museum Annual Print Show, the Whitney Museum Annual, and the Pittsburgh International. Between her years in Italy and the time she settled down in Park Slope, Brooklyn, she lived in several far-flung places, including Caracas, California, and Canada.
Her travels connected her to many art communities; consequently in the 1960s and 70s, she had solo exhibitions at the Bridge Gallery and the Sixth Estate Gallery in New York, the Long Island University, the Dorothy Cameron Gallery of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, and the Albert White Galleries of Toronto. In the late 1970s, she was included in the Brooklyn Museum Works on Paper exhibition and was awarded a mural commission for a branch of the New York Public Library in Queens.
Greenstone never abandoned her early interest in teaching; in 1968 she became an Assistant Professor of Painting and Design at the Pratt Institute and continued teaching there and was an active painter through the 1990s. She died in 2005 in New York City. Her works can be seen in the permanent collections of the Gallery of London, Ontario; the Queen's College, Kingston, Ontario; Exxon Corp, New York; the Barclay Hotel, New York; the Art Gallery of Ontario,Toronto; the New York City College; the Brooklyn College Collection and the Zimmerli Art Museum, New Jersey.
Although Greenstone expressed a tendency toward abstraction, she also possessed remarkable skill as a representational painter, and these two interests generated very different phases of her work. Her early work from the 1950s is mainly abstract, but she experimented with pop art in the 1960s, producing a large series of paintings and collages that were primarily figurative. In the mid-1970s, she returned to abstraction and that remains constant through the 1990s. Her abstract and figurative works differ from each other in subject matter and mood, but they both reveal her preference for vibrant colors, dynamic compositions, flat space, and all-over compositions.
Certain working methods remained constant throughout Greenstone's career: she rarely titled her work, but she numbered almost all of her paintings. There are almost 500 numbered paintings, not to mention the hundreds of unnumbered monotypes, pastel drawings, watercolors, and collages. When painting, Greenstone preferred oil on canvas, and she expressed a strong dislike for acrylic paint.
Greenstone first developed a cohesive style in the mid-1950s. During that time, she studied with Norman Lewis at the Art Students League, and picked up his angular style along with his elegant fusion of abstraction and figuration. Afterwards, she studied at Cooper Union. Her focus at the time was abstract printmaking. She made inky, expressive images reminiscent of Arshile Gorky or early Jackson Pollock. While living in Caracas, Greenstone produced brightly colored, blocky collages, initiating a life-long interest in collage.
In the 1960s, Greenstone's work changed dramatically when she incorporated collage elements into her abstract paintings. Cutting out images from advertisements, she began introducing figurative elements into her work. Brightly colored images of food, machines, body parts, and cars collided with hard-edged abstract shapes in her paintings. Sometimes Greenstone pasted the magazine pictures directly on the canvas, other times she painstakingly replicated the commercial images in paint. Feeling hemmed in by the rectangular canvas, she began building shaped canvases in 1965, which served to further animate the compositions. The pop paintings from this era are incredibly dynamic and stylized - even if the images are figurative, the geometric forms create strong compositions of abstract shapes. They also appear surprisingly contemporary, and are easily inserted into current discourses about advertising and mediated imagery.
Greenstone began to turn away from her pop paintings in the early 1970s, though she continued experimenting with shaped canvases. A few of her monochrome shaped canvases survive from that era, inspiring comparisons to Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Tuttle. By the late 1970s, Greenstone returned to creating complex, abstract compositions and she made an exquisite artist's book full of small square watercolors. The impressionistic images in the book evoke a melancholy, emotional mood that is dramatically different from the playfulness of the pop phase.
From the late 1970s through the 1990s, Greenstone produced an astonishing number of large-scale abstract paintings. Inspired often by shells and landscapes, the radiant paintings have sweeping, layered forms. The influence of Georgia O'Keefe and Mark Rothko, two of her favorite artists, can be seen in her use of warm, vibrant colors and natural shapes. Greenstone applied very thin paint with brushy marks to create delicate but glowing surfaces.
During the last two decades of her life, Greenstone also created many small works on paper, including monotypes, canvas collages, and tempera paintings. Working from home and at Pratt, she created monotypes in oil often depicting places she visited on her vacations. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she employed a new technique to create collages of canvas pieces on cardboard and linen. She adhered rectangular pieces of canvas to a surface in layers to create a grid-like composition of muted beige. Adding accents of pastel blue and grey, she translated Giorgio Morandi's color scheme into abstract form. Continuing an interest from her Fulbright days in Italy, towards the end of her life she also made bright tempera paintings with gold leaf.
The diversity of Marion Greenstone's oeuvre offers not only a wealth of different visual experiences, but also the challenge of finding continuities between what appear to be very different works. In actuality, all of her pieces communicate a similar love of color and pattern, a delicacy of touch, and an insatiable striving for balance and visual harmony. The national movements of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art had their indirect influence on Greenstone's work, but far more important to her was the personal, intimate act of giving her ideas form. Her commitment to her artwork is evident in the consistency of her lifelong practice and her desire to make art regardless of the attention of the outside world.
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