OBITUARIES: Stephen Greene

THE ARTIST Stephen Greene, handsome and natty as ever at 82, was sitting at home in the country north of New York awaiting a driver to take him into the city to deliver a lecture on Ingres portraiture when he died. That Greene, known as an abstract painter, should have been expert on Ingres hints at both his working knowledge of art history and continued dedication to education, for Greene still believed in the transformative and redemptive possibilities of art above all else. In this same spirit he was due to give a lecture at the beginning of December at the Art Students League on his entire life's work.

Greene may have been a committed abstractionist for some 40 years but he trained, worked and was well-known as a figurative painter for many years before his exemplary conversion to abstraction. This happened after a lecture by Clement Greenberg on Barnett Newman in 1957: "I had chills running down my spine. It was like a bad movie." After that, "I couldn't draw the figure like I used to."

His last show in New York, at David Beitzel Gallery in 1998, was entitled "Five Decades" and in 15 representative oil paintings spanned his whole career, including his earliest Renaissance- related religious works as well as his succulent, spontaneous last canvases.

Greene was born in New York in 1917 and attended the National Academy School of Fine Arts and then the Arts Students League, both in his home town. He followed these by a BFA and a MA at the State University of Iowa in Iowa City. He was taught by Philip Guston, who remained a close friend but also something of an unshakeable namecheck, always mentioned in any article on Greene.

After seven years in Iowa and Indiana, he came back to Manhattan and had his first solo show in 1947 at Durlacher Brothers, with whom he continued to show until 1952. That year he won the Prix de Rome and the four years he spent at the American Academy proved a major transformation, not only for his exposure to the wide vistas of southern Italy and Mannerist painting of the 16th century but also for the meeting of his wife, Sigrid de Lima.

Greene had been forewarned of her arrival by a fellow Rome scholar, William Styron, who had previously been her boyfriend. De Lima, a highly respected American novelist who died just two months ago, and Greene were married on Christmas Eve 1953. "It's the one day I'm not teaching," she said. "I'll be home." Their honeymoon in Tunisia was a significant influence on Greene's later work, not least in his use of a searingly Mediterranean blue.

De Lima and Greene were a devoted couple who lived and worked together for over 45 years, much of it spent at their historic home in Valley Cottage, a suburb near Nyack, where Edward Hopper had lived. After her fifth novel was published in 1968 de Lima concentrated on raising their daughter, Alison de Lima Greene, who now, appropriately, is Director of Twentieth- Century Art at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, which includes work by Greene in its collection. Indeed, Greene is represented in all the principal American museum collections, from The Burial, a neo-Renaissance painting of 1947, in the Whitney, through to recent abstracts in the Guggenheim, the Carnegie, Moma and Brooklyn Museum.

Altogether, Greene's work appears in some 60 public and corporate collections including the Tate in London, which included him in two round-up shows of 20th-century American painting.

In terms of gallery and museum shows, quite apart from their collections, Greene had an enviable track record, being included in over 25 group shows at the Whitney Museum, the first in 1947 and the last in 1997. In 1963, in his mid-forties, Greene received a full retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC.

He was always represented by an American gallery during his long career, if not always the same one, and showed everywhere from Canada and Italy to Germany and Mexico, from the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris and Fondation Maeght in Vence to the Hessisches Landes-Museum of Darmstadt. In London he was included in an inaugural exhibition by Corr Contemporary Art and given a solo show by them in 1995.

Despite all the evidence of a successful career, Greene continued to be thought of as a "painter's painter" with a relatively private reputation limited to art-world aficionados. His death may have been announced on National Public Radio (equivalent, perhaps, to Radio 4) but, as he once admitted, "Out of the 49 years I have shown, there may have been two in which I could live off my work."

Instead Greene supported himself as a teacher, a role for which he may end up being best remembered by decades of students whom he touched and inspired by his enthusiasm and generosity. Greene had an absolute openness to helping younger artists and is recalled as a dynamic catalyst even by students who were only briefly taught by him years previously. His most famous pupil was Frank Stella, who admits his debt to Greene and remained a close friend, even providing lodging for him on his visits to the city.

Greene was also close to such luminaries as Lillian Hellman, the gallerist Betty Parsons, the art historian Dore Ashton and Fred Licht, curator of the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, but he remained equally in touch with successive generations of his pupils regardless of their professional status. For, unlike most art students, those taught by Greene largely remained practising artists for the rest of their lives.

If Greene's main inspirations remained Piero, Ingres and Arshile Gorky, regardless of the art movements and terminologies he saw come and go over the decades, so the work that he produced, so steadily, so surely and so modestly remains entirely his own. As he wrote earlier this year, "What remains vital is the sense of your own statement. It is not a reissuance of what you already have. A sense of yearning persists and what you work and pray for is a vision that is uniquely yours."

Stephen Greene, painter and teacher: born New York 19 September 1917; married 1953 Sigrid de Lima (died 1999; one daughter); died Valley Cottage, New York 18 November 1999.