The brief moment of Byron Browne

FOR a brief moment in the mid-1940s, it seemed altogether possible that Byron Browne would become the Shining Hope of American Art, and perhaps even a major world figure. With World War II just ended, and Regionalism and American Scene painting on their last legs, the stage was set not only for an explosion of new talent but for certain American artists to finally achieve significant international stature.

The feeling that this could, indeed should, take place was underscored by the realization that the United States had assumed world leadership. It simply wouldn't do, under those circumstances, for Europe to retain its premier position in the arts. France, in particular, although still the source of considerable unease because of its awesome prewar reputation as the art nation of the world, needed to be put in its place. It wouldn't be easy, with Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger, and numerous other School of Paris figures still working there, but it had at least to be attempted. With American money, science, and military might leading the way toward a brave new world, it was inconceivable that American artists should continue to play second fiddle to the Europeans.

There was one big problem, however. No one was ready to take over. The New York art world, in fact, was in a state of confusion, with new galleries popping up all the time, but with no clear ideas as to where it was all heading. Talent there was, in great profusion - and, thanks to the GI Bill, it was being trained and directed as never before. Still it was all new and untried. Everyone agreed that great things were about to happen, but no one knew precisely what they would be and who would best represent them.

Certain things did seem self-evident. Provincial, local-scene art, whether it depicted the wheat fields of Kansas or New York's Lower East Side, was out. What was needed was something broader-based and national, even international, in scope. Pure abstraction of the sort practiced by Mondrian's followers also would not do, for it smacked too much of European ideas and influences. And much the same applied to most of the other forms of modernism that had recently taken root in America but that had originally been imported from abroad.

For roughly two years, from 1945 to 1947, things were in a particularly confused state. The artists who actually would very soon dominate American and world art (the Abstract Expressionists) were beginning to be noticed but were still perceived as too unformed and rough to be taken altogether seriously. And no one else seemed both strong enough and sufficiently free of European ''contamination'' to be fully acceptable as America's champion.

The problem lay in finding the kind of art most appropriate for America's new role as world leader. With both traditional representational painting and imported modernism deemed unsuitable, the art world simply didn't know which way to turn. Such leading art critics as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, and such ''advanced'' dealers as Samuel Kootz and Betty Parsons, were still trying to clarify the issue; they seemed more certain about what was not to be taken seriously than about what was.

The artists, of course, kept right on painting and exhibiting. Among them were several who had gained the respect of a wide range of critics, curators, and dealers. Byron Browne, in particular, was highly regarded for his ability to fuse modernist theory with American directness in brightly colored, lyrically flamboyant ''abstract'' pictures. These had their roots in Cubist formal principles, Picasso's draftsmanship and imagery, and Gorky's probing linearism, but they remained highly personal, even somewhat idiosyncratic. To the American art world of the time, Browne's paintings appeared both original and effective.

Browne's career moved ahead at a fast clip. He joined the prestigious Kootz Gallery in 1945 and, under its sponsorship, became more widely known than ever. Most important, however, was the increased attention his work was receiving from those art professionals who had taken it upon themselves to decide the future course of American art.

By late 1947 Browne was sitting close to the top of the world. He was painting better than ever, and his career seemed ready to really take off.

Other forces were at work, however. Motherwell, Pollock, Rothko, Gottlieb, and the other painters soon to be known as the Abstract Expressionists were rapidly becoming more vocal and visible. By late 1948 it was obvious to those in the know that Jackson Pollock was best qualified to become America's new art hero, and by 1949 that assumption had become fact - thanks largely to Life magazine's sensational article on him. Pollock was, after all, totally ''new,'' free of all obvious European influences, and as big and expansive as America itself.

From then on, things moved rapidly. When Kootz opened his gallery for the 1949-50 art season, three of his artists, including Browne, were no longer listed as members. The message was clear: Even Browne was too European in style, too obviously influenced by Picasso. From that point on, only strictly ''American'' modernists would be taken seriously. Overnight, Browne had become just another painter, a ''nonperson'' as far as the great future of American art was concerned.

But that wasn't all. In 1951 Browne's canvases were given by his former gallery to Gimbels Department Store to be sold at ''50 percent off dealer list price.'' The choice had been made. American art would henceforth march forward under the banner of Abstract Expressionism. And it would indeed achieve major international stature.

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