An appreciation of Emily Mason: Critics, curators remember Brattleboro abstract artist's legacy
BRATTLEBORO — When Emily Mason of West Brattleboro died on Dec. 10 at the age of 87, she left behind a sizable legacy of innovation in abstract art.
The daughter of an art pioneer — her mother, Alice Trumbull Mason, was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists in the 1930s — Mason forged her own path apart from popular trends in non-representational art. It led her to Bennington College and to Cooper Union in New York; to Venice, Italy on a Fulbright scholarship; to City University of New York's Hunter College, where she taught aspiring artists for more than 25 years; and to Brattleboro, where she and artist Wolf Kahn, her husband of 62 years, spent summers together.
The art critic Robert Berlind, in a piece for Art in America magazine, said this: "Mason works within the improvisational model of abstract expressionism, though notably without angst or bravado. Her oil on canvas paintings are distinguished by a sense of intriguing intimacy combined with uncompromising, though gentle, intensity. They evince a sense of structure within open, luminous space and juxtapose robust color harmonies with vivid contrasts that create an engaging optical vibration."
"When I start a picture I like to use the medium as directly as I can," Mason said on the website of LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of many galleries where her work was shown. "[This] puts me in a state of mind which avoids pictorial constraints. I try to use paint for its brilliance, transparency, opacity, liquidity, weight, warmth and coolness. These qualities guide me in a process which will determine the climate of the picture. All the while I work to define spatial relationships, resulting in certain kinds of places. I cannot name them but know intuitively when they appear."
For more about Mason's art and accomplishments, Southern Vermont Landscapes reached out to curators, art historians and writers. Here is what they said:
Mara Williams, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center
Williams, BMAC's longtime chief curator, wrote an essay for "Emily Mason: To Another Place," a major career retrospective of Mason's work which opened at the center in October 2018:
"On a fall evening some 25 years ago, I walked out the front door of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center with Emily Mason just as the sun was disappearing in the sky across the plaza, behind the old, one-story Brattleboro Co-op. She stood still and gazed with a rapt expression on her upturned face and remarked with wonder in her voice, `Oh, the lavender!'
"I stared at a sky streaked with gold, pink, and blue and thought, What is she seeing? Glancing at the buildings on Main Street, I saw golden light striking the bricks and deep maroon shadows, but no lavender. Nor was there any in the recesses of the yellow-toned Latchis Hotel and Theatre. As my eyes darted around the scene, the voice in my head kept asking, Where is the lavender? Then, slowly it bloomed in the subtly tinted air between the sky and our faces — lavender. Mason taught my eyes to see something they were unable to see. Her paintings do the same."
"Emily Mason's work, by virtue of her birth and training, is deeply rooted in the world of abstract painting that eschews depictions of nature and illusionistic space. Rather, it is art grounded in paint and the act of painting. In the documentary `Emily Mason: A Painting Experience' by RAVA Films, Mason articulates her artistic process: 'I always begin a painting with a blank canvas and not any preconceived idea of what it's going to look like. I just sort of react. I can't predict it, so I let the materials suggest the next step and then take it from there.' Her working method is fundamentally a call-and-response with paint and color — an ongoing dialogue of discovery. 'It's a process of letting a painting talk to you. I want painting to take me to a place I've never been.'"
David Ebony, contributing editor, Art in America
Ebony has known Mason and her work since he was a student pursuing a master's in art history at Hunter College. A former managing editor of Art in America, Ebony completed two books with Mason: "Emily Mason: The Fifth Element" (2006) and "Emily Mason: The Light in Spring" (2015).
Ebony said Mason's distinctive style starts from the spontaneous, improvisational quality of Abstract Expressionism, but also connects to the Color Field movement of the 1960s, which used large areas of a single color to evoke a meditative response.
"Especially of interest to her was analogous colors as opposed to more conventional contrasting composition colors that most abstract painters are attracted to," Ebony said. "She focused a lot on making striking analogous color relationships, which make her work especially vibrant."
Mason wasn't as well-known as she should have been early in her career for a variety of reasons, Ebony said. She was in part overshadowed by the famous artists in her own life — her mother and her husband. And maneuvering through the art world as a woman was not easy in the 1950s and '60s, when male artists were given much of the critical and media attention.
Furthermore, Mason was not a natural self-promoter when it came to her artwork; she was modest and not given to "pompous blather," Ebony said. When they were working on her books, "she used to make fun of me, saying you're trying to make me toot my own horn," he recalled.
But Mason's work started to gain more widespread notice in the 1990s, when her children were grown and she was able to focus on her art. As her showings increased, so did her critical reputation.
"Art critics ... saw this connection she had made in her work with the late Abstract Expressionist style through the Color Field movement to arrive at something that was really completely her own," Ebony said.
In working on her two books, Mason focused most carefully on the color of her work and pared back the text, Ebony said. "She wanted it to be readable and accessible. She wanted the focus to be on reproductions of the color."
Ebony's contribution to Mason's second book makes the case for her enduring legacy in abstract art. It was an essay noting the relevance of her work to contemporary abstract painters such as Cecily Brown, Charline von Heyl and Carrie Moyer, and "how [Mason's] unique form of abstract gestural painting could be seen in the works of these younger artists."
"She was a painter's painter. Painters knew about her. Her legacy is going to continue to grow in that way," he said.
"She didn't take herself very seriously. She was a very serious painter and she has this enormous body of work that can prove that. But she had a very understated way of talking about art and her own art. Always with a touch of humor. And she was an influential teacher."
Arlene Distler, Brattleboro Write Action
Distler wrote a profile of Mason for Art New England around the time of her show at BMAC.
"She wears her age well and sports pigtails behind her sparkling blue eyes," Distler wrote for Art New England. "Her bearing resembles a dancer's. Her strong, clear voice is marked with a New York accent. Though diminutive, she comes across as a force to be reckoned with — dedicated and confident."
Mason resisted popular art movements, instead choosing to follow her own path, Distler wrote.
"Perhaps this refusal to trumpet a particular theory or be a part of any movement, instead following her intuitive guideposts, is one reason Mason is not a `household name.' She has followed her own path, despite sharing her life with Wolf Kahn whose style aligns with expressionist realism," Distler wrote in Art New England.
"The light and brightness of gold-yellow canvases is a powerful first impression," Distler wrote of her visit to Mason's studio for Art New England. "Yellow, she says, is a color favored recently and adds, 'I seem to go through periods of different primary colors.' As we look at several paintings, including the large blue/purple 'And Sings the Song' and the gold/orange 'Before the Fall,' Mason reflects, 'You grab your accidents!'"
Reach Southern Vermont Landscapes editor Greg Sukiennik at email@example.com.
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