HIGH COLOR: THE ART OF EMILY MASON

HYLAND, 1 May 2013
By Dick Kagan

“Emily is about color.”

The voice came over my left shoulder. It was attached to a tall woman who had been viewing me viewing a gorgeous abstract painting by Emily Mason.

I had come to David Findlay Jr. Gallery on Fifth Avenue that blustery New York afternoon not realizing that there was to be a reception for the artist which would attract a mighty throng.

“Have you met Emily?,” my tall acquaintance asked.

Dismayed by my negative response, she immediately led me into the midst of a gabby thicket and introduced me to a slender spite of a woman with mischievous pale-blue eyes. In a sea of dark wintery woolens, Emily Mason stood out in a trim kelly green suit. She was indeed about color. And a lot more.

The rich hues of her abstract paintings swoop, swoon and swirl across the canvas as if borne on zephyrs of delight and joy. The graceful flow and movement of color is buoyant and jubilant, as opposed to so much of the coloration seen in Abstract Expressionism, which exudes anger and angst. There are no heavy squalls of careering black lines, no inscrutable squiggles, no allusions to grunge, no echo of distress. They make you glad you came in out of the cold.

Occasionally Mason’s works have hints of artists as diverse as Arthur Dove, Hans Hofmann, and Helen Frankenthaler. But only hints. The way some of her abstract forms arc and embrace might recall Dove’s morphology, but not his swampy colors. Her brightly colored rectangles may be vaguely reminiscent of Hofmann’s bold squares, but Mason’s geometry is softer in focus, less linear, more spontaneous. And while the grace of her paintings might possibly bring to mind the veils of floating coloration in Frankenthaler’s stain paintings, the latter’s palette is paler and more muted.

Although Mason has been referred to as a Color Field painter and a Lyrical Abstractionist, she creates her own rhythm, her own mood, her own trope. She herself eschews labels. “I’m more engaged with the physical activity of painting, instead of the verbiage,” she says. “I want each painting to take me to a place I’ve never been before.

Mason is a totally intuitive painter. “Intuition, she says, “makes you articulate things that you might never have thought. I want to clear my mind when I start a painting. It’s what John Cage called ‘getting rid of intention,’” referring to the avant garde composer who was a friend of her mother’s. “One doesn’t want to predetermine the discovery process.”

A rara avis among New York painters, Mason was brought up and has spent most of her life on Manhattan Island. As a child, her family made their home in Greenwich Village. Her father was a sea captain with American Export Lines. Her mother, Alice Trumbull Mason, a descendant of John Trumbull, the illustrious painter of the American Revolution, was a noted artist in her own right.

Mason mère et fille once exhibited their work together in a show, “Two Generations of Abstract Painting,” held in 1982 at Skidmore College and Tulane University. But their visions and styles, albeit abstract, are distinctly different. “My mother was a good friend of Piet Mondrian and later in life her work became more straight-edged,” the daughter recalls. Someone once asked her about the differences in our work and my mother said, ‘Emily has her art and I have mine.’”

As a child, Mason remembers, “my mother always had her brushes out and would let us [Emily and her younger brother] paint.” At school, Mason also showed an aptitude for art. “My friend March Avery, Milton Avery’s daughter, and I attended The Little Red Schoolhouse together. We decided we would have a gallery…and that one of us was going to become a sculptor and the other, a painter. But here we are, both painters.”

As a child, too, Mason admits, “I sometimes was defensive about my mother’s art, but when I got to college I knew I wanted to be an abstract painter. I just understood it.” She first attended Bennington in Vermont, then transferred to Cooper Union in New York, from which she graduated. She later studied under a Fulbright grant. One of the people who had an early impact on her art was the renowned textiles designer Jack Lenor Larsen.

“He talked about analogous color,” says Mason, “and changed my perception. I’m indebted to him for opening my eyes.” Analogous colors, she explains, abut each other on the chart. Yellow, orange/yellow and orange, for example, are analogous colors. “Instead of using black or white to modify color, “ she adds, “you use the shade next to it on the color wheel. It’s more how the eye naturally sees color.”

But Mason’s chromatic deftness goes far beyond acute knowledge of the color wheel. She has a deep awareness of how colors influence each other in terms of tonality, mood and nuance. Working with oil, she mixes colors directly on canvas, and then often engages in a prolonged process of glazing or scumbling, applying thin layers of either translucent or opaque color over dry paint. Among other techniques, she also occasionally blots wet surfaces with blank newsprint; “it’s very absorbent,” she says, noting that she prefers canvas “with a fairly tight weave that’s as smooth as possible; anything to make the surface more receptive.”

Her patient methods achieve an intensity and luminosity of shining colors that evoke the enchantment of a desert sunset, the glow of a seashore sunrise, the blush of a spring garden, the ripe bounty of a tropical grove. Her subtle variations on red and pink, orange and tangerine, yellow and marigold, blue and lilac are at once exquisite and exhilarating.

Mason works in an immaculate, large studio in a Flatiron District loft building. North light bathes the main area through tall arched windows and personal touches lend the space an appealing charm. A colony of live orchid plants dominates one table top, while neat rows of brushes in canisters lay siege to another. A teakwood seat used by a musician in a Balinese gamelan ensemble, which serves as a low side table near a small antique rocker, was “the gift of a Bennington classmate who lived in Indonesia as a child,” Mason points out. One wall is dominated by an attractive group of small paintings by Mary Cassatt, Charles Demuth, Joan Miró and others, whom Mason refers to as “friends or those whom I would have liked to befriend,” as well as by her husband, Wolf Kahn, an artist acclaimed for his wonderfully atmospheric pastel landscapes, who has a studio a few blocks away.

Mason’s paintings may at times suggest the contours of nature: a hillock of goldenrod, a bubbling woodland stream. But it’s a suggestion perhaps induced by the titles she gives her works after they’re completed. Lavender Lake, Cotton Wood and Days Departing Tide were among the works recently on view at her most recent show at David Findlay Jr. The sources of these titles may vary from random words she hears on the radio to phrases she recalls from Emily Dickinson’s poetry, which she can readily quote. The fondness for poetry also may be in her genes. “My mother wrote abstract poetry,” she says, “and had correspondence with William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein.”

Asked how long it takes her to complete a painting, Mason concedes she’s not sure because she tends to work on several pieces at the same time. “All I know,” she explains, “is that you breathe differently when it’s finished. Often I’ll keep a painting around…until there’s one more twist to add. It’s that extra twist, that extra thought, that extra dimension…that magical thing you can’t predict” that completes a work of art.