New York Mag

Wendy Goodman, 1 March 2021

The artist Emily Mason died at age 87 in December 2019, but you can still feel the joyful presence of her work in her bright studio in the Flatiron District. She painted here for 40 years (in the winter months, anyway; from May to October, she worked at her country place in Vermont). Her paint-flecked smocks are still hanging on a hook, and the small footstools she perched on to study her work are in place. Her rocking chair, another vantage for studying her paintings, is nearby, as are a pair of her favorite velvet gondolier slippers, which she would buy on every trip to Venice.

Mason was weaned on art. Her mother, the well-known abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason, was a descendant of John Trumbull, whose Declaration of Independence (1819) was used on the reverse of the $2 bill. Mason grew up with Milton Avery as an occasional babysitter and watched Joan Miró paint, since his studio was next door to her mother’s. She attended the Little Red School House and the High School of Music and Art. After a stint at Bennington College, she graduated from Cooper Union in 1955 and went to Venice to study painting on a Fulbright grant. In 1957, she married the painter Wolf Kahn.

She found this studio in 1979 and thought she would share it with Kahn, but instead she kept it to herself — all 4,700 square feet of the top floor of a building with magnificent views of open sky dotted with the water towers and handsome turn-of-the-past-century cornices of the neighboring buildings. Architect Michael Rubenstein added walls, dividing some areas to create the open studio, storage and office space, and a separate studio apartment, where the archive of Mason’s mother’s work is kept.

It is a place of solitude and industry. “Rain or shine, holiday, non-holiday, even when she didn’t feel so good, she would come,” says Steven Rose, who worked with Mason for more than a decade and is now the president of the Emily Mason & Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation. “There is a significant amount in this studio that’s based on things she found on the street. She was so resourceful that way, just like any good artist,” he adds.

The loft will be preserved to house her archive, and it will always feel as it did when Mason was alive. “Just in January, Em’s daughter Melany and I were going through her stationery cabinet,” Rose says, “and found this little Rite Aid cotton-ball box wrapped in brown paper and marked with a Sharpie.” Inside was a handwritten letter and some treated cotton balls — “cotton healing amulets” — that Mason’s friend the artist Nari Ward had given her in 1992. “It was just the type of thing that meant the world to Em and that she cherished on a deeply personal level. We put it right back.”



Jackson Arn, 11 Feb 2021

Emily Mason passed away in 2019 at the age of 87. She left behind two daughters, four grandchildren, innumerable adoring friends, and one of the most sustainedly dazzling bodies of work in postwar American painting. Despite this legacy (or should that be “because of?”), she was never a superstar. While Pop, Minimalism, and various strains of Post- and Neo- got the most column inches, she stuck to lyrical abstraction. She experimented, but never too flashily—once she discovered oil on primed canvas, she was set for life—and she despised gimmicks in decades when gimmickry dominated. Mason moved into a Chelsea studio in 1979 and spent the better part of the next forty years inside, painting with majestic indifference.

Comprising twenty-two paintings made between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, the exhibition “Emily Mason: Chelsea Paintings,” at Miles McEnery, is a shrine to that indifference: the quiet confidence it demands, the glory it can bring. Confidence is the easier of these two to grasp. Mason was by all accounts a modest person, comfortable in her own skin, and one suspects this had a lot to do with her upbringing. Her mother was the abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason; her babysitter was Elaine de Kooning; Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, John Cage, and Helen Frankenthaler were dinner guests. She was too familiar with the New York School milieu to crave admission or worry about expulsion, and if she ever came down with a case of the anxiety of influence it was asymptomatic.

When writing about Mason, it’s tempting to list colors like a kid burbling over a new box of Crayolas and leave it at that. And yes, fine: there are satiny blues, citric oranges, and lapidary purples. The upper half of “I Heard the Corn” (1979) is dominated by saturated yellow, while the lower half is strewn with faded terra-cotta and cactus green—the Southwest in twenty square feet, brought to you by a lifelong Manhattanite. “In Dormant Nature” (1984–85) is a cooler, softer-edged work, with violet and aquamarine dissolving into twilit blue to create an illusion of vast depth. Even here, though, you’re struck by the clarity of Mason’s free association. She paints like Bach improvising a three-voice fugue: every color in crisp focus, precisely accounted for even where it doesn’t dominate.

This plainspoken lucidity makes Mason’s compositions seem not just beautiful but correct—and, by the same token, different from the more roughly improvisational painting for which the New York School became famous. I can begin to wrap my head around the elegant complementary blues and oranges of “Ancient Incense” (1981). It’s much harder to understand why a messier canvas like “Hell’s Kitchen” (1994), a hefty slab of green garnished with spicy reds and yellows, feels so right: it has the inevitability of a formula, though of course there is no formula for such an image, no road map around the color wheel.

Mason’s powers abandon her in “My Iris” (1984–85). The ingredients are familiar enough (tart yellow and cool blue pressed tight together, with some secondary shades in between) but the composition is too pat in places and too muddled in others, the colors neither flowing nor clashing enough to strike sparks. The weakest work in the exhibition, it reminds us that inevitability is a painterly effect like any other—there’s nothing inevitable about it, nor about Mason’s ability to achieve it so consistently. That she did probably deserves the word “miracle,” but allow me to put it differently: as long as this show is up, Chelsea will be the coolest neighborhood in New York.



Elizabeth Buhe, Feb 2021

Even the most resolutely abstract artworks have a powerful associative capacity that allows the ascription of various real-world referents, a process akin to looking up at the clouds. Viewers might claim to see a butterfly alight in Lynda Benglis’s chicken-wire reliefs, for instance, or sunrise seascapes in Frank Bowling’s electric paintings. In looking at the canvases of Emily Mason now on view at Miles McEnery, however, we sense not so much a relation to a certain place or thing, but a lifetime of visual experiences put down onto canvas through a keen process of filtering, something like Joan Mitchell’s translation of the gardens of Vétheuil in her soaring panels of the 1970s and ’80s. The result in Mason’s work is necessarily nonspecific yet points nonetheless toward layers of feeling: light reflected off a rippling canal, a gleaming gold surface, flowers in mid-summer. She achieves this by building up literal layers of thin oil paint in explosive yellows, fiery oranges, and lapis lazuli blues, applying them to primed canvases with brushes and by pouring, and sometimes scraping them away with rags only to build them up again.

The canvases in Mason’s current show span the decade from 1978 to 1988, a period coincident with the artist’s 1979 move from her Broadway studio, shared with her husband Wolf Kahn, to a larger solo space on 20th Street in Chelsea. Work from 1958 to 1968 is concurrently on view at the Bruce Museum, while Weber Fine Art is showing oils on canvas from 1962 to 1989. The paintings executed in Chelsea are big (most are around four by four feet) and display the confidence of an artist working at full tilt. Here we frequently encounter marginally asymmetrical, softly geometric forms in a single color—washy turquoise, purple-brown, watermelon-magenta—placed at the center of a canvas, secured within a frame of translucent, rainbow-hued passages. Gently arcing horizontal registers bend through other colors: witness the green stripe at the bottom of Within the Orchard (1986) that emerges, stripped down to teal, from an obliquely-placed yellow shard. Sonia Delaunay’s prisms and Helen Frankenthaler’s stains would seem germane at first glance, but the paintings actually thwart the ascription of any secure art historical lineage precisely because Mason was well enough versed in painting’s history that its sublimation exceeds case-by-case comparison. The daughter of pioneer abstractionist Alice Trumbull Mason, a founding member and erstwhile president of the American Abstract Artists group, Mason grew up in the company of artists and was well versed from an early age in the language of abstraction, on one occasion defending her mother’s geometric compositions to her young friends. Later, a Fulbright fellowship to Venice inaugurated a lifelong affinity for European art, from Byzantine mosaics to Cézanne.

Mason’s paintings accommodate the external world not only in their relation to nature but in their consummate openness to others. Though her belief that “when you look at a painting you re-create the painting experience itself” echoes Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on paint as the trace of an individual encounter, a painting by Mason is more like a perceptual offering to the beholder than a record of process or irretrievable action.* The Green In Go (1983), for instance, equally suggests the glimmer of stained glass and the rolling contours of the countryside, opening our experience of the painted thing to our own sensory associations, both material and immaterial, natural and human-made. Sustained until her recent passing in 2019, Mason’s commitment to abstraction outlasted its zenith in the ’50s, its waning popularity in the face of ascendant conceptualism and figuration, and its recent re-emergence as a space for critical interrogation of identity. All this recommends the visibility she is now achieving, something she fought for on behalf of her mother, but forewent for herself during her lifetime.

*Emily Mason quoted in Andrea Gyorody, “Landscapes, Seascapes, Fire Escapes,” in Emily Mason, Chelsea Paintings: 1978-1997, exh. cat. (New York, NY: Miles McEnery Gallery, 2021), pg 6.



Will Heinrich, 17 Jan 2021

In 1979, the abstract painter Emily Mason quit a shared studio and took over an enormous loft on 20th Street in Chelsea. Mason, who died at the age of 87 in 2019, was the daughter of the great midcentury abstract expressionist Alice Trumbull Mason, and the painter she’d been sharing a studio with was her husband, Wolf Kahn. So it probably stands to reason that the canvases she produced in her own new space — 22 examples make up “Chelsea Paintings,” her first posthumous New York gallery show — were larger and more exuberant than the work she’d made before. (There’s also a show of Klimt-like but fantasy-colored views of birch woods by Kahn, who died last year, at the gallery’s other space.)

Her colors are so splashy, in fact, that I confess they put me off at first. Cascading tides of bright yellows and pinks can easily look garish, and so can the often raggedy edges between them. It takes a little while to get used to the volume and pick out the subtleties. But once you do, you find constructions as delicate and deceptive as spider silk.

The most successful of the paintings, or anyway my own favorite, is “The Bullock Farm,” 1987, in which an orange triangle crashes across a deep blue sky into yellow ground. The composition is balanced, but not exactly in harmony, and none of the overlaps are quite what they seem. As you try to get your bearings, the whole thing recedes like a desert mirage.



Karen Chernick, 11 Jan 2021

It took years for Emily Mason to get a painting studio of her own, though she’d always had keys to others. At first there was the series of Manhattan studios rented by her mom, pioneering abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason, where Emily made her first brushstrokes with professional-grade paints. Then there was one at 813 Broadway set up by her husband, landscape painter Wolf Kahn, near their downtown apartment and which they shared for years. “She would describe just being sort of stuck with not as much space to work [on] her own pieces,” says Steven Rose, Mason’s longtime studio assistant and director of the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation. “She really needed something.”

Mason got herself a room of her own in 1979, when she was in her late forties, opting to spend an inheritance from an aunt on a down payment for the top floor of a former garter factory in Chelsea. The original plan was to split the loft with Kahn, but it quickly became clear that he preferred to stay on Broadway. All 4,700 square feet would be hers, alone.

Chelsea Paintings, the newly opened exhibition at Miles McEnery Gallery, is the artist’s first gallery show since her death in 2019 and showcases 22 abstract paintings Mason made after moving her brushes and cat food tins full of pigment to 20th Street. These canvases are layered with saturated reds, turquoises and purples that defy gravity, floating like iridescent veils despite their density, and date mostly between 1978 and 1989 — the first decade during which she claimed her own space.

Mason tried new things in her Chelsea studio. The paintings she made there were bigger, and on canvas. In the 1960s and 70s she’d worked mostly on paper because “she could shuffle them away when the kids came home,” Rose explains. Once she had an entire floor to cover with works in progress, she could work on canvases in the 50 and 60-inches range. She could even work on ten of these at a time, letting the paint speak to her, as she liked to say.  

The storage racks in Mason’s studio — which is still exactly as she left it, down to the slippers and a January 2019 copy of the New York Times lining the work table — are packed with paintings from this mid-career period. It represents a moment before she hit her commercial stride, but was steadily cranking away in her studio. Today these are the bulk of her unsold inventory, after galleries eventually found buyers for her later works.

“These paintings are very flat but she would either add a bit of articulation that would come off the surface, or she would mine it and pull back using [turpentine] and a rag, or a scraper, to almost illuminate by subtraction,” notes Rose, pointing to “Untitled” (1984) which features rough pink brushwork on the left, balanced by thinned-out blue planes on the right. Other paintings are harder to decipher, with one of the hallmarks of a Mason painting being that you can’t tell which layer is on the bottom and which is on top.

Mason hatched other tricks, too. In works like “Untitled (Vermont)”, there are feathery veins of paint and uneven pigment goosebumps. When asked how Mason created such effects, Rose acknowledged to Hyperallergic that he still doesn’t know. “Emily would always mischievously giggle and say, ‘I’m not sure. Magic, I think.’ She was really coy about it.”

Mason started many of these works in Vermont, where she and Kahn had a country home and spent every summer for around 50 years. “I work better in Vermont than I do in New York,” Mason explained in a short 2017 documentary about her painting practice. Her Vermont studio was in a former chicken coop, overlooking a frog pond instead of skyscrapers.

But no matter where she started a painting, Mason’s expansive Chelsea studio became her tuning fork — the barometer she used to check that colors and shapes were humming at the right frequency. “These are all things that are gonna be reassessed in New York,” she remarks in the documentary, in a scene where she’s packing up her Vermont studio to return to Manhattan. It’s the candid admission of a seasoned painter who relied on a specific workspace for its north-facing light, and maybe also for its precious solitude. After a thoughtful pause Mason adds, “I really won’t know what these look like until I get them back in the city.”



David Ebony, 12 Feb 2020

Known as a consummate colorist in her brilliantly hued painterly abstractions, Emily Mason died on December 10, 2019, age 87, at her home in Vermont after a prolonged battle with cancer. December 10 is the birthday of her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, and Mason regarded each of her paintings as a visual poem, aiming for the expressive, and—dare I say—spiritual quality that she found in Dickinson’s verse. Mason, however, would never admit such lofty ambitions for her art. Although her artistic ambition was obvious to me and to others around her, in the passion for painting that she exuded, and the monumental body of work she produced, Mason always maintained a consistently sincere degree of modesty—sometimes bordering on unwarranted self-effacement—about her goals and achievements. 

At issue was not just her struggle as a woman artist in the male-dominated milieu of the mid twentieth-century art world, but the fact that she had been surrounded by formidable artistic personalities her entire life. We worked together for years on two books exploring her life and art: Emily Mason: The Fifth Element (2006), for the legendary art-book publisher George Braziller; and Emily Mason: The Light in Spring (2015), published by the University Press of New England. Both were joyous projects, and it was gratifying to see how, in the process of examining her life and reflecting upon her long career, she was able to overcome self-doubt to some degree, and gain a new level of confidence in herself and her work. During those times, going through her archives, she was always full of wit and humor. She often poked fun at me, saying that I was trying to get her to “toot her own horn.”

Mason was born on January 12, 1932, into an artistic family. Her mother was a pioneering abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason, a descendant of John Trumbull, a renowned portrait painter of the nineteenth century. Her father, Warwood Edwin Mason, was a captain of a commercial shipping company, and was often away at sea. Emily, therefore, grew up in a more or less matriarchal household, which brought her close to the circle of avant-garde artists surrounding her mother, a co-founder of the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group. Emily recalled that Piet Mondrian would come by for lunch. Josef Albers and Ad Reinhardt were frequent visitors, and Milton Avery would babysit her. As an adolescent during World War II, she would watch Joan Miró paint in a studio next-door to her mother’s, which he had rented during the war years.

In 1950, Emily won a scholarship to attend Bennington College, where she studied with Paul Feeley and Dan Shapiro. A 1956 Fulbright grant enabling her to study in Venice initiated a lifelong love of Italy, which she subsequently visited for extended stays nearly every year. She had a deep knowledge of Italian Renaissance art, and in our conversations, she much preferred to discuss, for instance, the color and line used by early greats like Cimabue, Giotto, and Duccio, rather than some of the contemporary art issues I tried to steer her toward. 

While abroad in 1957, she married painter Wolf Kahn, who she had met earlier in New York. The couple raised a family, and remained together for the rest of her life. In 1959, she joined Area Gallery on 10th Street in New York, and in 1960, held her first solo show there. Mason pursued her own unique artistic vision from early on in her career. In contrast to her mother’s geometric, hard-edge compositions, and her husband’s expressively romantic and colorful landscape-inspired imagery, she developed a distinctive form of intuitive, gestural abstraction featuring vivid layered color, and bravura brushwork, as well as indeterminate pours, always embracing the element of chance in her process. 

Mason’s work often appears as a bridge between the Abstract Expressionists—many of whom she knew personally—and Color Field painters, like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, although her work never fits comfortably within any art-historical labels. Mason wholeheartedly believed in the transcendental possibilities of abstract painting. She relished experiments with analogous colors, and was partial to bright reds, oranges and yellows, often punctuated here and there with touches of blue or green. The textural nuances she achieved in the layering of pigment, and the unexpected intensity and luminosity of her color, unfailingly lead the viewer to a meditative place, an otherworldly realm. She would always deny guiding or manipulating the viewer in any way, though. Her paintings may suggest such a destination, but you have to get there on your own.

Nari Ward
I first met Emily Mason when I was a young undergraduate student at Hunter College. I was enrolled in her beginners painting class, and wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be an artist. Meeting her at that moment in my life changed everything. Emily always encouraged her students to experiment; and she would often bring in materials for us to work with. Her criteria for success wasn’t only making art, it was helping you find what worked for you. Her method of teaching was radically informed by empathy. 
I remember being late for class because I was employed as a night shift security guard, and in the day often took a nap in the Hunter library before class, and overslept a few times. Instead of the usual teacher reprimand, Emily asked me where I slept and offered to come get me or send someone to wake me up. I was surprised by her pragmatic generosity and it motivated me to never come to her class late again. Making aesthetic decisions with emotive power while shining a light for others was a part of Emily’s self-assigned rigor, and this humanistic approach undoubtedly fueled her remarkable vision.
Part of Emily’s journey as an artist was to help others find their way through leading by example but also assisting when necessary. Over the years Emily became not only a mentor but also a friend. Even recently, at our last meeting, she was quick to tease me about how on my wedding day she was joyfully amused that my Uncle Felix was more focused on the temperature of the curry goat than the stated occasion. I will surely miss her wit, humor, strength, and unwavering love.

Sanford Wurmfeld
Knowing Emily Mason for over 50 years was a wonderful gift life presented to me. She was first and foremost a kind mentor together with her husband Wolf Kahn, both of whom, when we first met each other in Rome, introduced me to the possibilities that a committed and searching artist seeks. Emily was a lifelong friend whose art I was always thrilled to encounter. Her working methodology, based on years of ever expanding visual experience and knowledge of the history of art, allowed her to approach a surface in a most spontaneous manner and then to trust her reactions to the paint she first laid down in order ultimately to create astounding works—paintings which seemed to appear to a viewer as if produced by magic. For many years we were colleagues at Hunter College in New York, where Emily passed on her passion for painting in the most intelligent and nurturing manner producing generations of thankful and admiring students—some of whom became excellent artists themselves. Because of her teaching, her philanthropy, and most of all by her art, we are privileged to be continually influenced by Emily’s extraordinary legacy. Our world is a much less beautiful, magical, and kind place without her.

Steven Rose
Written to my one-year old Lennox, a month after the passing of our friend Emily Mason:

Dear Lennox, 
We lost a beautiful spark this December. I expect you knew. You cried at the burial uncontrollably, which you never do. I expect you felt us all mourning, felt the immeasurable loss and maybe the sublime gift and responsibility that had been transferred. I like to think that she taught you how to see and how to wonder. When your eyes were just forming, weeks into this life, I introduced you to each painting in our house as I introduced you to the view of the linden trees and the sky outside our living room window. And you responded with no less awe. Eventually, your minute head jerks turned into audible gasps which would make us all giggle.
Later, when you could crawl on your own, I put you on the floor in her studio surrounded by Emily’s towering, vibrating paintings and you charged at them like a 20-pound bull, smiling and pointing. Emily looked into your eyes, and looking back at her was a kindred spirit, a spirit full of an unapologetic love for life, an insatiable curiosity for all things untested, and a little mischief.

She has handed you the baton. Carry it well. You will embrace the sexy, naughty things, chuckle at a gentle but proper ribbing,  and cherish a good sense of rebellion. 

Emily so embraced rebelliousness; Exhibit A, her husband of 62 years, Wolf Kahn. Exhibit B through Z: each and every audacious move in every painting, oil on paper, and print she ever made. Wolf once said that Emily painted as a child sings, without reservation or having any plans. Watching your first steps, I would add that Emily lived (and painted) as a child learns to walk, with determination, abandon, and absolute revelry in the repetition. Her little bits of wisdom.

Little internal rebellions. Pure idealism:
“Get the mind out of the way.” 
“Let the painting speak.” 
“If you are too attached to any one part, it is because you are neglecting something else.”
“Allow it more time.” 
The result: heaps of dedicated hard work. Did I mention Emily never took a day off? 

Towards the end of her life, she was more free and bolder than ever before. The compositions were so thin that sometimes the pigment was just dusting the tooth of the canvas to suggest its presence in the composition.  She would simply leave it because the feeling in her tummy told her that the painting was finished.

The day after Emily decided she would forego any more treatment, she requested a trip down to Chinatown before heading back to her farm in Vermont. It was August and maybe one of the hotter days of the year and her body was tired after four months of chemo. Still, she wanted this. We made our way down to Canal Street to hit the fruit stands, the vegetarian Peking duck restaurant, the dried mushroom markets, and the congee shop. She couldn’t eat much by this time, but was ravenous. We collected. Yellow and red dragon fruit, lychees, two types of mangos she’s never seen before, strange plums that were labeled ‘Italian Grapes’ in Sharpie, ripe durian, bags of dried fish and mushrooms, and, of course, a photo of ox penis herbal soup. She posted the latter on her Instagram page with the caption “lunchtime.” She loved to be naughty.

Janis Stemmermann
In 1988 Emily was commissioned by the Associated American Artist Gallery to make an intaglio print edition. I was assistant to Catherine Mosley, Robert Motherwell’s master printmaker, who was contracted for the project. During the plate-making process Emily was dissatisfied with her proofs. On her own volition, she decided to experiment with a little known technique used by Joan Miró: painting carborundum grit and glue on the plate to create a matrix. The technique gave her flexibility and allowed her to work in a more intuitive way; a painterly print made on her own terms. In working closely with Emily to help her achieve the colorful veils that resulted in Soft the Sun, our friendship began.

After editioning Soft the Sun, excited by its results and potential for the carborundum aquatint process, Emily and I continued to work on our own. Nearly every Friday, from November to May, for over 20 years, Emily would show up at my studio door with hair in pigtails, a tote with freshly made plates, and a loaf of bread from the farmer’s market. The print studio would be ready for her with inks and stacks of prints in progress. I would make tea, slice and toast the bread, as we would chat and she made herself comfortable. Sometimes she would arrive with an idea that came to her while laying awake in the middle of the night—color choices for the day, coded in the hues of the silk turtleneck, cashmere sweater, and the pigtail ties she was wearing. With aprons on, we inked and wiped plates together. I operated the press—registering plates, adjusting pressure, laying paper, cranking—Emily waited for the thump of the plate passing through the press as she contemplated her next moves. By the end of the day, the studio wall was covered with fresh impressions, layers of newly added colors, veiled layering over dried ink from previous weeks or months. A print went in the “finished” pile when she felt there was nothing else that could be added.

Emily did not care for self promotion, but invested in fostering fellow artists. Being the daughter of early abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason, and growing up in New York City, Emily always possessed clear mindedness about what it meant to be an artist and navigate a complex city. When we met, I was just out of art school and living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and on my own. After working with each other for a few years, together Emily and I purchased a new Charles Brand press and set up shop in my Brooklyn studio. Simultaneously Emily encouraged me to continue making my own work. With her involvement in the beginning of the Vermont Studio Center [in Johnson, Vermont], she recruited me to be a resident; and that’s where my own work began to flourish.

Peter Schlesinger and Eric Boman
For nearly forty years, Emily Mason’s studio was located directly above ours in an originally manufacturing neighborhood where our building gradually attracted a diverse array of creative people. She bought the entire 11th floor, intending to share it fifty-fifty with her husband Wolf Kahn as studios. Wolf was not interested in half a floor and poo-pooed her buying it as a bad investment. Emily would giggle with delight years later when her real estate acumen was proven right. The south half of her floor instead became a greenhouse filled with orchids and other exotics that had to be trucked back and forth to Vermont each season. 

As some of the first residents in a converted factory we got to know each other through issues of plumbing and the C of O, which then turned to gossiping about the eccentric artists in the building that included the fiber artist Lenore Tawney, whose incense wafted up the building, and the feminist artist, Hera. 

Emily had a certain Yankee precision about her and you sensed that she kept a tidy palette, whether with pigments or people. This spirit also prevented her from repairing her radiators, preferring to place a shallow plate under each leak. The plates inevitably overflowed and the water would drip down to us. She turned off the offending radiators one by one, each time getting colder and colder as she asked the ever obliging super Agim to turn up the heat, making everyone else in the building boiling hot. Finally reason prevailed, the radiators were repaired and everyone was at peace.

Over the years we discovered that we shared with Emily an obsession with plants and nature; and we developed various traditions, like exchanging plants from our gardens, and going to the yearly Brooklyn Botanical Garden plant sale in the spring when the lilacs were in bloom. Emily gave us updates on the stature of a tulip tree sapling we’d dug up for her. Jars of jam and jelly she made in Vermont were given to us each fall. Another tradition was a cup of tea with Eric’s homemade cake in our apartment after Emily’s annual trip to Venice. One year, she brought us velvet gondolier slippers in fabulous colors that we still cherish.

Lucio Pozzi
During my first years in New York Emily Mason and Wolf Kahn were my family. I would often visit their apartment on 15th Street and invent fairy tales for their daughters before dinner. I first met them in Rome before moving to New York. We had exchanged studios. Wolf wore colorful ties and sweaters, the kids had knitted clothes, all made by Emily, a kind, beautiful and nurturing person. She was able to radiate her immense energy with understated grace, ever precise and smiling, vulnerable yet firm. 

The colors her family wore were colors derived from her paintings. Her sweeping gestures of paint would support a thoughtful structure that she would have felt bashful expressing, or stressing too much. The exaggeration associated with most gestural painting would never enter her work. Ample fields of sometimes thin, sometimes slightly thicker layers of color alternated in wisdom, with quick calligraphies and smaller knots of pigment creating new chromatic territories that met or overlapped. 

Attentive to every mode and mood, each of her works captivates my eye as something inevitable. In her work, it seems as if a certain red cannot but be placed where it is next to that particular blue, and blend under an orange tone before reaching a sharp mauve contradiction. While my eye scans the paintings, an enormous array of associations swirls in my mind, from landscapes to clouds, to entities that echo invisible existences, to vibrations that traverse my gaze. I register them only after they have filtered inside my own universe. I am thankful that nothing is imposed on me—her painting spurs me to reinvent it in my own terms each time I look at it.

Emily’s smile was open and fresh, ready to offer unsuspecting dialogue. The way she was able to be artist, woman, wife, and mother had the dignity of a deeply centered person, strong enough to be both supportive and independent. A veneer of melancholy added charm to her generosity. 
In New York, Emily and Wolf brought Susanna Tanger and me, newcomers, around town, meeting the people they knew. Some evenings we would gather at Stan and Johanna VanderBeek’s loft. I remember the barber chair dominating the living space while looking at films. A few times Emily’s mother, Alice Trumbull Mason, like her daughter a resilient artist, came with them to our small loft on Avenue B and 6th Street with her captain husband, Emily’s father. 

The modern painter who cares about the unforeseeable magic of painting by hand lives a life of resistance. S/he faces cyclical dismissals because the technique is ancient. But even worse, now s/he is also challenged by painterly concocters whose painting is fabricated from predisposed schemes. The gyrations of our ephemeral tastes seem to constantly endanger improvisational painting. Emily persisted in working unfettered, pursuing her painterly passion for unfathomable sensibility despite it all. Furthermore, she also faced down the difficulties her generation’s women artists had to work against since men, often their very partners, were encouraging a systematic preferential lane for themselves. Emily never sought to prove a point, never indulged in holding a rigid position. She is flying low and going far like the bird of I Ching.

With her passing, a central substance of my life is sealed into the mystery of time. Many are the friends that artists my age are losing, but Emily’s discrete and monumental absence builds a wall of void I’m having a hard time adapting to.

Carrie Moyer
Emily Mason’s paintings remind us that art is as much for the maker as it is for the audience. Her pleasure in the process is palpable, especially to us fellow painters who can picture her nonchalantly moving the materials over the surface with brush or finger. Nothing is precious. Over and over, her willingness to be experimental and playful with the oil paint and Gamsol resulted in fresh associations, feelings and insights into how color and light might operate on us. Such discoveries become a kind of joy to be shared by the artist and the viewer alike. I, too, am interested in sharing the thrill of optical and bodily sensation with my viewers. This is hard to do once, let alone over a career spanning seventy years and thousands of canvases. Brava Emily. Long may you play!

Louis Newman
I first met Emily Mason in her in a vast, light-filled Chelsea studio that had immense windows overlooking the skyscrapers of Madison Square and Midtown. Her studio was filled with numerous paintings and lots of plants; I suspect there were at least as many plants as paintings. The space was open and cheery, and on the walls were displayed a number of Emily’s richly colored works-in-progress. There were also works by various artists with whom Emily had a particular affinity: Hans Hofmann, Marsden Hartley, Arshile Gorky, and a watercolor of flowers by Charles Demuth. Though the studio was large, it felt very personal and surprisingly intimate, with some bits of clutter, and shelves crammed with art books. Mostly, I remember being surrounded by her paintings, emanating exhilarating color and light. 

The year was 1997. For several decades, I had owned and operated the eponymous Louis Newman Galleries in Beverly Hills. Now I was in New York City, director of a newly opened gallery, MB Modern on 57th Street. In my eyes, I had arrived at the nexus of the art world. Emily Mason was to be the very first artist whose work I would exhibit there. By the end of the opening night of her solo show, every one of her works had been sold. This was the beginning of a working relationship with Emily, and a friendship spanning more than two decades.

In many ways, Emily introduced me to her New York. We often socialized outside of the gallery and the studio. Emily and her husband Wolf Kahn were always intellectually curious and connected. They brought me into their world—from invitations to chamber music concerts to lectures, exhibitions, and artist talks. Occasionally, we even attended memorial services celebrating the lives of important individuals that they had known, but who I had never had the privilege of meeting. Through Emily, my world was expanded and greatly enriched. 

Emily was always refreshingly straightforward and honest. We trusted each other, and because of her approach to both life and art, working with her would be transformative. She possessed an inquisitive, embracing, and totally engaged spirit and she communicated those qualities in her paintings. Emily’s work was not about angst or high drama. She was at peace with her universe. And there was always playfulness in her work that is rarely seen in abstract painting—all enhanced by Emily’s remarkable grasp of the emotional possibilities of color.

In October 2015, I was invited to become director of Modernism and Contemporary Art at LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe where the “Emily Mason tradition” continues. Over my many years as an art dealer, I have helped numerous artists with their careers. Emily was the one artist who I feel made my career. Through Emily, I learned to better appreciate the needs of the artist, and to address those needs. I believe that she helped make me a more thoughtful and sensitive dealer. I understand from those present that on her final day Emily recited one of her favorite poems by Emily Dickinson. The poem captures much of the magic of Emily the artist, and the joyousness she has left in her wake.

Eric Aho
Backed by the slimmest of introductions, I showed up at Emily Mason and Wolf Kahn’s hilltop farmhouse in Vermont in the summer of 1989. Fresh out of art school, I had just landed in Vermont and had begun to paint. Ostensibly, I went to meet Wolf, but it’s Emily who I remember when I think of that day. Stepping out of her studio, wearing an apron, her hair in those disarming pigtails, she greeted me with that enormous smile and a warm and simple hello. Was I the imposition I had feared? Her well-practiced welcome—to be sure there have been many other young artists in Maine, Italy, and New York who had similarly wandered into their art camp—was so sincere that it instantly put me at ease. She served lemonade, fresh bread, and her award-winning jam.

While we waited for Wolf to join us, we looked over the hills and just talked quickly, alighting on a shared interest in mushroom foraging (a Finnish thing for me, and for Emily, the very symbol of interconnectedness in nature). If the farmhouse—untouched since the mid 19th century, with only a wood stove for heat—reminded of the past, sitting with Emily was the here and now. Her unrushed engagement insisted that being in the present was what mattered. Eventually, I came to see her casual ease as a hallmark of her painting, and of Emily herself.

But at the time, her painting somehow initially made me uneasy. I’d been taught to be suspicious of beauty. Maybe her paintings were too beautiful. Looking back, I think they were just way ahead of me; they tested my biases and preconceptions. Fear and beauty lie at the core of the sublime. I hadn’t yet understood that joy could be a subject of painting—or that joy and sorrow might even, at times, share the same palette.

Soon enough, I caught on. Emily’s 1993 exhibition at nearby Marlboro College was a full sensory experience. Her unique language of indirect poetic assertions, through poured, spilled and brushed color guided by action and deliberate accident, was exciting and pointed to the human register her painting occupies. My Pleasure, a work from that time, sets a defining multi-layered tone of Emily’s playfulness and purpose.

From a family of artists, Emily was already swaddled in a mature experience of abstraction. After all, her sensitive works reveal her very personal arena of habits, desires, wishes, failures, dreams, and hopes. How wonderful it must be to paint without pretense, to be aware of, yet, free from the tyranny of fashion. How wonderful it must have been to be deeply informed by painting’s lush antecedents, to accept one’s own doubt, struggle, and the visitation of success—and to work with one’s senses fully engaged. Encountering Emily Mason’s paintings was not unlike encountering Emily herself.

Bright and warm as many of her works are, they’re not exactly about light, nor of the sun, precisely. As I came to know Emily better, her paintings became her proxies, pulsing like bioluminescent optic phosphenes, similar to the miraculous neural show of color we see when our eyes are closed. The incandescence is internal—more human than phenomenological—quirky, intense, sensual, and unpredictable meditations on experiences, passing thoughts, moods, and temperatures of feeling. Her paintings are deceptive, not unlike her beloved fungi—delicacy and danger hiding in plain sight—and like Emily’s petite stature, conceal more power and depth than they might outwardly appear. Rarely are her paintings bigger than she could carry—her arm span always tethering them to a human, personal scale. After all, a canvas needn’t be ten feet wide when the feeling applied to it is beyond measure.



Neil Genzlinger, 7 Feb 2020

For more than 50 years, Emily Mason, an abstract painter in a family of painters, would spend winters in Manhattan, where she had a studio in the Flatiron district, and the warmer months in Brattleboro, Vt., where she and her husband, the painter Wolf Kahn, also had a home.

“It is important to balance city life with experiencing nature,” Ms. Mason, a native New Yorker, told the magazine Western Art & Architecture in 2018. “Winter in the city is the time for the fermentation of ideas. Summer is my time to carry them out.”

This past fall, though, cancer left Ms. Mason too ill to make her usual return to the city. When she died on Dec. 10 at 87, it was at her home in Brattleboro.

In announcing her death, the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, where she was an honorary trustee and where her work had been exhibited often, quoted her as giving a more painterly explanation, as it were, for not going south late last year.

“The colors were so incredible, I just couldn’t leave,” she said. “And then in November, the world looked like one of Wolf’s pastels.”

Color ebulliently deployed was at the heart of Ms. Mason’s work, and it was one of the things that set her apart from her mother, the abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason. Whereas her mother’s paintings often featured highly structured, quasi-geometrical forms, Emily Mason’s vibrant works, generally in oil, explored the varieties of a single color, or the play between multiple colors, in joyously free-form fashion.

“Hot Item” (2013) is a furious collection of reds, tantalizing but also somewhat ominous. “Summer Harvest” (2018) is an inviting composition in yellow and gold that seems to radiate warmth.

Her method was not to plan out a painting in advance, but to start working and see where it took her. She might begin by laying a blank canvas on the floor, pouring paint on it from a tin (she sometimes recycled cat food containers for this purpose), tilting the canvas to and fro to let the paint run about, then adding colors, eventually setting it aside and resuming work later. It was a process, she liked to say, of “letting a painting talk to you.”

In a 2005 interview with The Brattleboro Reformer, she compared her method of working on a canvas to playing chess.

“Pick it up, make a move, wait, let time go in between,” she said. “Then I know what to do.”

Emily Mason was born on Jan. 12, 1932, in Manhattan. Her father, Warwood, was a ship’s captain and later an executive at American Export Lines, a shipping company. Growing up, she was surrounded by artistic influences through her mother (a descendant of the Revolutionary-era painter John Trumbull), who for a time in the 1940s had a studio alongside Joan Miró.

After graduating from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and studying at Bennington College in Vermont, Ms. Mason graduated from the Cooper Union in New York in 1955 and went to Venice to study painting on a Fulbright grant. She studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti there — but, recalling the experience decades later, she sounded less than impressed.

“Class was very structured, very hierarchical,” she told Western Art & Architecture.

“The maestro and his top student had the prime spots in the room by the big window,” she said, but “the rest of us were made to cope with a single light bulb.”

She and Mr. Kahn married there in 1957. They were back in the United States by the end of that decade, and Ms. Mason had her first solo exhibition in 1960 at the Area Gallery in Manhattan. But her husband and her mother were the attention-getters in this early part of her career, the arts writer David Ebony, who contributed to two monographs on Ms. Mason, said in a telephone interview.

“She developed her art overshadowed by these formidable talents,” he said.

Years later, though, she would sometimes be exhibited alongside one or both, as was the case in 1982 with a show at Tulane University pairing her and her mother. That show later came to the Washburn Gallery in Manhattan, where Grace Glueck reviewed it for The New York Times, noting that though Alice Mason clearly had an influence, Emily had developed a style all her own.

“As a painter,” she wrote of Emily, “she’s assertively not her mother’s daughter, but the continuity is moving.”

Ms. Mason by then was beginning to gain more recognition on her own as well.

“In the mid-’90s she really hit her stride,” Mr. Ebony said. “She started working on larger and larger canvases with more and more confidence.” The resulting exhibitions, he said, “were very colorful — pools of colors crashing into each other.”

Ms. Mason, who also taught at Hunter College for many years, was named for Emily Dickinson, and her mother gave her a book of Dickinson’s poems when she was a girl. Her paintings’ titles, she said, were sometimes drawn from phrases in those poems. She died on Dickinson’s birthday.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Mason is survived by two daughters, Melany Kahn and Cecily Kahn (who is also an artist), as well as four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

In 2017 Rava Films made a short documentary about Ms. Mason, “Emily Mason: A Painting Experience.”

“I’d like a painting to take me to a place I haven’t been,” she said in the film. “If it does, then that’s my reward.”



Iris McLister, 24 April 2018

Artist Emily Mason was born in New York City in the early 1930s, which means that when she was coming into her own as a mid-century abstract painter, the art scene was largely dominated by dudes. Today, the huge canvases of some of Mason’s male colleagues can seem almost dick-measurey: Barnett Newman’s shaft-like zips, Clyfford Still’s brutally toned, jagged stalactites, Robert Motherwell’s squickily phallic forms. (Seriously, Google his “elegy paintings.”)

Whether she set out intentionally or not to do so, Mason’s dreamily hued, lushly abstract paintings are delicious counterpoints to the work of some of her more macho peers. As abstract as they are, Mason’s process belies intention and remarkable control, even when paint is spilled, smeared or dribbled across a surface. After around five decades in the studio, she’s still producing lyrically abstract paintings whose deftly arranged elements never feel forced or rigid. The show Inner Resources, opening Friday at LewAllen Galleries, offers a chance to see what makes the work of Emily Mason so beloved.

The majority of the show’s 40 or so paintings were made in the last few years, which is frankly astonishing, given the artist’s age; Mason turned 86 in January. She still paints at a vigorous clip, both in her Brattleboro, Vermont, studio as well as in a large, sunny space in New York’s Flatiron District. Unsurprisingly, Mason’s work ethic, according to longtime studio assistant Steven Rose, is inspiring. “Emily sees art-making not really as work, but as part of life,” Rose tells SFR, “and she’s committed to coming to the studio every day she can, usually by 10, and sometimes staying until 7 or so.”

Mason’s mother Alice Trumbull Mason was also a New York painter, and encouraged artistic impulses from an early age. Alice’s mid-century abstractions—with their olives, taupes and reds arranged in painstakingly abstract formations—could have been plucked off of Don Draper’s office wall.

Emily has a far more gentle take, though for her, too, abstraction is the ticket. She’s always been besotted with color, and for me, her most successful compositions contain tropical ones: vivid pink, parrot-beak yellow, oranges the color of a papaya’s insides. Warm colors dominate many paintings here, which are often accented by cool blue, violet or turquoise. This combination of fire and ice makes a canvas racy, juicy; Mason’s work is downright blush-inducing sometimes, glowing with a buzzy sensuality. Works like 2016’s “Avery Island” feel quintessentially, joyfully of this ilk, with its thick, vertical panel of tangerine, bordered on either side by turquoise and capped above with luminous, melting yellow. In “Geranium Lake,” from 2008, swaths of orange and coral pink spread across the canvas, covering it entirely. The painting’s parallel bolts of turquoise act as a cooling technique—at least that’s how my eyes read it: a way to temper the inferno of boiling oranges and reds which, if unchecked, might bloom across the painted surface like a rash. (Incidentally, this is what happens in “Keepsake,” a newer work whose all-over maroon and petal pink surface isn’t enhanced by a smudgy apparition of white.)

“Truth be told,” LewAllen Galleries’ Modernism Director Louis Newman says, “Emily’s art has only gotten better in time.” Last year’s “Fall Migration” seems to bolster the claim. Toward the right of the painting, a gently curved, wiggly violet veil offsets an area to the left filled with feverish orange, which is overlaid with a splintery segment of purple, manifesting in a composition of alternating whispers and shouts of color. In a recent short film about Mason produced by PBS, her husband, the painter Wolf Kahn, remarked that his wife “paints the way a bird sings … or like children sing, without having any plan.” It’s a lovely sentiment which readily applies to a recent work like “Up From Under,” filled to bursting with canary yellow, washes of orange, and a central, commanding streak of pale, sea-glass teal.

Comprising just under half of the show are cool-toned paintings, dominated by shades which range from navy to pale robin’s egg. When Mason’s blue appears bolting across predominantly warm-toned surfaces, it’s exciting; those same hues, though, when dominant, don’t have the same impact. Why? Next to the warm ones, the cool paintings, though no less structurally excellent, seem chilled, which Mason fundamentally is not.

Still, by and large and consistently throughout not just this show but Mason’s career at large, I have to agree with Newman: “There’s a magic to her work. There is something about Emily Mason’s painting that allows you to fall in love with her without your ever meeting her.” This triumphant exhibition presents a fantastic opportunity to do just that.