MILES McENERY GALLERY
EMILY MASON CHELSEA PAINTINGS: 1978â&#x20AC;&#x201C;1997
520 West 21st Street New York NY 10011
tel +1 212 445 0051 www.milesmcenery.com
525 West 22nd Street New York NY 10011
LANDSCAPES, SEASCAPES, FIRE ESCAPES By Andrea Gyorody Walking for the first time into Emily Mason’s Chelsea studio, on a bright October day in 2020, my mouth fell open (behind my mask) at the stunning quality of light coming from a wall of north-facing windows, blanketing the vast, open loft with a uniform glow. The front space was divided loosely into three parts, with a large worktable in one, a sitting area in another, and the third reserved for painting. That space, with the floor covered in brown paper, bore all the evidence of Mason’s craft: crocks full of brushes and tools; aprons and paint-splattered clothes hanging from a hook; two pairs of house shoes lined up neatly alongside a petite wooden rocking chair; a tabletop pile of repurposed cat food tins in lieu of a palette, each labeled with a different pigment. Passing through a small corridor led to other rooms that contained rows and rows of books (art monographs, travel guides, and poetry); purpose-built storage shelves for paintings and works on paper; tables piled high with archival boxes filled with prints; and the remains of Mason’s plant collection, down to just a few specimens, including a large Bird of Paradise spilling over its pot and glistening with droplets of water beside a near-empty miniature greenhouse. Mason had not worked here for well over a year; she died from cancer at her home in Vermont in December 2019, at age 87. But her studio was still remarkably warm with the energy of an artist at work. The paintings in this exhibition date from 1978 to 1997, beginning as Mason transitioned into her Chelsea studio, the first that she could really call her own. She initially rented the loft and then bought it, expecting that she and her husband, the painter Wolf Kahn, would share it. He instead wound up maintaining his own studio nearby, giving Mason—then in her forties—a new measure of freedom and independence. Unsurprisingly, her work blossomed. Where she had previously painted on a smaller scale (and often on paper), the paintings she made after moving into the Chelsea studio grew larger and more ambitious, and decidedly more intense in every respect.
Emily Mason in her Vermont Studio, 1986 Photo: Jean E. Davis
When I visited, fifteen or so paintings under consideration for her upcoming show had been propped around the space so I could sit and soak them in. Untitled, from 1997, occupied the spot closest to the windows in the front room; its pinky oranges were so saturated and bright as to verge on blinding, but, balanced and sharpened by encroaching fields of magenta, teal, and periwinkle, the whole drew me in like an incandescent magnet. The heat of Untitled was heightened by its placement next to My Iris, from 1985, with its dominant splotches of cobalt edged in numerous shades of green, a coppery brown, and two strong zones of pale goldenrod. Pigment, in these works, is delicately layered; it is not soaked through the canvas, as in paintings by Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, but the paint nevertheless appears to be so flat and fused to the support as to be pre-given—a marvel of technique that led Robert Berlind to write that some of Mason’s paintings “seem for all the world to have occurred without a human agent.”1
Surrounded by Mason’s pulsating canvases, I quickly realized that writing about these paintings would require writing about color, something that feels ineffable, or at least terribly, insurmountably, subjective. “For no one really knows what a color is, where it is, even whether it is,” Maggie Nelson writes in Bluets. “(Can it die? Does it have a heart?) Think of a honeybee, for instance, flying into the folds of a poppy: it sees a gaping violet mouth, where we see an orange flower and assume that it’s orange, that we’re normal.”2 Nelson is onto something there, in directing us toward nature not only as the source of color’s relativity, but also as the source of color itself. Though some paints are now synthetic, many still come, in whole or in part, from nature—from things like cochineal insects and predatory sea snails—and have to be diluted with thinners made from seeds, herbs, flowers, or beeswax. Even if we might not want to say that Mason’s paintings are “about” nature, they are suffused with it, not just as a metaphorical point of reference but in their physical constitution. Born and raised in New York City, Mason partly owed her orientation to plants, flowers, and fruits to her mother, the formidable abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971). In the last years of her own life, Emily helped put together the first substantial (and very belated) monograph on Alice’s life and work. “When I think about my mother,” she writes in the book’s foreword, “I remember her as the self-reliant New Englander who knew how to make soap from bacon grease. She was a student of nature who taught us as children how to identify wildflowers in the spring, how to make jam from blackcap raspberries, and how to make ketchup from our Victory Garden’s tomatoes. . . ” This image of Alice is somewhat at odds with her highly organized, hard-edged paintings, which appear quite removed from the intensity of the natural world that comes through in her daughter’s paintings—but that is precisely what makes Emily’s characterization so revealing of her own point of view as an artist.
1. Robert Berlind, “Foreword,” in Emily Mason: The Fifth Element (New York: George Braziller, 2006), n.p. 2. Maggie Nelson, Bluets (Seattle: Wave Books, 2009), 15.
The younger Mason was indeed acutely aware of the differences in their approaches to painting. While her mother carefully planned everything before she began, Mason preferred to “just let the paint do it”—that is, to let the relative viscosity of the pigment and thinner, and the force of gravity, act as co-determinants in what happens when color hits canvas. That dynamic is beautifully captured in a 2017 documentary about her work: Mason pours thinned oil paint on a blank canvas and tilts it this way and that, allowing the pigment to move and settle in. Then she goes on to another work in progress, one where the white of the gessoed, primed linen has already been obliterated, and adds a bit here or there, pouring or applying paint loosely with a brush, blotting and neatening with a wad of paper towel, using a finger to squidge the paint and transform it from a blob into a subtle, diaphanous veil. Surely she is in charge in these encounters, but she allows for accident and surprise, carefully loosening her control of her materials so that they can do what they will. The tactility of her method requires an intimacy with paint that one only acquires over decades of practice; it echoes Amy Sillman’s description of her own relationship to painting: “Color is something that I can only describe, which lives in the memory and sensation of the skin, the feelings of touch and handling itself.”3 In that same documentary, Mason offers an instructive statement about what it means to behold a painting. “When you look at a painting,” she says, “you re-create the painting experience itself.”4 That bears out in her own work, where the process of making has been visibly arrested if not always rendered fully transparent. Untitled (“Vermont”), from 1985, is a prime example of the liquid sensibility that flows through Mason’s paintings: the canvas appears as though it has just been flushed with pigment, as though the watery color is still moving to the edges of its limits. The muddy greens that splay out from the center bear the force of velocity, pulling the painting in opposing directions. In Landscapes, Seascapes, Fire Escapes, from 1978, the speed of the painting is slower, the pigment seeping left and right at a less hurried pace. The mannered arc of teal at the top stands in contrast to the signs of movement below, heightening the feeling that the deep mauves that band across the work are controlled by something other than the artist’s hand. In yet other paintings, thinned pigment leaves behind an aerated stain, reminiscent of foamy ocean water lapping onto shore. 3. Amy Sillman, “On Color,” reproduced in Faux Pas: Selected Writings and Drawings (Paris: After 8 Books), 71. 4. Emily Mason, qtd. in Emily Mason: A Painting Experience, directed by Rafael Salazar Moreno (2017; Rava Films), YouTube.
Emily Mason in her New York City Studio, 1991 Photo: Tommy NĂŚss
While all of that points to nature as Masonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s guiding force, her paintings also capture the discernment of a confident eye. Masonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s process was not a fast, lose-yourself-inthe-moment kind of painting, but one in which she constantly stood back from the work to see what it was doing, to make decisions about how it should be pushed further and, ultimately, how it should be oriented. Mason typically carried out the task of finalizing her paintings in New York, after having started many of the canvases at her studio in Vermont. Her habit, for decades, was to spend summers with her family in Brattleboro, returning to New York, and to her Chelsea studio, by late October to settle in for the winter. The transitions back and forth, in line with the seasons, determined the way she approached the practice of painting. The 2017 documentary
records a moment in Vermont, as Mason prepares to wrap up her paintings to bring back to New York, when she notes, “I really won’t know what these look like until I get them back to the city.” She means this literally, as the quality of light in her studio in New York is, by her own measure, quite different from the light coming into her studio in Brattleboro—a shed, essentially, punctuated on all sides with skylights, windows, and doors that open directly onto the landscape, giving her the bare minimum of shelter required to paint and to prop or hang canvases to see them better.
I find it revealing that Mason believes New York light is somehow clarifying, perhaps not only in terms of the condition of light in her studio, which I can testify is sublime, but also with reference to the atmosphere of the city, the heart of American abstraction that has been the crucible for generations of artists, including Mason and her mother. Though I hesitate to invoke the stereotypes of a rural-urban narrative, it does appear that one is at work in Mason’s habits, in her movements each year from the “nature” of her Vermont shed to the “culture” of her Chelsea studio (her remarkable plant collection notwithstanding). Coming back to the city in the fall also meant returning to museums and galleries, and, beginning in 1979, to teaching at Hunter College—all activities that, if nothing else, further hone an artist’s discernment, not just of their own work, but of their place in the history of art. Mason began carving that place for herself with vibrant paintings that still glow most brightly in the ethereal northern light of her Chelsea loft.
Andrea Gyorody is the Ellen Johnson ’33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College.
Bound to Opposing Winds, 1978
Oil on canvas 40 x 50 inches 101.6 x 127 cm
Landscapes, Seascapes, Fire Escapes, 1978 Oil on canvas 54 x 52 inches 137.2 x 132.1 cm
I Heard The Corn, 1979
Oil on canvas 54 x 52 inches 137.2 x 132.1 cm
Ancient Incense, 1981 Oil on canvas 52 x 52 inches 132.1 x 132.1 cm
Down East Down, 1982 Oil on canvas 52 x 42 inches 132.1 x 106.7 cm
Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Cornice, 1982
Oil on canvas 52 x 52 inches 132.1 x 132.1 cm
Julyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Amethyst, 1982 Oil on canvas 48 1/4 x 52 1/4 inches 122.6 x 132.7 cm
Pigeonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Blood Rock, 1983
Oil on canvas 52 x 44 inches 132.1 x 111.8 cm
The Green In Go, 1983 Oil on canvas 52 x 48 1/4 inches 132.1 x 122.6 cm
Oil on canvas 60 x 52 inches 152.4 x 132.1 cm
Shore Leave, 1984
Oil on canvas 40 x 52 inches 101.6 x 132.1 cm
Oil on canvas 48 x 50 1/4 inches 121.9 x 127.6 cm
In Dormant Nature, 1984 - 1985 Oil on canvas 44 x 42 inches 111.8 x 106.7 cm
My Iris, 1985 Oil on canvas 52 x 48 inches 132.1 x 121.9 cm
Untitled (“Vermont”), 1985 Oil on canvas 52 x 52 inches 132.1 x 132.1 cm
Surpassing Ermine, 1985 - 1986 Oil on canvas 60 x 52 inches 152.4 x 132.1 cm
Within The Orchard, 1986
Oil on canvas 52 1/4 x 52 1/4 inches 132.7 x 132.7 cm
Untitled, 1988 Oil on canvas 60 1/8 x 52 1/8 inches 152.7 x 132.4 cm
The Bullock Farm, 1987 Oil on canvas 52 x 42 inches 132.1 x 106.7 cm
Untitled, 1989 Oil on canvas 52 1/2 x 45 inches 133.4 x 114.3 cm
Hellâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Kitchen, 1994 Oil on canvas 54 1/4 x 50 1/2 inches 137.8 x 128.3 cm
Untitled, 1997 Oil on canvas 62 1/2 x 52 inches 158.8 x 132.1 cm
CHRONOLOGY 1932 Emily Mason is born in New York City on January 12. Her mother is the artist Alice Trumbull Mason, and her father is Warwood Edwin Mason, a sea captain for American Export Lines. 1934–37 She attends the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village. 1946–50 She attends the High School of Music and Art. In June 1950, Mason graduates from the High School of Music and Art and enrols in Bennington College in Vermont.
1952 Mason transfers from Bennington College to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. In the summer, Mason attends the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, where she is particularly influenced by Jack Lenor Larsen’s lecture on analogous color. 1954 In the summer of 1954, Mason travels throughout Europe. The trip has an enormous impact on Mason and shapes much of her understanding of Western art. In France, she sees the recently discovered Lascaux Caves. In Italy, she sees Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the mosaics in Ravenna, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 1955 Mason graduates from Cooper Union. In the summer of that year, she attends the Yale-Norfolk Summer School of Art. 1956 Mason is awarded a Fulbright grant to study in Venice. In April, she meets the artist Wolf Kahn at the Artist’s Club in New York and spends the summer with him in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the fall, Mason sets sail for Italy along with other Fulbright scholars, including the artist Lee Bontecou. She then travels to Venice and enrolls in the Accademia di Belle Arti. In December, Mason travels to meet Kahn in Le Havre, France. They visit Paris before returning together to Venice.
1957 In Venice, Mason and Kahn rent the large central room of a Palazzo on the Giudecca. They are married in March. In the spring, the couple travels to Rome, where Mason sees the Jackson Pollock show at the Museo d’Arte Moderna. Mason’s paintings earn her a second year of the Fulbright grant. 1958 In April, Mason and Kahn travel to Greece before spending another summer in Venice. In November, Mason and Kahn set off for the United States, stopping first in Paris and then in Spain. In Madrid, they visit the Prado Museum. They depart for New York from Gibraltar. 1959 Back in New York, Mason and Kahn live in a loft on Broadway and 12th Street. In September, Mason gives birth to a daughter, Cecily. At the end of the year, Mason joins the Area Gallery on 10th Street, an artist-run space. 1960–62 Mason’s first solo exhibition opens at the Area Gallery in 1960. It features her Venice work. Another two shows follow in 1961 and 1962. In the fall of 1962, Mason returns to Italy with her family. They settle in Milan for the winter. 1964 Mason gives birth to her second daughter, Melany, in Rome. 1965 The family returns to New York. 1968 In the spring, Mason and Kahn purchase a farm in West Brattleboro, Vermont. Mason uses the combined blacksmith’s shop and chicken coop as a studio. 1973 Mason and her family travel to Kenya. They visit Nairobi, the Samburu National Reserve, Lake Naivasha, Malindi, Lamu Island, Maasai Mara National Reserve, and Marsabit. 1977 An exhibition of Mason’s work opens at the Landmark Gallery in New York. Two more exhibitions follow in 1978 and 1981.
1979 Mason moves her studio from Broadway to West 20th Street. In the fall, she begins teaching part-time at Hunter College.
2018 Emily Mason: To Another Place opens at the Brattleboro Museum of Art in Vermont.
1984 A solo exhibition of Mason’s work opens at the Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York. Mason exhibits with Borgenicht in 1987, 1990 and 1992.
2019 Color|Gesture and a solo exhibition of Mason’s paintings open at the Bennington Museum and Miles McEnery Gallery, respectively. In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950–1969 opens at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. Mason and her husband of sixty-two years, the artist Wolf Kahn, are each awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Arts from Marlboro College in Vermont. Emily Mason dies on 10 December.
1985 The Associated American Artists Gallery commissions a print edition from Mason. She employs a technique suggested by the printmaker Anthony Kirk, using carborundum. 1997 Mason begins to show at the MB Modern Gallery in New York. She exhibits there in 1998, 1999 and 2001. 2001 Mason begins exhibiting at David Findlay Jr Gallery in New York, where she shows regularly through 2015. 2004 A solo exhibition of Mason’s paintings opens at the LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she continues to show up through the present. An exhibition of Mason’s prints opens at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice, Italy. 2005 A solo exhibition of Mason’s prints and paintings open at the Brattleboro Museum of Art in Vermont and Ogunquit Museum of American Art in Maine, respectively. 2008 Contemplating Color, a traveling exhibition organized by LewAllen Galleries, is shown at LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe and at The Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi. 2016 Mason begins exhibiting at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe (now Miles McEnery Gallery) in New York. 2017 Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 opens at the Grey Art Gallery in New York followed by a solo exhibition at Miles McEnery Gallery.
2020 Emily Mason is selected for the Masters Honorary Show at The Century Association in New York. “She Sweeps with Many-Colored Brooms”: Paintings and Prints by Emily Mason opens at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT.
SELECT COLLECTIONS Alexander Foundation, New York, NY Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, OH Art in Embassies, US Department of State, Washington, D. C. Bates College, Lewiston, ME Bennington Museum of Art, Bennington, VT Boston Mutual Life, Canton, MA The Century Association, New York, NY Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH Felton International, New York, NY Moore Free Library, Newfane, VT Morgan Stanley, New York, NY Morgan Stanley, Tokyo, Japan National Academy Museum, New York, NY New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME Rockefeller Group, New York, NY Rutgers University Archives, New Brunswick, NJ Springfield Museums, Springfield, MA University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque, NM University of New Hampshire, Museum of Art, NH Washington County Museum of Art, Hagerstown, MD Watkins Corporation, London, United Kingdom Wheaton College, Norton, MA
Published on the occasion of the exhibition
CHELSEA PAINTINGS: 1978–1997 7 January – 13 February 2021 Miles McEnery Gallery 520 West 21st Street New York NY 10011 tel +1 212 445 0051 www.milesmcenery.com Publication © 2020 Miles McEnery Gallery All rights reserved Essay © 2020 Andrea Gyorody Director of Publications Anastasija Jevtovic, New York, NY Photography by Christopher Burke Studio, New York, NY Color separations by Echelon, Santa Monica, CA Catalogue layout by McCall Associates, New York, NY ISBN: 978-1-949327-40-3 Cover: Within the Orchard (detail), 1986
MILES McENERY GALLERY