Miles McCenery Gallery
January 7 – February 13, 2021
Even the most decidedly abstract works of art have a powerful associative capacity that allows for the assignment of various real-world referents, a process akin to looking at clouds. Viewers might pretend to see a lit butterfly in the wire-mesh reliefs of Lynda Benglis, for example, or seascapes at sunrise in the electric paintings of Frank Bowling. Looking at the Emily Mason canvases currently on display at Miles McEnery, however, we sense not so much a relationship to a certain place or thing, but a lifetime of visual experiences deposited on the canvas through a sharp filtering process. , something like Joan Mitchell’s translation of the gardens of Vétheuil in her hovering panels of the 1970s and 1980s. The result in Mason’s work is necessarily non-specific but nevertheless points to layers of feeling: light reflected from an undulating channel, a shiny golden surface, flowers in the middle of summer. She achieves this by accumulating literal layers of fine oil paint in explosive yellows, fiery oranges and lapis lazuli blues, applying them to primed canvases with brushes and pouring them, and sometimes scraping them off. with rags only to rebuild them.
The canvases in Mason’s current exhibition span the decade from 1978 to 1988, a period coinciding with the artist’s 1979 move from his Broadway studio, shared with her husband Wolf Kahn, to a larger solo space on the 20th Street in Chelsea. Works from 1958 to 1968 are on simultaneous display at the Bruce Museum, while Weber Fine Art presents oils on canvas from 1962 to 1989. The paintings executed in Chelsea are large (most are around four by four feet) and display the confidence of an artist working at full speed. Here we frequently come across slightly asymmetrical, slightly geometric shapes in a single color – faded turquoise, purple-brown, watermelon-magenta – placed in the center of a canvas, set within a frame of translucent arc-colored passages -in sky. Slightly arched horizontal registers bend through other colors: see the green band at the bottom of Within the orchard (1986) which emerges, reduced to teal, from an obliquely placed yellow burst. Sonia Delaunay’s Prisms and Helen Frankenthaler’s Stains seem relevant on the face of it, but the paintings actually frustrate the attribution of any sure art historical lineage precisely because Mason knew enough of the painting’s history that its sublimation surpasses case-by-case comparison. Daughter of abstraction pioneer Alice Trumbull Mason, a founding member and former president of the American Abstract Artists group, Mason grew up in the company of artists and became familiar with the language of abstraction from an early age. , on one occasion defending his mother’s work. geometric compositions to his young friends. Later, a Fulbright scholarship to Venice ushered in a lifelong affinity for European art, from Byzantine mosaics to Cézanne.
Mason’s paintings accommodate the outside world not only in their relationship to nature but in their consummate openness to others. Although his belief that “when you look at a painting, you recreate the experience of the painting itself” echoes Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on painting as a record of an individual encounter, a painting of Mason is more like a perceptual offer to the viewer than a recording. irremediable process or action.1 Green In Go (1983), for example, also suggests the glow of stained glass and the undulating contours of the countryside, opening up our experience of the painted thing to our own sensory associations, both material and immaterial, natural and man-made. Sustained until his recent passing in 2019, Mason’s commitment to abstraction survived its zenith in the 1950s, its waning popularity in the face of ascendant conceptualism and figuration, and its recent re-emergence as a space critical questioning of identity. It all commends the visibility she is achieving now, something she fought for on her mother’s behalf, but gave up while she was alive.
- Emily Mason quoted in Andrea Gyorody, “Landscapes, Seascapes, Fire Escapes,” in Emily Mason, Chelsea Paintings: 1978-1997, e.g. cat. (New York, NY: Miles McEnery Gallery, 2021), page 6.