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Alice Trumbull Mason, a Pioneer of Abstraction, Makes a Triumphant Return

According to a recent New York Times article by Lauren Christensen, art books are newly essential: “No longer just gift shop purchases or collectors’ coffee-table adornments, these exhibition catalogs are now the only tickets we have.” As days tick into months during this latest, ongoing pandemic, this feels ever more true. Even with so much art available virtually, books offer context, breadth and, in the case of Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction (Rizzoli Electa, 2020), over 200 color reproductions of the artist’s paintings, along with exceptional prints, letters, photographs, and poetry. (Full disclosure, it also features essays on her work by writers who include two Hyperallergic editors, Elisa Wouk Almino and Thomas Micchelli.)

The Mason monograph is a welcome aesthetic object in a time of screen exhaustion. It’s also an essential tool for recovering the life, work, and legacy of an important American abstract artist who, though she was a co-founder of the American Abstract Artists group, was often overlooked, both during and after her lifetime. As the first monograph on Mason, produced nearly five decades after her death, it probably goes without saying that Mason’s gender was a big reason for the delay, but also why its appearance now is so timely.

The timing of COVID-19 has not been kind to women artists (or to anyone, really). 2020 was supposed to be a year filled with women-centered shows in museums and galleries, but it’s unfolding to be quite the opposite. From the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition currently shuttered at the National Gallery in London, to the first-ever retrospective for Judy Chicago at the de Young Museum in San Francisco postponed until next year, to Jordan Casteel’s first solo museum show in New York at the New Museum and Julie Mehretu’s mid-career survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both currently closed,  among countless others, women artists are once again drawing the short straw.

The same is true for Alice Trumbull Mason: A Pioneer of Abstraction, a show of 16 of the artist’s paintings originally slated to open March 19 at the Washburn Gallery in New York, that dovetailed with awful precision the closures required to curb community spread of COVID-19. The exhibition is still under wraps, of course, though the gallery hopes to extend it by an additional three weeks once they’re permitted to reopen.

More than being especially welcome, the Mason monograph epitomizes the triumph of talent over time. It’s also a poignant testament to the will of her family. Mason’s daughter, the artist Emily Mason, pushed for greater consideration of her mother’s legacy and contributed the foreword to the book. (Sadly, Emily Mason died the same week it went to press.) The younger Mason’s husband, artist Wolf Kahn, who found a dealer to represent his mother-in-law’s art after her death, also passed away in March of this year.

In her foreword, Emily Mason writes, “My mother once told me, ‘I’ll be famous when I’m dead.’” Though fame may not be quite secured (yet), this monograph is an unabashed proponent of the artist, intended as a bulwark against forgetting her legacy. As Emily Mason writes, bluntly, “This book was conceived as a tribute to my mother’s life and a testament to the perseverance of her inner core.”

Mason’s life was one that seemed destined for art, though she was born at a difficult time for women artists, particularly if they were, like her, also mothers. Her own mother had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the previous century, while on her father’s side she was descended from famed Revolutionary War painter, John Trumbull. In the 1930s, her sister studied with Fernand Léger in Paris.

Back in New York, Mason married a sea captain for American Export Lines, which offered some independence alongside the financial stability of domestic life. A mostly single parent, when her children were young and she couldn’t paint, she turned to poetry, leading to correspondences with William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. Mason was equally well connected as a painter, taking courses with Arshile Gorky — whose work hers sometimes resembles, though the classes she took with him had nothing to do with abstraction — and exhibited alongside members of the American Abstract Artists group, including Joseph Albers, Piet Mondrian, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt. “Were it not for Alice Trumbull Mason, we would not be here nor in such strength,” Reinhard remarked in the sixties, referring to abstract artists in the US.

Mason was already working in abstraction by the late 1920s, but she began her career during the heyday of social realism and regionalism in the 1930s. Despite the tides, she stuck with abstraction, developing her own formal, architectural style and stuck with it when Abstract Expressionism took over New York after World War II.  From her earlier more biomorphic style to her later, meticulously geometric work — so thoroughly balanced that she signed canvases on two sides so they could be hung either horizontally or vertically — Mason described her work as “building and not destroying.” If such cool rigor seemed out of gestural fashion then, it pointed toward the advent of Minimalism, and beyond.

Micchelli writes, “If her regimen of meticulously planning a painting on paper, complete with indications of color, was considered passé in the rough-and-tumble decades dominated by the Abstract Expressionists, the notion of an artwork as a multistep enterprise from concept to execution has since made a forceful return.” Mason may never have been quite of her time, but she is, now more than ever, of ours.