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Alice Trumbull Mason, Emily Mason: Two Generations of Abstract Painting

Other shows of interest this week: ”Alice Trumbull Mason, Emily Mason: Two Generations of Abstract Painting” (Washburn Gallery, 42 East 57th Street): Mother-and-daughter exhibitions are pretty rare in art, but then, how many paintermothers have had daughters who also took to the brush? An exception was Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-71), a pioneer of American abstraction, whose daughter, Emily Mason, has been showing her own abstract work professionally since the early 1950’s.

This exhibition, organized by Marilyn R. Brown, assistant professor of art history at Tulane University, pairs the two for the first time. Although in no sense did they ”work” together, Alice Mason encouraged her daughter to become a painter and early on started her thinking about esthetic issues. There are significant differences in their output: the mother carefully balanced the lyrical and the geometric in meticulous, highly structured compositions; the daughter’s painting is romantic and sensual, based on the emotive brush strokes of Abstract Expressionism.

Alice Mason passed through several phases in her work: at first, she admired Kandinsky, as evidenced by her 1931 painting ”Spring,” with its fluid composition and squiggly lines. By 1940 her biomorphic imagery was in transition, as in ”Untitled” (1940), a subtly colored composition of airport motifs whose sensuous surface still contravenes the turn to hard-edge forms.

Later, influenced by Mondrian, the Mason work becomes more geometric, and several of her paintings of the mid-1940’s, particularly ”L’Hasard” (1948), owe a frank debt to the crisply syncopated color structures of the Dutch master. There were further shifts in style, as seen, for example, in ”Dark Pressure” of 1963, in which long, pastel trapezoids are deployed against deep blackness, one of a long series of works done after the accidental death of the artist’s son.

By contrast, the mode of Emily Mason’s work has changed hardly at all over the years. She continues to explore the moods and colors of nature, in loosely structured, beautifully worked oils on paper and on canvas. Her best efforts, however, are in small-format oils on paper, where the color seems to have a glowing spontaneity missing in the larger works. As a painter, she’s assertively not her mother’s daughter, but the continuity is moving. (Through July 30).