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Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction

For decades, Emily Mason didn’t open the wooden trunk of papers she’d collected from her mother’s Upper West Side apartment. Between her mother’s death in 1971 and 2013, when she decided it was time to excavate her mother’s contribution to 20th century art history, she clung to memory. “When I think about my mother,” Mason wrote at the beginning of her foreword to Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction, “I remember her as the self-reliant New Englander who knew how to make soap from bacon grease.”

Emily Mason decided it was time to sort through her mother’s archive of a life spent championing abstract art in America, though, and compile a monograph that richly illustrates and closely examines her mother’s paintings, prints, and poems. The trunk contained neatly kept letters from fellow abstract painters like Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian, and modest exhibition brochures for shows of radical non-objective art. There was also correspondence about modernist poetry with writers William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein—one such letter is now reproduced in a chapter about Mason’s life through her letters, and closes with the artist telling Stein, “what a grand person I think you are.” Art scholars and writers specializing in a broad range of disciplines joined Emily Mason in poring over this multifaceted archive, the result of which was published this year as the first comprehensive text on Alice Trumbull Mason’s life and five-decade career.

This monograph has taken a while to surface for a few reasons. For one, Alice Mason was one of a small handful of Americans painting non-objective images during the 1930s, when abstraction was still considered an “un-American” European import. The social realist style of the Works Progress Administration was king, and her canvases of curvilinear shapes floating against flat backgrounds were unpopular with the general public. Then a couple decades later, when Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock were in vogue, her meticulously planned out geometric paintings looked reserved by comparison. For much of her career, Mason’s paintings weren’t mainstream.

Still, she exhibited her artworks, but mostly in group shows that didn’t single her out. And as a woman, she told her daughter, she felt she didn’t have the same professional opportunities as her male peers. This monograph argues, though, that Alice Mason was instrumental in bringing abstraction to the United States. “To study the American abstract artists and not know about Mason,” writes Elisa Wouk Almino, one of the book’s authors and an arts journalist, “is to have an incomplete history.”

After spending her early years studying art in Europe, Mason settled in New York and painted her earliest nonobjective artworks in 1929. Within a few years these unusual paintings of lines and shapes undulating across a canvas (reproduced in the book’s generous section devoted to full-page color plates) made the lead paragraph of a 1935 New York Times article about a downtown art exhibition. “Of the more than 400 artists exhibiting,” the article read, “Alice Mason, 83 Horatio Street, is the only one showing abstractions.” Ibram Lassaw, an abstract sculptor who became Mason’s lifelong friend, first met her at that show and was impressed by her standout canvases. “Suddenly I saw her paintings and oh my god, here’s a real artist!” Lassaw later said. “[T]here were so few abstract artists in those days, it was a rare thing.”

Together with Lassaw and others, Alice Mason co-founded American Abstract Artists (AAA) in 1936—a group she helped lead as treasurer, then secretary, and eventually president to advocate for the exhibition and acceptance of Nonobjective art. The AAA lobbied for American abstract artworks to be included in museum exhibitions and collections, and also mounted its own shows.

In the catalog for a 1938 AAA exhibition, Mason wrote that “today a sense of wonder is alive again. The abstract painter finds it, essentially, in his materials, and deals in the magic of textures, colors juxtaposed to force intensities.” Her own paintings used a limited palette of mid-century modern colors purposefully placed alongside each other to create tension between geometric shapes that were always carefully arranged, but never symmetrical.
Mason was primarily a painter but also an accomplished printmaker—something the book hopes to better represent with a chapter dedicated to her printmaking and several full-size plates of her prints. Similar to her works on canvas, Mason created textured shapes in her prints by experimenting with using materials like fabrics and crinkled tissue. Her prints in the monograph show a range from monochrome to brightly colored, with hypnotic over-and-underlapping planes of pattern.

In many of the museum collections in which Mason is represented—such as the Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center, and Guggenheim Museum, among others—she is represented by a print. The Whitney has the strongest collection of her work and gave her a posthumous retrospective in 1973, but has only exhibited her once in the years since.

In the absence of major institutional exhibitions since her death, combined with the fact that her archive sat untouched in a wooden trunk for years, Alice Mason has remained obscure. “There were lots of things she didn’t get to do, she wasn’t shown as much as she’d have liked,” Emily Mason says of her mother’s career in the book. Optimistically, she adds: “My mother once told me, ‘I’ll be famous when I’m dead.’”