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Alice Trumbull Mason: Shutter Paintings

Alice Trumbull Mason believed abstraction was the “true Realism”—figuration and depiction could never match its potential to get to the heart of things. In “Shutter Paintings,” on view at Washburn Gallery, 16 paintings give way to stunning permutations of feeling, atmosphere, light and color. Lines are orthogonal and skewed, angles obtuse and rhomboids thin as wafers. Rectangles recede—or are they perhaps only flat quadrilaterals? Slivers of color waver between shadow and white-blue sky and jut from the top and bottoms of canvases. These last are perhaps the truest illustration of a concept she termed “displacement,” which arises through the juxtaposition of various colors on a two-dimensional plane. They seem to push each other not out of but into place—indeed, Mason’s colors seem to hold themselves within the frame of the canvas. Evasive Square (1966) is aptly titled: over a scrum of vertical lines, ranging from peachy to black to lemon-yellow, is positioned a pale-blue square. Is it shadow or light or projection or aperture? One’s vision stumbles greedily over itself trying to resolve the image, recalling the moment, perhaps, between the blink of an eye or the click of a shutter.

Like one of her placed and displaced forms, Mason herself was a cornerstone in the art world of her time. So much of her work—from her drawings to her biomorphic Surrealist paintings to her semi-Cubist constructions—isn’t on view at Washburn Gallery. Rather, the works on view date from between 1960 and 1966, almost mirroring the lifespan of the legendary Green Gallery, where Mason was a lodestar alongside Donald Judd and Yayoi Kusama. The exhibition sheds light on a then-obscured and stigmatized aspect of life for her and her circle: Mason and Dick Bellamy, the director of Green Gallery, met at an alcohol rehabilitation center, where she convalesced after the presumed suicide of her son. A newly unearthed wealth of correspondences between Mason and luminaries such as Gertrude Stein, Josef Albers, Piet Mondrian and others established her fully within a circuit of mostly male Modernists and positioned her as powerful member of New York abstraction between the 1930s and ’60s. Without her, Ad Reinhardt once said, none of them would be there.