Alice Trumbull Mason
“The big turning point came on the day, when after happily painting all those realistic things, I said to myself: what do I really know? I knew the shape of my canvas and the use of my colors and that I was completely joyful not to be governed by representing things any more."
Alice Trumbull Mason (1904–1971) was a pioneering abstract artist. She painted her first abstractions in the late 1920s, and in 1935 she was the only artist out of 400 exhibiting abstract work at the Washington Square Art Show in New York. One year later, she helped found the American Abstract Artists (AAA), an organization supporting abstract art at a time when it was highly unpopular in the United States. Mason served as the AAA’s treasurer, secretary, and then finally its president. Throughout her life she remained committed to both making and promoting abstract art.
Born Alice Bradford Trumbull in 1904 in Litchfield, Connecticut, she was a descendant of the notable 18th-century American painter, John Trumbull. Growing up she received a formal education in painting in Rome and New York, where she studied under Arshile Gorky, who she said “really opened my eyes to abstract painting.” A later tour of both Italy and Greece provided her with a chance to study archaic Greek sculpture and Byzantine mosaics, which she described as “two main streams of influence in my work.”
After marrying Captain Warwood Mason, a young merchant seaman, Alice Trumbull Mason had two children in the early 1930s: Jonathan, who passed away in 1958, and Emily Mason, who became a prominent painter as well. When the children were still young, she took a break from painting and focused on writing experimental poetry, even corresponding with Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams.
Alice Trumbull Mason’s intimate and experimental abstractions began in a biomorphic style and became increasingly geometric over time. She called what became her signature style “architectural abstraction,” which she said was about “painting a positive, architectural construction […] It is building and not destroying.” As New York Times critic Holland Cotter recently observed, Mason’s paintings show how “rigorous, stimulating, and accessible” abstraction can be.
Mason was also an innovative printmaker. In 1944, she joined Atelier 17, Stanley William Hayter’s historic printmaking workshop in New York City, producing prints that were acquired by institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art. In fact, during her lifetime, she gained more recognition for her prints than her paintings.
Mason remained quite active until her last years of life, exhibiting frequently in gallery shows and having important institutions, like the Whitney and Brooklyn Museum, acquire her work. But since the death of her son, Mason had struggled with alcoholism, and at the age of 67 she passed away from complications related to her addiction.
Two years after her death, the Whitney Museum of Art organized the first retrospective exhibition of Mason’s work which also traveled. The Washburn Gallery has represented her estate since 1974. Her work is included in many museum and public collections, including the Hirshhorn Museum, the Newark Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. In May 2020, Rizzoli published the first comprehensive introduction to Mason’s remarkable life and career, with chapters on her painting, poetry, prints, and letters.