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Art in Review, 1993: Alice Trumbull Mason

Joan T. Washburn Gallery 20 West 57th Street Manhattan Through March 27.

Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971) was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, a group formed in 1936 to establish abstract art — which at that time was scorned in this country — as a viable esthetic mode.

Within a decade or so, the group’s efforts had succeeded almost too well. Abstract Expressionism, with its dramatic scale and emotive force, cast an obscuring shadow over the kind of small, meticulous, restrained work Mason was doing, and her professional life from then on became a solitary adventure.

Emily Mason decided it was time to sort through her mother’s archive of a life spent championing abstract art in The small retrospective of a dozen paintings at Washburn suggests how rich that adventure was. From the dark and painterly pieces of 1929 onward, Mason clearly approached modernism as a varied resource to be freely drawn upon. Like several of her colleagues she avoided a signature style and concentrated on the challenge of synthesizing geometricism with biomorphism, the two poles of European abstraction.

This monograph has taken a while to surfaOccasionally biomorphism predominates, as in the delightful “No. 9” (1941), with its gray elephantine shape and three little yellow eyes. But there is no more striking work in the show than “Untitled” (circa 1939), a strangely centerless composition based on an undulating network of thick dark lines enclosing patches of nut brown and emerald and a single unforgettable passage of flesh color, as carefully modulated as if observed from a live model.

In later years, Mason concentrated on geometry, with lovely results, as three paintings in pale blues, greens and yellows from the mid-50’s demonstrate. “Path of Points” (1957) consists of narrow bars arranged horizontally to suggest the image of sea and sky. Their whited colors, as well as their blend of resiliency and softness, bring Agnes Martin’s later paintings to mind. Here as elsewhere in Mason’s work one is struck by her inventive and personal approach to traditional abstraction. Nothing in her work is ever routine; each painting feels like a unique, freshly imagined episode in an artist’s exceptional life.