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Consistently Cool

Emily Mason passed away in 2019 at the age of 87. She left behind two daughters, four grandchildren, innumerable adoring friends, and one of the most sustainedly dazzling bodies of work in postwar American painting. Despite this legacy (or should that be “because of?”), she was never a superstar. While Pop, Minimalism, and various strains of Post- and Neo- got the most column inches, she stuck to lyrical abstraction. She experimented, but never too flashily—once she discovered oil on primed canvas, she was set for life—and she despised gimmicks in decades when gimmickry dominated. Mason moved into a Chelsea studio in 1979 and spent the better part of the next forty years inside, painting with majestic indifference.

Comprising twenty-two paintings made between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, the exhibition “Emily Mason: Chelsea Paintings,” at Miles McEnery, is a shrine to that indifference: the quiet confidence it demands, the glory it can bring. Confidence is the easier of these two to grasp. Mason was by all accounts a modest person, comfortable in her own skin, and one suspects this had a lot to do with her upbringing. Her mother was the abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason; her babysitter was Elaine de Kooning; Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, John Cage, and Helen Frankenthaler were dinner guests. She was too familiar with the New York School milieu to crave admission or worry about expulsion, and if she ever came down with a case of the anxiety of influence it was asymptomatic.

When writing about Mason, it’s tempting to list colors like a kid burbling over a new box of Crayolas and leave it at that. And yes, fine: there are satiny blues, citric oranges, and lapidary purples. The upper half of “I Heard the Corn” (1979) is dominated by saturated yellow, while the lower half is strewn with faded terra-cotta and cactus green—the Southwest in twenty square feet, brought to you by a lifelong Manhattanite. “In Dormant Nature” (1984–85) is a cooler, softer-edged work, with violet and aquamarine dissolving into twilit blue to create an illusion of vast depth. Even here, though, you’re struck by the clarity of Mason’s free association. She paints like Bach improvising a three-voice fugue: every color in crisp focus, precisely accounted for even where it doesn’t dominate.

This plainspoken lucidity makes Mason’s compositions seem not just beautiful but correct—and, by the same token, different from the more roughly improvisational painting for which the New York School became famous. I can begin to wrap my head around the elegant complementary blues and oranges of “Ancient Incense” (1981). It’s much harder to understand why a messier canvas like “Hell’s Kitchen” (1994), a hefty slab of green garnished with spicy reds and yellows, feels so right: it has the inevitability of a formula, though of course there is no formula for such an image, no road map around the color wheel.

Mason’s powers abandon her in “My Iris” (1984–85). The ingredients are familiar enough (tart yellow and cool blue pressed tight together, with some secondary shades in between) but the composition is too pat in places and too muddled in others, the colors neither flowing nor clashing enough to strike sparks. The weakest work in the exhibition, it reminds us that inevitability is a painterly effect like any other—there’s nothing inevitable about it, nor about Mason’s ability to achieve it so consistently. That she did probably deserves the word “miracle,” but allow me to put it differently: as long as this show is up, Chelsea will be the coolest neighborhood in New York.