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Palette Envy

Artist Emily Mason was born in New York City in the early 1930s, which means that when she was coming into her own as a mid-century abstract painter, the art scene was largely dominated by dudes. Today, the huge canvases of some of Mason’s male colleagues can seem almost dick-measurey: Barnett Newman’s shaft-like zips, Clyfford Still’s brutally toned, jagged stalactites, Robert Motherwell’s squickily phallic forms. (Seriously, Google his “elegy paintings.”)

Whether she set out intentionally or not to do so, Mason’s dreamily hued, lushly abstract paintings are delicious counterpoints to the work of some of her more macho peers. As abstract as they are, Mason’s process belies intention and remarkable control, even when paint is spilled, smeared or dribbled across a surface. After around five decades in the studio, she’s still producing lyrically abstract paintings whose deftly arranged elements never feel forced or rigid. The show Inner Resources, opening Friday at LewAllen Galleries, offers a chance to see what makes the work of Emily Mason so beloved.

The majority of the show’s 40 or so paintings were made in the last few years, which is frankly astonishing, given the artist’s age; Mason turned 86 in January. She still paints at a vigorous clip, both in her Brattleboro, Vermont, studio as well as in a large, sunny space in New York’s Flatiron District. Unsurprisingly, Mason’s work ethic, according to longtime studio assistant Steven Rose, is inspiring. “Emily sees art-making not really as work, but as part of life,” Rose tells SFR, “and she’s committed to coming to the studio every day she can, usually by 10, and sometimes staying until 7 or so.”

Mason’s mother Alice Trumbull Mason was also a New York painter, and encouraged artistic impulses from an early age. Alice’s mid-century abstractions—with their olives, taupes and reds arranged in painstakingly abstract formations—could have been plucked off of Don Draper’s office wall.

Emily has a far more gentle take, though for her, too, abstraction is the ticket. She’s always been besotted with color, and for me, her most successful compositions contain tropical ones: vivid pink, parrot-beak yellow, oranges the color of a papaya’s insides. Warm colors dominate many paintings here, which are often accented by cool blue, violet or turquoise. This combination of fire and ice makes a canvas racy, juicy; Mason’s work is downright blush-inducing sometimes, glowing with a buzzy sensuality. Works like 2016’s “Avery Island” feel quintessentially, joyfully of this ilk, with its thick, vertical panel of tangerine, bordered on either side by turquoise and capped above with luminous, melting yellow. In “Geranium Lake,” from 2008, swaths of orange and coral pink spread across the canvas, covering it entirely. The painting’s parallel bolts of turquoise act as a cooling technique—at least that’s how my eyes read it: a way to temper the inferno of boiling oranges and reds which, if unchecked, might bloom across the painted surface like a rash. (Incidentally, this is what happens in “Keepsake,” a newer work whose all-over maroon and petal pink surface isn’t enhanced by a smudgy apparition of white.)

“Truth be told,” LewAllen Galleries’ Modernism Director Louis Newman says, “Emily’s art has only gotten better in time.” Last year’s “Fall Migration” seems to bolster the claim. Toward the right of the painting, a gently curved, wiggly violet veil offsets an area to the left filled with feverish orange, which is overlaid with a splintery segment of purple, manifesting in a composition of alternating whispers and shouts of color. In a recent short film about Mason produced by PBS, her husband, the painter Wolf Kahn, remarked that his wife “paints the way a bird sings … or like children sing, without having any plan.” It’s a lovely sentiment which readily applies to a recent work like “Up From Under,” filled to bursting with canary yellow, washes of orange, and a central, commanding streak of pale, sea-glass teal.

Comprising just under half of the show are cool-toned paintings, dominated by shades which range from navy to pale robin’s egg. When Mason’s blue appears bolting across predominantly warm-toned surfaces, it’s exciting; those same hues, though, when dominant, don’t have the same impact. Why? Next to the warm ones, the cool paintings, though no less structurally excellent, seem chilled, which Mason fundamentally is not.

Still, by and large and consistently throughout not just this show but Mason’s career at large, I have to agree with Newman: “There’s a magic to her work. There is something about Emily Mason’s painting that allows you to fall in love with her without your ever meeting her.” This triumphant exhibition presents a fantastic opportunity to do just that.