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The Late Abstractionist Alice Trumbull Mason & Her Unique Style

Captured in “Shutter Paintings” at Joan Washburn Gallery.

In a notable revival, the life and career of the late dedicated abstractionist Alice Trumbull Mason has been guided into light through a focused exhibition of sixteen Shutter Paintings at Joan Washburn Gallery and a richly revealing book published by Rizzoli with clearly presented contributions by Mason’s daughter, the late painter Emily Mason, as well as by critics, scholars, and art historians.

Rendering abstract paintings into unexpected architectural wonders, Mason notably employed strong diagonals that appear to struggle to support adjacent structures. It would be difficult not to sense a corresponding sense of imbalance in her emotional status.

Her uncompromising style, refuting gestural Abstract Expressionism was quite unlike anybody else’s. Though her paintings evoke in many ways the clarity of geometric abstractionists, the color relations and elegant forms of the modernists, but more than anything, her Shutter Paintings are slyly active, featuring narrow apertures. The stripes appear to expand and contract, generating a sense of motion and even sexuality as triangles merge. Looking at Mason’s paintings of the 1960s, we note, above all, that everything is a little bit different from the other paintings being done, albeit clearly in communication with the modernist lingo.

Somehow today, the various lockdowns—and the desire and opportunity to uncover and recover lesser-known artists as well as the politics of feminism and the focus on equitable representation—have helped open the way for the new interest in Mason, who established her own distinct style, one that she called “displacement.” Not an Expressionist, not a Cubist, not a Geometric abstractionist nor a Constructivist (although clearly a bit of each), she conveys a sense of the familiar and at the same time something new in form, color, and perspective.

“Displacement,” she wrote, “should be understood in contradistinction to the idea of representing perspective on a two-dimensional plane. Displacement occurs through the juxtaposition of colors and through formal construction; that is, one form does not stand in front of another but displaces it with color and form.”

Her colors are subtly warm and slightly exceptional. Vertical stripes are not absolutely straight or of equal thickness. They bulge slightly, tilt unexpectedly, and converge into slivers of triangles. They don’t align.

The canvases in the Shutter Paintings series, all created between 1960 and 1966, are active, their narrow apertures expand and contract. An exemplary image is Magnitude of Memory from 1962, featuring off-shades of almost indescribable blue, orange, gold, and others, set amid black and white stripes that seem to push one another to the side. We can’t help trying to “read” this composition, where the colors are almost shorthand for words, ideas, and moods.

In fact, we learn from Mason’s letters to her husband, Warwood E. Mason, a merchant seaman, from whom she was often apart and left alone to manage her two children, that the couple would correspond by means of a color code assigned to express thoughts and feelings. An accomplished poet, Mason could indeed speak and write in colors.

Her life, too, was quietly colorful as the book reveals in its comprehensive chronology. During her husband’s sojourns, Mason developed a romantic relationship with the handsome abstract sculptor Ibram Lassaw and befriended noted painters Ilya Bolotowky and Esphyr Slobodkina, strong supporters of the abstract movement. They even picketed MoMA in 1940, complaining about the exclusion of American artists in the show Art of Our Time.

There are letters from Josef Albers, from Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams praising her poems, a cartoon from Ray Johnson, a letter from Mondrian accepting an invitation to lecture to the American Abstract Artists group which she co-founded with Josef Albers in 1936.

Surprisingly invisible today, she was the subject of a Whitney Museum retrospective in 1973 and headlines a Whitney show today, titled Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950, on view through March 13. Above all, she partook of the social, artistic, and literary intellectual life of the twentieth century. She delved into many new modes of art, including printmaking and painting in many genres. She read and hobnobbed with the avant-garde of her time, including John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Ad Reinhardt.

Hers was a rich, colorful, and refined background for an artist, but also a complicated and troubled one. A descendant of famed Connecticut portrait painter John Trumbull; mother of Emily, a painter who was married to the late painter Wolf Kahn; and mother of Jon Trumbull, a sailor who drowned in 1958 by accident or suicide. Mason herself, deeply depressed, began drinking excessively and had herself committed to Towns Hospital, a rehab institution where she met fellow patient and avant-garde art dealer Dick Bellamy, whose girlfriend brought an iguana to the hospital, leading patients to freak out or be amused. That was fun. Finally, in 1971, Mason died at home from complications of alcoholism.

This is a splendidly orchestrated revival, with the concentrated exhibition at Washburn of sixteen paintings in Mason’s most representative style interacting in one room, and works from earlier periods in a back gallery, showing a glimpse of her evolution and expertise through the mainstays of twentieth century abstraction, with biomorphic style prints and a canvas featuring a Hans Hofmann-like white square that obliterates lively colored activity behind it, drawing us in and obstructing our access. Throughout the show, we can see the bones of twentieth century abstract painting subtly lodged even in her flat columns.

Then, there’s, of course, Matisse, in the forms and color, and Braque in the Synthetic Cubist spirit. “I think Braque I like better than Picasso,” Mason revealed tellingly in an interview with art historian Ruth Gurin in an interview in the Archives of American Art. “I think he was more of a dedicated artist. Picasso is too much of a showman.”

The architectural compositions contrast with modernist geometric ones and with her own biomorphic compositions so redolent of Arshile Gorky and Miro. In fact, besides studying with Gorky at the Grand Central School of Art in New York (she said that “He really opened my eyes to abstract painting,” even though “he himself wasn’t strongly abstract at that time”), she also joined the legendary Atelier 17, Stanley William Hayter’s print-making studio.

Mason told Gurin, who noted that there seem to be two different kinds of abstract paintings being made by the American Abstract Artists group, “Yes, there is what I call architectural abstract art, which I like to do, and expressionist abstract art, which my daughter likes to do.”

Mason knew and understood her own place in the complex terrain of abstract art and thinking.