Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction


Karen Chernick, July 2020

For decades, Emily Mason didn’t open the wooden trunk of papers she’d collected from her mother’s Upper West Side apartment. Between her mother’s death in 1971 and 2013, when she decided it was time to excavate her mother’s contribution to 20th century art history, she clung to memory. “When I think about my mother,” Mason wrote at the beginning of her foreword to Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction, “I remember her as the self-reliant New Englander who knew how to make soap from bacon grease.”

Emily Mason decided it was time to sort through her mother’s archive of a life spent championing abstract art in America, though, and compile a monograph that richly illustrates and closely examines her mother’s paintings, prints, and poems. The trunk contained neatly kept letters from fellow abstract painters like Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian, and modest exhibition brochures for shows of radical non-objective art. There was also correspondence about modernist poetry with writers William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein—one such letter is now reproduced in a chapter about Mason’s life through her letters, and closes with the artist telling Stein, “what a grand person I think you are.” Art scholars and writers specializing in a broad range of disciplines joined Emily Mason in poring over this multifaceted archive, the result of which was published this year as the first comprehensive text on Alice Trumbull Mason’s life and five-decade career.

This monograph has taken a while to surface for a few reasons. For one, Alice Mason was one of a small handful of Americans painting non-objective images during the 1930s, when abstraction was still considered an “un-American” European import. The social realist style of the Works Progress Administration was king, and her canvases of curvilinear shapes floating against flat backgrounds were unpopular with the general public. Then a couple decades later, when Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock were in vogue, her meticulously planned out geometric paintings looked reserved by comparison. For much of her career, Mason’s paintings weren’t mainstream.

Still, she exhibited her artworks, but mostly in group shows that didn’t single her out. And as a woman, she told her daughter, she felt she didn’t have the same professional opportunities as her male peers. This monograph argues, though, that Alice Mason was instrumental in bringing abstraction to the United States. “To study the American abstract artists and not know about Mason,” writes Elisa Wouk Almino, one of the book’s authors and an arts journalist, “is to have an incomplete history.”

After spending her early years studying art in Europe, Mason settled in New York and painted her earliest nonobjective artworks in 1929. Within a few years these unusual paintings of lines and shapes undulating across a canvas (reproduced in the book’s generous section devoted to full-page color plates) made the lead paragraph of a 1935 New York Times article about a downtown art exhibition. “Of the more than 400 artists exhibiting,” the article read, “Alice Mason, 83 Horatio Street, is the only one showing abstractions.” Ibram Lassaw, an abstract sculptor who became Mason’s lifelong friend, first met her at that show and was impressed by her standout canvases. “Suddenly I saw her paintings and oh my god, here’s a real artist!” Lassaw later said. “[T]here were so few abstract artists in those days, it was a rare thing.”

Together with Lassaw and others, Alice Mason co-founded American Abstract Artists (AAA) in 1936—a group she helped lead as treasurer, then secretary, and eventually president to advocate for the exhibition and acceptance of Nonobjective art. The AAA lobbied for American abstract artworks to be included in museum exhibitions and collections, and also mounted its own shows.

In the catalog for a 1938 AAA exhibition, Mason wrote that “today a sense of wonder is alive again. The abstract painter finds it, essentially, in his materials, and deals in the magic of textures, colors juxtaposed to force intensities.” Her own paintings used a limited palette of mid-century modern colors purposefully placed alongside each other to create tension between geometric shapes that were always carefully arranged, but never symmetrical.
Mason was primarily a painter but also an accomplished printmaker—something the book hopes to better represent with a chapter dedicated to her printmaking and several full-size plates of her prints. Similar to her works on canvas, Mason created textured shapes in her prints by experimenting with using materials like fabrics and crinkled tissue. Her prints in the monograph show a range from monochrome to brightly colored, with hypnotic over-and-underlapping planes of pattern.

In many of the museum collections in which Mason is represented—such as the Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center, and Guggenheim Museum, among others—she is represented by a print. The Whitney has the strongest collection of her work and gave her a posthumous retrospective in 1973, but has only exhibited her once in the years since.

In the absence of major institutional exhibitions since her death, combined with the fact that her archive sat untouched in a wooden trunk for years, Alice Mason has remained obscure. “There were lots of things she didn’t get to do, she wasn’t shown as much as she’d have liked,” Emily Mason says of her mother’s career in the book. Optimistically, she adds: “My mother once told me, ‘I’ll be famous when I’m dead.’”

Alice Trumbull Mason, a Pioneer of Abstraction, Makes a Triumphant Return


Bridget Quinn, 15 June 2020

According to a recent New York Times article by Lauren Christensen, art books are newly essential: “No longer just gift shop purchases or collectors’ coffee-table adornments, these exhibition catalogs are now the only tickets we have.” As days tick into months during this latest, ongoing pandemic, this feels ever more true. Even with so much art available virtually, books offer context, breadth and, in the case of Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction (Rizzoli Electa, 2020), over 200 color reproductions of the artist’s paintings, along with exceptional prints, letters, photographs, and poetry. (Full disclosure, it also features essays on her work by writers who include two Hyperallergic editors, Elisa Wouk Almino and Thomas Micchelli.)

The Mason monograph is a welcome aesthetic object in a time of screen exhaustion. It’s also an essential tool for recovering the life, work, and legacy of an important American abstract artist who, though she was a co-founder of the American Abstract Artists group, was often overlooked, both during and after her lifetime. As the first monograph on Mason, produced nearly five decades after her death, it probably goes without saying that Mason’s gender was a big reason for the delay, but also why its appearance now is so timely.

The timing of COVID-19 has not been kind to women artists (or to anyone, really). 2020 was supposed to be a year filled with women-centered shows in museums and galleries, but it’s unfolding to be quite the opposite. From the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition currently shuttered at the National Gallery in London, to the first-ever retrospective for Judy Chicago at the de Young Museum in San Francisco postponed until next year, to Jordan Casteel’s first solo museum show in New York at the New Museum and Julie Mehretu’s mid-career survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both currently closed,  among countless others, women artists are once again drawing the short straw.

The same is true for Alice Trumbull Mason: A Pioneer of Abstraction, a show of 16 of the artist’s paintings originally slated to open March 19 at the Washburn Gallery in New York, that dovetailed with awful precision the closures required to curb community spread of COVID-19. The exhibition is still under wraps, of course, though the gallery hopes to extend it by an additional three weeks once they’re permitted to reopen.

More than being especially welcome, the Mason monograph epitomizes the triumph of talent over time. It’s also a poignant testament to the will of her family. Mason’s daughter, the artist Emily Mason, pushed for greater consideration of her mother’s legacy and contributed the foreword to the book. (Sadly, Emily Mason died the same week it went to press.) The younger Mason’s husband, artist Wolf Kahn, who found a dealer to represent his mother-in-law’s art after her death, also passed away in March of this year.

In her foreword, Emily Mason writes, “My mother once told me, ‘I’ll be famous when I’m dead.’” Though fame may not be quite secured (yet), this monograph is an unabashed proponent of the artist, intended as a bulwark against forgetting her legacy. As Emily Mason writes, bluntly, “This book was conceived as a tribute to my mother’s life and a testament to the perseverance of her inner core.”

Mason’s life was one that seemed destined for art, though she was born at a difficult time for women artists, particularly if they were, like her, also mothers. Her own mother had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the previous century, while on her father’s side she was descended from famed Revolutionary War painter, John Trumbull. In the 1930s, her sister studied with Fernand Léger in Paris.

Back in New York, Mason married a sea captain for American Export Lines, which offered some independence alongside the financial stability of domestic life. A mostly single parent, when her children were young and she couldn’t paint, she turned to poetry, leading to correspondences with William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. Mason was equally well connected as a painter, taking courses with Arshile Gorky — whose work hers sometimes resembles, though the classes she took with him had nothing to do with abstraction — and exhibited alongside members of the American Abstract Artists group, including Joseph Albers, Piet Mondrian, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt. “Were it not for Alice Trumbull Mason, we would not be here nor in such strength,” Reinhard remarked in the sixties, referring to abstract artists in the US.

Mason was already working in abstraction by the late 1920s, but she began her career during the heyday of social realism and regionalism in the 1930s. Despite the tides, she stuck with abstraction, developing her own formal, architectural style and stuck with it when Abstract Expressionism took over New York after World War II.  From her earlier more biomorphic style to her later, meticulously geometric work — so thoroughly balanced that she signed canvases on two sides so they could be hung either horizontally or vertically — Mason described her work as “building and not destroying.” If such cool rigor seemed out of gestural fashion then, it pointed toward the advent of Minimalism, and beyond.

Micchelli writes, “If her regimen of meticulously planning a painting on paper, complete with indications of color, was considered passé in the rough-and-tumble decades dominated by the Abstract Expressionists, the notion of an artwork as a multistep enterprise from concept to execution has since made a forceful return.” Mason may never have been quite of her time, but she is, now more than ever, of ours.

Alice Trumbull Mason: America’s Forgotten Modernist


Roberta Smith, 30 April 2020

Alice Trumbull Mason, a painter who never got her due, turned to abstraction at 25, in 1929, when its American adherents were few and it was viewed as a foreign, even Communist element. She was inspired by the art of Wassily Kandinsky and by Arshile Gorky, one of Abstract Expressionism’s founders, with whom she studied. Her belief that abstraction was, in her words, “the true realism” never wavered — nor did she ever run out of ideas over her 40-year career.

The forms on her small canvases mutated with unusual variety and momentum between the biomorphic and geometric (the latter ultimately won out). In other words, the initial influence of Kandinsky (and also Joan Miró) gave way to that of Piet Mondrian, on whose legacy she built with an originality that few other American painters have equaled.

Her stylistic range is radiantly apparent in “Alice Trumbull Mason: A Pioneer of Abstraction,” a show of 16 paintings from 1929 to 1969 at the Washburn Gallery, which has represented the artist’s estate since 1973, two years after her death at 67. The works, seen in an online display, reflect a mind on the move. Compositions feature squares or polygons; are arranged on the diagonal or perpendicular; involve flat or tilted planes.

The exhibition also celebrates the May 26 publication of a similarly-titled book, “Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction,” that is, astoundingly, the first monograph on Mason — nearly a half-century after her death. Its 160 full-page color reproductions represent about three-fourths of her work and expand lavishly upon the confident development encapsulated at Washburn.

The book fulfills a longtime goal of the artist’s daughter, Emily Mason, a New York abstract painter who worked closely with Rizzoli on it but died in December before its completion. Its numerous reproductions suggest a pent-up frustration, a determination to make up for lost time. The daughter clearly intended to eliminate doubt about her mother’s achievement, and to pay tribute, she wrote, to “the perseverance of her inner core.” Mission accomplished. With essays on the artist’s paintings, prints, poetry and letters, this volume gives the fullest chronology yet of Mason’s life and work, and reveals tantalizing possibilities for future research.

Mason has long been a painter’s painter, known mainly to a small number of artists and collectors. The extent of her reputation is measured by the fate of the artist’s “Forms Evoked,” a 1940 painting that was auctioned at Christie’s in 2018. The estimate was $4,000 to $6,000; the hammer price was $106,250.

“Two Mason fans slugging it out,” remarked Joan Washburn, the 90-year-old doyenne of American art dealers, who relocated her gallery, which opened in 1971, from 57th Street to Chelsea nearly three years ago, arguably the oldest art dealer to ever do so.

Ms. Washburn began to represent Mason’s estate at the behest of Emily’s husband, the painter Wolf Kahn, who shortly after his mother-in-law’s death carried several of her small abstractions over to the art dealer’s apartment, set them out on the mantel and let them percolate for several days.

As Ms. Washburn remembers, “I was smitten.” Mason’s work is not something you absorb in a flash. Its integrity, “mindfulness” and assured beauty emerge slowly, in careful compositions, color choices, delicate but tactile brushwork, and inevitable balance. These constants and their emotional force form Mason’s “core,” and deflect any complaints that she changed styles too often.

An inherent self-sufficiency was present from the beginning. One of her earliest paintings, “Spring” (1931), is a joyful canvas where lavender, pink, pale chartreuse and notional marks of red and black intimate growth and change. Despite its debts to the European modernists and the American Arthur Dove, “Spring” could hold its own even in the Museum of Modern Art, which has three prints but, so far, no Mason canvas.

Works from the late 1960s are some of Mason’s best, dominated by perpendicular blocks of color. From 1969, the last year Mason painted, “#1 Towards a Paradox” features an irregular dark red cross on a brighter red background, punctuated with near-squares and rectangles in black, gray and mouse-brown. These elements pulsate at slightly different depths, echoing the synergy of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” but bolder.

“Paradox #10 Chiaroscuro” (1968) is a geometric landscape, with clusters of bars buried below and floating above a stark horizon on which sit four mismatched squares. It looks a little like the parts of a painting by Peter Halley, waiting to be assembled. Both of these works belong to a series started in 1950, predicting Minimalism.

During her lifetime, Mason sold around 10 paintings, had only six solo shows in New York, never had gallery representation and saw her paintings acquired by only three museums. (One of the Guggenheim’s founders, Hilla Rebay, was the first, purchasing two canvases in the mid-1940s.) But Mason’s intimate, considered style of abstraction was shunted aside by Abstract Expressionism and overshadowed by Minimalism.

By the early 1960s Mason was herself fading, becoming more and more reclusive, mourning the drowning of her son, Jonathan, at sea in 1957, and drinking more. There were, however, signs of new attention: One of her last solo shows occurred at the Hansa gallery in 1959, organized by its young director, Richard Bellamy, who included Mason in two group shows at his cutting-edge Green Gallery in the 1960s.

Mason was born Alice Bradford Trumbull in Litchfield, Conn., in 1904 into a well-off family of old New England stock. Her father’s ancestors included the Revolutionary-era painter John Trumbull; her mother was descended from William Bradford, a governor of the Plymouth colony in the late 17th century. Mason was the fifth of six children and evidently willful. An older sister later remarked, “What Alice wanted to do, you know that the family did it.”

Her interest in art began early, and during her teenage years, when the family lived in Italy for a while, she studied painting in Rome. In 1930 she married Warwood Mason, a sea captain, and had a daughter and a son. With her husband often away, she was a single mother for long periods, during which time she stopped painting, writing poetry instead. She sent her work to William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, both of whom encouraged her to publish.

In 1935, she co-founded the American Abstract Artists group, which started staging annual exhibitions and picketed the Museum of Modern Art for not showing abstraction by American artists. She began an affair with the sculptor Ibram Lassaw that extended from the late 1930s into the early 1940s, when the Masons began to live together year-round for the first time, but their friendship lasted the rest of her life.

Mason is one of several American painters — including Ilya Bolotowsky, Burgoyne Diller and Fritz Glarner — called Mondrianistes, for their devotion to Mondrian. But only Mason made his ideas her own: her grids were always implied and her colors rarely pure. The effervescent “L’Hasard” of 1948-49, one of her earliest great paintings, reiterates Mondrian’s color squares in black and scatters them across larger shapes of lavender, brown, orange and white, creating a kind of allover randomness at odds with the Dutch master’s airy, orderly scaffolding and his primary colors.

Beginning in the 1950s, Mason’s understated geometric abstraction found good company, in the work of Myron Stout, Anne Ryan, Agnes Martin and John McLaughlin. With them, she also set a precedent for young artists like Tomma Abts, Thomas Nozkowski, Ann Pibal and Bill Jensen.

The reasons for the neglect of Mason’s art surely include her gender and the fact that she was an instinctive independent, out of step with the prevailing style, Abstract Expressionism. This exhibition reminds us how early she found her voice, while the belated book reveals her adamantine pursuit of its implications. Both should prompt at least one good-size museum to give Mason’s achievement the institutional attention it deserves.