Your Concise New York Art Guide for December 2021


Cassie Packard, December 2021

When: through January 15
Where: Washburn Gallery (177 10th Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan)

Alice Trumbull Mason, a painter, printmaker, and vocal proponent of non-objective art who cofounded the American Abstract Artists group in 1936, is among the figures who are getting their due with the reevaluation of the prevailing — typically white, male — narrative of American abstraction. Titled after a phrase from Will Heinrich’s contribution to a Mason monograph published last year, Shutter Paintings features 16 mature paintings made between 1960 and 1966 that are characterized by hard geometric ribbons of color running vertically, sometimes askant, down the canvas.

Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950


Nina Wolpow, November 2021

Under the voluminous skirts of the effusively praised Jasper Johns retrospective on the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, on the level usually reserved for educational programming, is a show of 30-or-so small works of art by women. Those represented, including better-known names like Lee Krasner and Louise Nevelson, belong to a generation of artists that broke with early-20th-century realist tendencies to engage in the kind of formal experimentation that laid the groundwork for the lions of abstract expressionism—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning—who in turn facilitated the enormous success, and thus, the enormous retrospective, of Johns. In regards to the schedule of the museum, the whole thing is almost too perfect: the potent but unremembered seed and the mighty oak it grew are simultaneously on display. 

Organized by Sarah Humphreville, Senior Curatorial Assistant, the title of the show borrows from the name of a print by the Connecticut-born artist Alice Trumbull Mason, who was a student of Arshile Gorky’s in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The full title of that work, which is included in the show, is Labyrinth of Closed Forms (1945). An intaglio print that is barely a foot across, the artwork is an archipelago of biomorphic—and some more geometric—shapes composed largely of negative space. Several of these contain their own kidney-like forms, one is punctured by a hole, a pair intersects each other, and still others are tinted by a lighter grey than that which makes up the print’s background. But all of these are, as the title ensures, closed, which is to say that they are circumscribed by ink. If Trumbull Mason’s labyrinth—it bears noting that this vaguely Cubist print arrived just a decade after Picasso, already renowned, began obsessing over depictions of the Minotaur—is entailed by this darkness, her forms’ negativity, their material emptiness, paradoxically imbues their wholeness. 

The full title of the Trumbull Mason work is important because the show in which it is included is not so labyrinthian as it is defined. The artists and artworks that make it up constitute not only a community—albeit one marked as much by divisions and disagreements as by consensus—but also an aesthetic and political enclave facilitated by a feminist willingness to embrace both figuration and abstraction during a time as defined by humanity by its appalling absence.

Such is emblematized by Untitled [Airplane Cockpit] (1949), a monotype by the Romanian-born artist Hedda Sterne. Here, Sterne—who had been in with the European surrealists, and followed her first husband to New York only after living through and escaping (Sterne was Jewish) the Bucharest pogrom—employs the messiness of the monotyping process, in which no etchings are made on the plate, to deliver a form that is at certain glimpses mechanical, and at others biological, like a skull. The medium is tasked with conveying the inseparability between human-driven technological advancement and the technological destruction of human life: neither the military vehicles of the Allies nor the gas chambers of the Nazis sprung to being on their own. The work’s rust-ish palette—indicative both of metal and blood—underscores this troubling and poignant connection. 

This is not to say that all of the works in the show are particularly concerned with the global horrors of the interwar, World War II, or immediate post-War periods. On the contrary, a 1950 screenprint by the Bay Area artist and world-traveler Dorr Bothwell—who exhibited under that forename as opposed to her given and decidedly feminine one, Doris—entitled Corsica, is cheery: an abstract rendering of that French island’s beguiling colors. And other earlier works, like a collection of lithographs by members of the New York-based organization the American Abstract Artists (AAA), including Ray Kaiser—who later married and seems to have been swallowed up by the furniture designer Charles Eames—and Rosalind Bengelsdorf Browne—who later married the painter Byron Browne—testify to the influence of the German painter and pedagogue Hans Hoffman, who experimented with a variety of avant garde styles, on the lives and careers of this group of women. Nevertheless, the exhibition tells the story of women artists triply daring for their time: first, for insisting on being artists at all, second, for interrogating realism without dismissing it completely, and third, for doing so in a time in which reality was nearly impossible to construe.

Many of these women artists have now disappeared from the story of modern art is the consequence both of sexism, and of the related capitalistic forces that created today’s art market, which is as responsible for entrenching artists like Johns as is his prodigious talent. The decision to resurrect the work of many of these women, and reinforce the art historical relevance of others in coincidence with a show as sprawlingly marketable and marketably sprawling as Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror strengthens that premise. I would not go and see one without the other. 

Female Abstract Artists Are Finally Getting Their Due

Widewalls Magazine

Balasz Takac, November 2021

Right after the Nazis took power in Germany, more and more European artists migrated to the US where they have continued disseminating modernism. Despite the dominance of figurative art, the new generations of artists many of them women, embraced abstraction. They have formed communities and organizations to support each other’s work, share ideas, and organize exhibitions.

Female abstract artists had a major role in these circles and often acted as leaders and organizers, wrote, lectured, and enhanced the methods of artmaking, especially in print media. However, except for a few such as Louise Nevelson and Lee Krasner, many of them remained underrecognized regardless of their efforts within this movement.

To tell the stories of all the relevant women active in the early stage of abstract art in America, and to indicate their rightful spot in art history, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized the exhibition Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950. The show brings together works mostly drawn from the Museum’s collection.

Titled Labyrinth of Forms after Alice Trumbull Mason’s work in the exhibition, this survey tends to underline the sense of discovery that informed these women to develop a striking visual language and propose innovative conceptual and technical solutions. It brings over thirty works by twenty-seven artists executed in a variety of media including drawings, woodcuts, sculptures, lithographs, intaglios, and collages. This survey is curated by Sarah Humphreville, Senior Curatorial, who said that “the Labyrinth of Forms is an exciting opportunity to reevaluate the history of abstraction in the United States”. She added:

The exhibition sheds light on the vital impact artists of the 1930s and 1940s had on the evolution and reception of abstract art in this country, the integral role of drawings and prints in its development, and, of course, the essential contributions that women made.

The exhibition Labyrinth of Forms will be on view in the Museum’s third-floor Susan and John Hess Family Gallery until March 2022. 

To bring you closer to the current show, we are spotlighting the practices of seven prolific female abstract expressionists featured.

. . .

Alice Trumbull Mason

Alice Trumbull Mason was an American abstract painter. She studied art in Rome, and the British Academy. After settling in New York in 1927, Mason became largely influenced by abstract painters such as Arshile Gorky. Later on, she also studied at the National Academy of Design and the Grand Central Art Galleries. Mason was affiliated with Gertrude Stein before resuming her painting in 1934 and had helped the founding of the American Abstract Artists in 1936. The artist has produced her last work in 1969 and died in New York City in 1971.

Goings on About Town: “Labyrinth of Forms”

The New Yorker

Johanna Fateman, November 2021

Borrowing its name from a 1945 aquatint etching by Alice Trumbull Mason, this exhibition at the Whitney features abstract works on paper from the museum’s collection, all made by women between 1930 and 1950. Few of these artists gained the attention they clearly deserved, despite working in a variety of established European modernist vernaculars. The biomorphic geometries in Trumbull Mason’s “Labyrinth of Closed Forms,” a striking grisaille composition, have affinities with the playful, floating shapes of Alexander Calder and Joan Miró; a lithograph by the mononymous Elise, “Untitled (Abstract, Ovoids and Lines),” from 1935, presents a Futurist fragment of mysterious origin, architectural or maybe mechanical. The great Lee Krasner’s colorful “Still Life,” from 1938—which, despite its name, looks purely abstract—is a breezy outlier, foreshadowing the all-over painting technique that would soon be favored by her fellow Abstract Expressionists. The modest size of the works on view lends them a collective air of distilled intensity, and the startling number of unfamiliar names adds an aura of melancholy.

‘Museums Overlooked These Artists’: Celebrating the Forgotten Women of Abstract Art


Julianne McShane, October 13, 2021

In a new exhibition, the female abstract artists between 1930 and 1950 whose work was sidelined at the time finally get their space in the spotlight.

In 1934, the abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason wrote her sister, Margaret Jennings, a letter, noting that she was eager to resume painting, which she had temporarily stopped in order to raise her children.

“I am chafing to get back to painting and of course it’s at least a couple of years away,” Mason wrote. “The babies are adorable and terribly interesting. I’m not saying anything against them, but … I can’t be just absorbed in them.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when Mason returned to painting a year after she wrote that letter – earlier than she had anticipated – she didn’t paint her kids or scenes from life at home; rather, she became a founding member of the New York-based American Abstract Artists, joining a group of artists experimenting with an art form more widespread in Europe but largely dismissed by critics and curators in the US at the time, who favored the realism of (male) painters including Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.

Mason was one of many artists who also faced the additional barrier of being a woman in the male-dominated art world. But these artists also played important, yet historically overlooked, roles in driving the technical and conceptual developments of abstraction in the US, according to Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950, a new exhibition – named after one of Mason’s works featured in the exhibit – that opened this month at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. On view through March, the exhibit features more than 30 works – mostly smaller, and on paper – by 27 female artists who found creative, albeit subversive, freedom in experimenting beyond the bounds of the mainstream art establishment, according to curator Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant at the museum.

In taking up abstraction, the women rejected the realism that dominated the decade, which often reinforced “certain subject matters that people identified as being particularly feminine or as being appropriate for women to do”, such as paintings of mothers and children, Humphreville said.

“By working in abstraction, and therefore not having an overt subject matter in many cases, they really circumnavigated that whole predicament,” she added.

The artists worked with new forms of print-making and other mediums, relying on lines, shapes, and shading to arrange their compositions, often playing with perspective in the process to give the illusion of depth on paper. Under the guidance of painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, they also learned to make use of negative space and arrange overlapping and intersecting forms – ideas that, according to Humphreville, were “wild” in the US at the time.

The artists shared these ideas in small groups, where women often took on leadership roles, as Mason and other women featured in the exhibit did – including Rosalind Bengelsdorf and Gertrude Greene – by co-founding American Abstract Artists. “Within the group, women were treated as equals; they served as officers, participated on committees, wrote for publications, and organized programs,” Humphreville wrote of AAA in her essay accompanying the exhibition.

After the Whitney staged a 1935 exhibit on abstraction in the US that excluded younger artists, and the Museum of Modern Art staged an exhibition the following year on cubist and abstract art featuring only European artists, the AAA – which was also composed of many men – organized an exhibition of American abstract artists, at the Squibb Galleries in midtown Manhattan in April 1937. It drew more than 1,500 people during its two week run.

While the reviews were largely negative – “reviewers charged the artists with being boring, decorative, derivative, and disconnected from reality”, Humphreville wrote – the exhibiting artists got a rare positive review from Charmion von Wiegand, a critic and abstract artist herself (who also has a drawing on view in the Whitney exhibit).

Occupying those dual roles of both artist and critic meant von Wiegand was “one of the people in the US who probably kind of understood modern art firsthand really well from an early moment”, Humphreville said. In her review of the 1937 show, von Wiegand “was really making an argument for abstraction and saying it’s not unpolitical for someone to be making work and expressing themselves in this way”, Humphreville added.

The AAA continued staging exhibitions throughout the 30s, helping to cultivate greater acceptance of American abstraction among critics by the early 1940s.

Around that time, another avant-garde group formed in New York: Atelier 17, where 40% of members were women, including members of the AAA. The workshop “encouraged technical and formal invention,” according to Humphreville, and artists specialized in and pioneered new printmaking processes. Norma Morgan, whose work is also featured in Labyrinth of Forms, was one of the two Black female artists who were part of the group (the other was Evangeline St Claire).

Despite the creative freedom the artists found working together and with new forms, abandoning the artistic status quo – particularly as women – came with a price: “They have this double layer of marginalization – they are making art that is not necessarily the most popular within the US … and then if you’re a woman on top of that, that’s this [additional] layer,” Humphreville said.

Being a female artist became an even more acute burden with the dawn of abstract expressionism, which by 1950 became a “highly masculine” movement, according to Humphreville.

In attempts to circumvent the gender-based barriers they faced, some of the women featured in the Whitney exhibit – including Dorr Bothwell and Irene Rice Pereira, who became one of the first two women to have a retrospective at the Whitney, in 1953 – presented their works with altered, less obviously feminine versions of their legal names in order to have a better chance at being exhibited: Bothwell legally changed her first name from Doris, and Pereira signed her works as “I Rice Pereira”.

Critics also regularly expressed surprised when they learned the true identities of women artists – as did Hans Hofmann, the artist and teacher who taught many of the artists featured in the Whitney exhibit: in an incident recounted many times by the abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, Hofmann once allegedly remarked that a drawing she made was “so good that you would not know it was done by a woman”. (Fellow abstract expressionist Elaine de Kooning shared a similar memory of Hofmann’s assessment of her own work.) That “drove [Krasner] crazy”, Humphreville said.

Following the work of feminist art historians dating back to the 1970s, museums and scholars have more recently begun to critically reexamine art historical accounts of the development of American abstraction that exclude the contributions of women and people of color, Humphreville added, pointing to the Denver Art Museum’s 2016 Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit and the Whitney’s own Agnes Pelton retrospective last year.

But Labyrinth of Forms is also significant for its home, given that “the Whitney didn’t really collect most of this material as it was being made”, Humphreville said, adding that many of the works weren’t added to the museum’s collection until after the late 1970s.

The exhibit, she added, comes as a long overdue correction – for both American art history and the Whitney itself: “A lot of museums also overlooked these artists at the time … you kind of already start having that marginalization happen during their lifetimes, which makes it so that when they do get written into the history, it necessarily has to be a little bit revisionist.”

‘Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950’ Debuts at The Whitney on October 9


October 04, 2021

The Whitney Museum of American Art presents Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950, an exhibition of works drawn primarily from the Museum’s collection that celebrates the innovative abstract art made by women in the first half of the twentieth century. The exhibition features over thirty works by twenty-seven artists. Labyrinth of Forms seeks to highlight the achievements of these groundbreaking artists and explores how works on paper, in particular, were important sites for experimentation and innovation. The exhibition is curated by Sarah Humphreville, Senior Curatorial Assistant, and is on view in the Museum’s third-floor Susan and John Hess Family Gallery from October 9, 2021 to March 2022.

Labyrinth of Forms, a title drawn from an Alice Trumbull Mason work in the exhibition, alludes to the sense of discovery that drove these artists to establish a visual language reflecting the advances of the twentieth century. Women played important roles in propelling the formal, technical, and conceptual evolution of abstract art in the United States. While a few of these artists, including Lee Krasner and Louise Nevelson, have been duly recognized, most remain overlooked despite their prominence within this burgeoning movement.

Labyrinth of Forms is an exciting opportunity to reevaluate the history of abstraction in the United States. The exhibition sheds light on the vital impact artists of the 1930s and 1940s had on the evolution and reception of abstract art in this country, the integral role of drawings and prints in its development, and, of course, the essential contributions that women made. It also gives the Whitney’s audiences the chance to see works from the collection that have rarely, if ever, been exhibited before,” said Humphreville.

Abstraction flourished in the U.S. during this period in part because of increased exposure to European avant-garde art through modern art courses and new exhibition venues. Nevertheless, abstract artists were vastly outnumbered by realist practitioners, maligned by critics, and largely ignored by museums and galleries. In the face of these obstacles, American abstractionists forged a network of overlapping communities, organizations, and creative spaces, which allowed them to support one another, exchange ideas, and exhibit their work. Women were key figures in these groups and often took on leadership and organizational roles, wrote and gave lectures, and advanced methods of making, particularly in print media.

Labyrinth of Forms reveals the striking variety of interests, styles, and media that these artists embraced. The exhibition includes drawings, woodcuts, intaglios, lithographs, and collages. In a number of cases, artists combined approaches, as Katherine Dreier did in her Variation #4, from 40 Variations (1934). In this joyful, geometric work inspired by sailing and Beethoven’s music, Dreier applied bright watercolor hues over a lithograph base. Charmion von Wiegand similarly applied brilliant tones and collaged passages to her drawing Untitled (1942). The work originated as an automatic drawing, a technique introduced by the European Surrealists. Lee Krasner is represented in Labyrinth of Forms with Still Life (1938), an oil-on-paper drawing that uses ordinary, real-world objects as a springboard for an abstract composition. Krasner studied with Hans Hofmann from 1937-38; this drawing is informed by his lessons on the importance of negative space but is decidedly more radically abstract than the work her teacher created at the time. Like Krasner, the other women in this exhibition were innovators. In showcasing their works and reinvigorating their histories, Labyrinth of Forms challenges the dominant narrative of abstraction and brings to light the contributions of these previously excluded voices.

These Are the Art Shows and Events to See This Season: ‘Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950’


Will Heinrich, September 17, 2021

After the pandemic brought museum and gallery shows to a dead stop, last year’s racial justice protests lent new urgency to demands that institutions become more transparent, more representative and more diverse. While there’s certainly an uptick of shows featuring women and artists of color in this fall preview, there are also many, delayed by Covid-19, that were planned several years ago. For the moment, at least, it feels as if we are picking up just where we left off — with solo blockbusters (like Jasper Johns’s, stretching over two cities), art fairs (nearly all in person, again) and ancient treasures (rare ceramics, from Thailand to Mesopotamia). Check museums and fairs for health-related updates: Museums may require proof of vaccination, and fairs may yet migrate back online.

The latest welcome challenge to the old heroic-male-painter story of abstraction comes largely from the Whitney’s permanent collection, with works by 26 artists, including the titanic Alice Trumbull Mason, one of whose paintings provides the show’s title. (Oct. 9-March 2022; Whitney Museum of American Art,

10 Best New Art Shows to See in NYC in Fall 2021: ‘Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950’


Jerry Saltz, 1 September, 2021

Whitney Museum of American Art, opens October 9
In the early part of the 20th century, as European artists belched out manifestos calling for the end of painting and museums, white America was just starting to feel great about itself. It looked around and saw skyscrapers, flappers, jazz bands, Hollywood — everything except, of course, its racism. That’s when Europe began to self-immolate and abstract artists such as Piet Mondrian, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Marcel Duchamp, Max Beckmann, and waves more immigrated to our shores. They triggered a chain reaction; an American art world came into being, a sort of international American Baroque and Classicism. Art history was rewritten. Imperfectly.

The modest show “Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction” is a much-needed step toward setting the record straight. Here is an exhibition of mostly smaller works on paper made in America by women. We all know the figurative painting and social realisms of male painters like Edward Hopper, but abstraction was much slower to take root in this country. Women artists everywhere must have sensed that the doors of other American genres were already closed to them and so moved into the vacuum.

You will recognize some of the names: Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Hedda Sterne (the only woman pictured in the famous photograph published in Time of the otherwise all-male Abstract Expressionists). Other names may be new to you: Blanche Lazzell, Alice Trumbull Mason, Charmion von Wiegand. These artists seeded the pluralism that began in the 1970s and that has never stopped adding to art’s multiplicity. They weren’t hampered by the dictatorial, mostly male proclamations calling for unwavering aesthetic fealty to one cockamamie thing or another. Even as they were passed over for gallery and institutional support in favor of the Rothkos and Pollocks, these women explored the untended shores of biomorphic, geometric, hard-edged, and allover abstraction — mapping new territories, forming a nutrient-rich tidal pool of artistic life.

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.