Sam Franzini, December 2021
Nearly 50 years after her Whitney Museum retrospective, the Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation has announced a new exhibition of the late abstract artist’s paintings from the early 1960s. After co-founding the American Abstract Artists group, she instigated a picket protest at the Museum of Modern Art for not displaying any American abstract artists. Years later, her own work would be shown, and ultimately acquired there. Mason’s gender prohibited her from getting the proper recognition in her day, but the new art installation shows her work can stand the test of time.
Flaunt spoke with Steven Rose, the director of the Mason foundation about the new exhibition.
Why the name Shutter Paintings?
“Shutter Paintings” is a phrase pulled from the essay on Mason’s paintings by author Will Heinrich published in Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of Abstraction (Rizzoli 2020). In his essay, Heinrich describes this period where color “slammed across her canvases like steel shutters.” He elaborates that with paintings like Ionic Magnitude (1960), Mason paints to the surface of the canvas, providing the viewer no point of entry, no depth of field. He felt that this was a powerful development in her abstraction and a noticeable shift to address the “aesthetic problems that interested her.”
In what ways has Mason’s work been recontextualized in 2021? Any permanence of key themes?
Mason is one of many incredible artists who were passed over during their time in part due to who they were, as opposed to how they painted. Fortunately for us, despite this, Mason has been the subject of a few recent re-contextualizations, including being a central figure in a show currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art called Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950, curated by Sarah Humphreville. Like many of her contemporary female abstract artists, Mason was instrumental in defining American Abstraction and is finally receiving a fresh look to this end.
These works in Shutter Paintings show are a perfect continuation of the themes in the Whitney show, as they are a period that has gone fairly unexamined, overshadowed by Mason’s biographical struggles with depression and alcohol during this period. With recent research, including an incredible essay written on the period by Dr. Barbara Stehle, we now see a Mason who was extremely active and engaged in the conversations surrounding abstraction at the time. Not only was she adding to the fevered dialogue of the era, she was actively being recognized and promoted by well-known purveyors of avant garde art, including gallerist Dick Bellamy, who she met and bonded with during a stint in a drying out clinic on the Upper West side.
How was the curation process for this exhibition?
The curation process was done in conjunction with Joan and Brian Washburn. Joan has represented Mason for the better part of five decades, which is a story and an achievement in itself! We were fortunate to have a good number of excellent canvases to choose from and agreed to find a formal focus to limit our selection. In the end, with some added input from Dr. Stehle, we landed on the using mostly vertical paintings of this period, finding that this would be most powerful in the gallery space and allow the viewer to really focus on Mason’s refined shifts of composition and use of color and paint within a finite set.
Was the time frame of only displaying paintings from 1960-1966 a deliberate move? If so, what about this era stood out to you?
In a word – yes. There have been a few remarks on these vertical “shutter” paintings over the years, most notably by the NYT’s Roberta Smith last year. We concurred and felt it was past time to do a focused show just on these pieces. What was important to us is that we had the time to properly examine the period in its art historical context, i.e. minimalism being a growing force in American abstraction, so that this period would not be oversimplified to the biographical events of Mason’s life. This body of work represents an extremely powerful and cohesive statement within Mason’s overall oeuvre. We felt it deserved more examination.
How would you categorize Alice Trumbull Mason’s contributions to the American Abstraction movement?
In terms of historical painting styles, it is hard to categorize Mason’s brand of abstract painter – I’ll leave this to art historians. We know she eschewed abstract expressionism. She also coined plenty of terms herself including ‘biomorphic abstraction’ and ‘architonic abstraction’ through her many writings and statements.
What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?
I hope people who paint or make things will see this show and be inspired to paint and make things. I hope people who enjoy paintings but never heard of Mason will add her to their lexicon. I hope that people who know art and know Mason will learn even more and be inspired to advocate for Mason and promote her work to a new deserved level.