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 Emily Mason  (1932 - )

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Lived/Active: United States/Italy      Known for: abstract form-protean shape painting

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from Auction House Records.
The Best of Times, 1996
© Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY See Details
Biography from David Findlay Jr. Gallery:
Emily Mason is an instinctive colorist and as such, is drawn to the same vocabulary that other colorists have used, extemporizing as she goes along.  Her abstractions are rich with areas of layered, saturated color contrasted with delicate, translucent washes and glazes that resemble watercolor, with recessions and advances, push and pull, with monochromatic planes interrupted by fissures and crevasses of other colors, flurried with small rains of brushstrokes, scumbled, rubbed, scraped.  The boundaries of her protean shapes can seep into each other, rippled where one image slips imperceptibly into others with usually no hard and fast demarcation, no defined edges or clear lines but the transition is accomplished nonetheless.  The fluidity, however, is gently but firmly structured, locked into place, into Mason’s version of dynamic equilibrium. Often, only two or three colors dominate a canvas but a whole rainbow has been requisitioned in the making of it, with other hues underneath, floating on top, woven into the surface, into the texture, tucked into corners.  Her corners are often surprising and full of incidents; here she can slip a few more shades in, overlaying them, brushing them on top of each other.

Mason is a woman of infinite variety. Her brushstrokes can melt into each other, shimmer, go flat, the color deepens, becomes sonorous yet in other places, it is whispery, translucent. Mason says she never likes to use white paint, preferring to let the white of the primed canvas show through for glow.  The exterior light is also important and affects her painting; there is summer light and summer painting and winter light and winter painting, like Northern and Southern schools reconciled in one artist,  The surface texture can be velvety or sleek, and the paint can transform itself at times into metal, glinting gold or copper.  A yellow line, for instance, in one painting appears bright gold, an illusion created by its interaction with the colors in its vicinity.  Mason does use gold but infrequently, content with the alchemy of paint itself.

Her sense of color is assured, in exuberant, innovative, often denatured combinations. Her reds are remarkable—a whole range from warm to cool, light to dark.  One painting is flooded with red, balanced by pinks and magentas, cooled by a touch of unnatural green while another thrust of red is tipped by yellow, like the point of an arrow, surrounded by swirling streaks of purple.  Another is mainly yellows and oranges and blends of yellow-orange, cut through by a flash of bright turquoise paired by a darker scrap of turquoise.

Her primaries are more Miami than Neo-Plastic: purple instead of blue, orange instead of red, gold instead of yellow.  Her complementaries are reds that shift into rosy pinks, magentas and greens that veer toward lime and acquamarine. Purple and yellows are also frequent combinations but in a wide range of tones and complex relationships.  Mason learned early that context is paramount and that colors influence each other in so many ways, such as hue, tonality, temperature, mood.

As for content, they may or may not be abstractions of landscapes, of imagined aerial views, oceanic depths or tropical gardens. Mason says they have a relationship to place but are not meant to be landscape. However, if landscape creeps in afterwards, she can accept that; she believes in nature. Be that as it may and whatever else they might be, Mason’s paintings are first and foremost an art of sensation. Based on vision, they are a joyous and triumphant affirmation of color and of painting itself, the once and future medium.

Lilly Wei

Biography from LewAllen Galleries:
One of America’s well-known non-representational painters, Emily Mason has spent more than five decades exploring her distinctive vein of lyrical, luminous abstraction. Robert Berlind said of her in Art in America: “Mason works within the improvisational model of Abstract Expressionism, though notably without angst or bravado.”

Her place secure in art history, Mason has enjoyed a long career at the heart of the evolution of American abstract painting.  Her oil on canvas paintings are distinguished by a sense of intriguing intimacy combined with uncompromising, though gentle, intensity.  They evince a sense of structure within open, luminous space and juxtapose robust color harmonies with vivid contrasts that create an engaging optical vibration.

Mason has said, “When I start a picture I like to use the medium as directly as I can . . . [this] puts me in a state of mind which avoids pictorial constraints.  I try to use paint for its brilliance, transparency, opacity, liquidity, weight, warmth and coolness.  These qualities guide me in a process which will determine the climate of the picture. All the while I work to define spatial relationships, resulting in certain kinds of places. I cannot name them but know intuitively when they appear.”

Born and raised in New York City, Mason graduated from New York City’s High School of Music and Art and then studied at Bennington College before attending and graduating from the Cooper Union.  She spent 1956-58 in Italy on a Fulbright grant for painting and for part of that time studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Venice.  During Mason’s two-year stay in Italy she married the painter Wolf Kahn, whom she had met earlier in New York.  Mason and Kahn’s daughter, Cecily Kahn, is also an abstract painter, as was Emily Mason’s mother, Alice Trumbull Mason, a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group in New York.

Mason has had numerous exhibitions of her work since her first one-person exhibition at the Area Gallery in New York City in 1960.  In 1979, she was awarded the Ranger Fund Purchase Prize by the National Academy.  She has taught painting at Hunter College for more than 25 years, and her work is in numerous public and private collections.

Emily Mason: The Fifth Element, a comprehensive treatment of her work by Art in America associate managing editor David Ebony, was published in 2006 by George Braziller publishers.

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