ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The lyrical abstractions of Emily Mason lure viewers into a place transcendent and serene.
Mason died at 87 last December, and LewAllen Galleries is presenting a memorial exhibition of more than 30 of her paintings at lewallengalleries.com through Oct. 17.
Mason was the first artist invited to join the
LewAllen stable when Ken Marvel and Robert Gardner bought the Santa Fe business in 2003. The partners had met the artist on her Vermont farm. Married to the renowned abstracted landscape painter Wolf Kahn, she traveled to New Mexico regularly while he taught painting seminars through the Santa Fe Art Institute.
“This was after 9/11, a time in Santa Fe when things were really down,” Marvel said. “Her artwork really brought a sense of happiness into the gallery.
“Her more poetic way of combining colors and making spaces in the canvas brought a real spirit of renewal,” he added.
Mason captured her deep love of nature through layered hues and rhythms of vibrant color across a six-decade career.
Born and raised in New York City, Mason spent 1956-58 in Italy on a Fulbright painting grant. She studied at the Accademia Arti in Venice and married Kahn during that two-year stay. Her mother was Alice Trumbull Mason, a founding member of the legendary American Abstract Artists Group in New York, who at one time worked from a studio alongside the great Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró.
For much of her life, the work of her mother and husband overshadowed her own. But by the 1990s, Mason began getting more recognition. Her work, generally in oil, explored the varieties of a single color or the play between multiple hues, in joyfully free-form fashion.
“She would literally squeal,” Marvel said. “She would see some effect that was absolutely new to her.”
Her late husband Kahn said, “She paints the way a bird sings.”
Mason never planned out a painting in advance, instead placing brush to canvas to see where it moved. She sometimes placed a blank canvas on the floor, pouring paint on it from recycled cat food cans, tilting the canvas back and forth, allowing the paints to run, then adding colors, setting it aside before returning to work later. In a 2005 interview, she compared her process to playing chess using veiled layers of diluted paint with pools of color crashing into one another.
“Pick it up, make a move, wait, let time go in between,” she said. “Then I know what to do.”
She talked about feeling she was lost in time, Marvel said.
“I think it was Picasso who said, ‘I do not search, I merely find,’ ” he continued. “Emily’s technique and process were very much like that.
“Her goal really was to make people happy,” he said. “She experimented all the time with her color combinations. She wanted to engender both an emotional and a cerebral response to her work.”
Mason was named after Emily Dickinson, and often used phrases from her poems as titles for her paintings.
She avoided the existential angst of some of Abstract Expressionism’s most famous exponents, opting instead for an almost spiritual sense of stillness in her work.
“She became compared to a latter-day Transcendentalist,” Marvel explained. “Nature was the driving force. She found a universe of meaning in the beauty of nature. She viewed the land as a sacred place. It was what I would call a theology of pure joy.”
Mason visited Santa Fe for nearly every gallery opening. The artist compared the sense of color and quiet she found there to Italian landscapes.
“She felt she had returned to a place where nature took presidence over everything else,” Marvel said. “That’s what she sought to bring into her paintings.”
A lovage plant Mason insisted he buy still grows in Marvel’s garden.
“Emily Mason: In Memoriam Exhibition” marks Mason’s ninth LewAllen exhibition.