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Mason, Alice Trumbull (1904–1971)

Mason, Alice Trumbull (1904–1971)

Important American abstract painter of the mid-20th century who has begun to receive recognition only since her death . Name variations: Alice Trumbull; Alice Mason. Born in 1904 in Litchfield, Connecticut; died in 1971 in New York, New York; attended the National Academy of Design (1924–28); studied with Arshile Gorky at the Grand Central Art Galleries; studied at the Atelier 17 (1944–47); married Warwood Mason (a ship's captain), in 1928 (one source cites 1930); children: one son (died 1958); Emily Mason Kahn (an artist).

Selected paintings:

Free White Spacing (1934); L'Hasard (1948); Magnetic Field (1951); Memorial (1958–59); Magnitude of Memory (1962); Urban White (1969).

During her lifetime, Alice Trumbull Mason never achieved the critical recognition she was due, but since her death art historians have identified her as an important figure in the movement to introduce European-centered abstract art into the canon of serious American painting. Born in Connecticut in 1904, Mason came from an old New England family whose origins dated back to the Revolutionary War era; among her father's ancestors were a governor of Connecticut and the painter John Trumbull. Her father was trained as a lawyer but never practiced law, and the family, devout Christian Scientists, enjoyed a life of leisure and often visited Europe. They also gathered in the evenings to play word games and charades and to recite poetry, making for an erudite environment that would later inform Mason's art.

She became interested in art as a career while on a trip to Italy in 1922, and began studying at the British Academy in Rome. After successfully pleading with her family to return to America so she could attend art school in New York, from 1924 to 1928 Mason took courses at the National Academy of Design in New York City. She then studied under Arshile Gorky at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York, and through his influence became intently interested in abstract art. She began painting in earnest in 1928 after a trip through Greece and Italy, where she saw the links between the flat color fields of modern European abstract art and the formal structures of classical Byzantine art.

Mason married a ship's captain, Warwood Mason, probably around 1928, and did not paint for a period of five years after the birth of their two children; instead, she wrote poetry, some of which was published, and lived almost as a single mother because her husband was often away at sea. She took up painting again in the early 1930s, and in 1936 became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group. This alliance of painters worked passionately to change opinion about non-representational art, which was viewed with skepticism by the art establishment and outright ridicule by the general public in some cases. At one point, Mason and the group picketed the Museum of Modern Art. She held a number of executive positions within the organization, including president, and remained an active member until 1963. She also belonged to the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, and to the 14 Painters/Printmakers group.

Mason was meticulous about her craft as well as her art, and ground and mixed her own paints. She was influenced by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, whom she had met, although she always employed a subtler palette of colors. As Brooke Bailey notes, Mason's "paintings are carefully laid out to keep their harmony no matter which side of the frame points up." Mason herself described her work as "architectural abstraction," and once commented that her art was "a building and not a destroying. It is making color, density, dark and light, rhythm and balance work together without depending on references and associations." She also studied soft-ground etching from 1944 to 1947 with Stanley Hayter at the Atelier 17, and created woodcuts and etchings.

The efforts of the American Abstract Artists bore fruit, for Mason and her fellow abstract artists did indeed begin to gain acceptance by the early 1940s. She held her first solo show in 1942, at the Museum of Living Art. Despite several more solo shows, Mason did not achieve the status of her male colleagues. She grew increasingly reclusive and never recovered from the death of her son at sea in 1958; Memorial (1958–59) was her homage to him. Alice Trumbull Mason died in 1971. Two years later, the first retrospective of her work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Other retrospectives have followed, and her paintings have since been included in every major exhibition of the American Abstract Artists. Mason's work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Walker Art Center, among many others.

sources:

Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists from Early Indian Times to the Present. Avon, 1982.

suggested reading:

Mason, Alice Trumbull. Alice Trumbull Mason: Etchings and Woodcuts. Introduction by Una E. Johnson. NY: Taplinger, 1985.

collections:

Papers of Alice Mason Trumbull are held at the Archives of American Art, New York City, New York.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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