Bennington Museum exhibit is small in size, vast in scale


BENNINGTON — Color. Simmering color. Ravishing color. Jagged Scribbles. Flowing Washes. Drips. Splashes. Bold swipes. Small in size, yet vast in scale and power is what awaits you in "Color | Gesture: Early Works by Emily Mason," on view through Sept. 8 at Bennington Museum. The Works on Paper Gallery at the Museum has exploded with color, and visitors can lose their breath upon entering. This exhibition offers a wonderfully powerful and memorable experience.

About the artist

For more than 60 years, Mason has been creating lyrical paintings on canvas and paper where strong gestural marks contrast with washes of color and spontaneous splashes and drips. She attended Bennington College from 1950 to 1952 before immersing herself in the vibrant art scene of 1950s New York City. Color|Gesture: Early Works by Emily Mason traces the development of the artist's distinctive style of abstraction through paintings on paper created in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mason has always charted her own path within the context of American abstraction, often through experimentation and evolution. She was born in New York City in 1932, the daughter of Alice Trumbull Mason, one of the first artists in America to fully embrace non-objective abstraction, and one of the founders of American Abstract Artists group in 1937. Emily Mason first engaged materials and techniques in her mother's studio in New York, and it was through her mother that she met some of the major Abstract Expressionist painters in NYC, among others Jackson Pollock, Elaine and Willem DeKooning, and Mark Rothko. She recalls being shocked by their work, not quite understanding what they were doing. But she came to grips with for example, Pollock's "all over" painting including the drips and splashes. She found Joan Mitchell's work unsettling and inspirational and she was determined to find her own voice in the world of abstraction.

"While she revered her mother's manner of cool, calculated abstraction, by the late 1950s she was fully engaged in the new movement defined by gesture, power, and spontaneity. During the decade that is the focus of this exhibition, 1958 to 1968, she moved beyond Abstract Expressionism, first forging a style of gestural abstraction grounded in pure color, and then by 1968 creating a highly personal style of delicate veils and washes of color, with complex transparency and overlapping, creating dynamic contrasts of color and texture on the sheet of paper and in the eye," said Robert Wolterstorff, author of the essay "Gesture into Color: Early Works on Paper by Emily Mason." found in a recently published book titled "Color | Gesture: Early Works of Emily Mason" now available in the Museum Store.

The progressive education offered at Bennington College could have provided for the artist the opportunity to self-explore. But Mason had always exhibited a determined effort to "find my own voice," "think things out for myself." After two years at Bennington College, Mason transferred to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, to get closer to where the action was. There she drew inspiration from teachers Morris Kanter, Nicholas Marsicano, and Sidney Delevante, and completed her education in 1955.

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Mason's first works in oil on paper date to 1957. Initially she embraced the medium as an avenue for exploration, to develop her vision. She pushed the medium, combining oil with pastel, thinning the paint, and testing different kinds of mark-making. She layered the paints to produce variegated textures, and complex color interactions. Mason attributes her experimental attitude to her mother. "My mother always experimented with new materials," she observes. "I'm the same way." But she came to find that the small size of her works, the quick drying time of the oil on paper, and the portability of the materials she used, was not only one of the practical advantages of the medium for an artist, but also could serve as her laboratory for experimentation and innovation.

The exhibition

Featured in Color | Gesture: Early Works by Emily Mason are thirty-two phenomenal works spanning a decade of great evolution for Mason. Some paintings were created in Venice in 1958, on large sheets of thick, soft Fabriano paper. Composed of slashing diagonal gestures and scribbles filling the entire surface, "Venezia" is suggestive of her earlier work where gesture and color merge. Those created from 1958 to 1962, exhibit the astounding shift in her art from one that of gesture rendered in color, to one of color rendered in gesture.

"Working in liquid medium, thinned to behave like watercolor, Mason explores contrasts of opacity, transparency, and overlapping," Wolterstorff said. One just needs to look at "Blame the Bee," another work in the exhibition, to see the dynamic effect of the technique she used.

Between 1962 and 1968 Mason pushed the medium further, developing an astonishing array of techniques to manipulate the oil medium and realize her formal vision. Many of her works during this period, including "Spring Melt" and "Rain Forest," highlight her "optical mixing:" layering transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque colors on the sheet so that the colors are mixed in the eye, rather than on the painter's palette. The result is that the colors glow. It's a technique she has used again and again. Specifically, the works of 1967-1968 show Mason's exquisite mastery of her media, after a decade of working in oil on paper as represented in "Witch Hunt" and "Sugar Bush."

The works in this exhibition show Mason developing her own unique style, translating the gesture and movement of Abstract Expressionism into an abstraction of pure color laid down in delicate veils and washes. These works on paper, created near the beginning of her career, are central to that achievement. Hard-fought, improvisatory, and experimental, they are not only a record of that achievement — they are where she worked it out.


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