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Emily Mason: American Abstraction in New York City

8 min read

American abstract artist Emily Mason was renowned for her vibrant and emotive works that challenged and expanded the boundaries of the genre. Born into a talented family, Mason developed a unique style characterized by its spontaneous application of color and layered textural depth, distinguishing her within the post-World War II abstract movement. Her paintings, notable for their lyrical and atmospheric qualities, reflect a deep engagement with color theory and an intuitive approach to abstraction. Through her extensive career, Mason not only contributed a distinct voice to the art world but also influenced subsequent generations of artists, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of abstract expressionism. In this article, we delve into the life and art of Emily Mason, exploring the nuances of her creative journey and the enduring impact of her work.

Early Life and Origins

Emily Mason was born in New York City in 1932, into a family deeply entrenched in the arts. Her early life was marked by an environment rich in artistic influence, which played a crucial role in shaping her future as an artist. Growing up in a household where artistic expression was highly valued, Mason was exposed to the world of art from a young age, laying the foundation for her later career.

The influence of her mother, Alice Trumbull Mason, a pioneer of American abstraction and founder of the American Abstract Artists Group, was particularly significant in Emily’s early exposure to art. Alice’s dedication to her craft and involvement in the abstract art movement provided Emily with a unique perspective on art from a very early age. This early immersion in the world of abstract art not only influenced Mason’s choice of career but also her artistic style and philosophy. Today, both of their oeuvres are managed by the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation.

Education and Personal Life

Mason’s formal education in art began at New York City’s High School of Music and Art. Later, the abstract painter attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she further developed her skills and artistic vision. Emily Mason met her husband, painter Wolf Kahn, in 1956 when they were both students at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York City.

Wolf Kahn was known for his vibrant landscapes that blended realism and color field painting. Their meeting at the Hofmann School, a place that was pivotal for many artists of that era, marked the beginning of a lifelong partnership both personally and artistically. Mason and Kahn were married in 1957, and their relationship was characterized by mutual respect and influence on each other’s artistic careers.

She also attended the Cooper Union in New York City, a prestigious institution known for its rigorous art program. Additionally, her time at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, Italy, was pivotal in her artistic development. This period in Europe allowed her to explore new influences and techniques, which significantly enriched her approach to color and form, elements that became central to her work as an abstract artist.

Mason’s Artistic Career

Stevenrrose, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Attribution: Stevenrrose, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Emily Mason’s career trajectory in the art world was marked by a gradual but steady ascent, characterized by her unique approach to abstract painting. After completing her formal education in art, Mason embarked on a professional journey that saw her develop a distinctive style. Her work, known for its vibrant use of color and fluid forms, gained recognition for its emotional depth and innovative techniques. Throughout her career, Mason navigated the evolving landscapes of the art world, maintaining a consistent presence and contributing significantly to the abstract art movement.

Mason’s notable exhibitions played a crucial role in establishing her reputation in the art industry. Her first major breakthrough came with her solo exhibitions, which showcased her ability to manipulate color and form to create emotive, atmospheric works. These exhibitions were well-received, garnering critical acclaim and helping to cement her status as a significant figure in abstract art. Her participation in group shows and exhibitions at prestigious galleries and institutions further elevated her profile and introduced her work to a broader audience. Emily Mason’s work has been exhibited at the MA University of New Mexico Art Museum, the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Miles McEnery Gallery,and the Joshua Farr/Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

In addition to her accomplishments as an artist, Mason also had a notable career as an educator. She taught at Hunter College in New York City, where she influenced many young artists with her expertise and insights into abstract painting. Her teaching at Hunter College was not merely a professional obligation but an extension of her passion for art. Mason’s role as an educator allowed her to share her knowledge and experiences, contributing to the development of future generations of artists and enriching the artistic community.

Mason’s Artistic Style and Inspirations

Emily Mason’s approach to abstract expressionism was distinguished by its emphasis on spontaneity and emotional depth. Her style diverged from the more structured forms of abstract expressionism, favoring instead a more fluid, intuitive approach.

Mason’s paintings are characterized by their dynamic compositions, where the interplay of color and form seems to transcend conventional boundaries. This unique approach set her apart within the abstract expressionist movement, as she blended traditional techniques with her personal artistic vision.

The use of color, texture, and form in Mason’s paintings is central to her artistic identity. Her color palette is noted for its richness and vibrancy, creating a sense of depth and movement within her works. Mason’s technique involved layering thin glazes of oil paint, a method that added texture and complexity to her paintings. This combination of color and texture worked in tandem with her fluid forms, creating abstract compositions that are both visually striking and emotionally resonant.

Mason’s inspirations were varied, reflecting her diverse experiences and exposures in the art world. Her time in Italy, particularly at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, was a significant influence, introducing her to new perspectives on color and light.

Additionally, her upbringing in an artistic household and the influence of her mother, Alice Trumbull Mason, played a crucial role in shaping her artistic sensibilities. Other influences included the broader developments in the abstract expressionist movement and her personal experiences and emotions, all of which contributed to the distinctive style that defines Emily Mason’s body of work.

The Impact of Mason’s Personal Life on Her Artistic Output

Emily Mason’s personal life and relationships were intricately woven into the fabric of her art. Her marriage to fellow artist Wolf Kahn in 1957 was not just a personal union but also an artistic alliance that profoundly influenced her work. The couple’s mutual respect and understanding of each other’s artistic vision fostered a creative environment that was conducive to experimentation and growth. This supportive relationship allowed Mason to explore her artistic boundaries freely, which is reflected in the evolution and depth of her work.

Significant life events also played a pivotal role in shaping Mason’s artistic output. Her journey through various phases of life, including the challenges and triumphs she faced, were often mirrored in her paintings. The birth of her daughter, Cecily, brought new perspectives and emotions into her life, which in turn influenced her artistic expression. Similarly, her experiences during her travels, particularly her time in Italy, left a lasting impression on her work, infusing it with new colors, textures, and emotional layers. She sought to balance city life with the demands of motherhood and the desire for inspiration.

Living and working in New York City had a substantial impact on Mason’s artistry. The city’s vibrant art scene, its diverse cultural landscape, and the dynamic energy of its streets provided a constant source of inspiration and stimulation. New York’s status as a hub for artists and the exposure to a myriad of artistic styles and movements enriched Mason’s perspective and approach to art. The city’s ever-changing nature and the artistic community she was a part of played a crucial role in keeping her work fresh, relevant, and continually evolving.

Mason’s Influence and Legacy

Emily Mason’s impact on the world of abstract art is marked by her distinctive approach to color and form, which has left a lasting imprint on the genre. Her fluid, intuitive style, characterized by vibrant colors and emotional depth, challenged and expanded the boundaries of abstract expressionism, offering a unique and feminine perspective in a predominantly male-dominated field. Mason’s influence extends to future generations of artists, who draw inspiration from her bold use of color and her ability to convey profound emotional experiences through abstract compositions.

Critical Reception of Her Work

Throughout her career, Emily Mason’s work received varied critical reception, reflective of the evolving tastes and trends in the art world. Initially, her unique approach to abstract expressionism, marked by its lyrical use of color and emotive quality, was a departure from the prevailing styles of her time, leading to a mix of admiration and reservation from critics.

However, as her career progressed, Mason’s artistic contributions gained greater recognition, with many lauding her ability to blend color and form in a deeply personal and innovative manner. Her accolades include several awards and honors, acknowledging her as a significant figure in the realm of abstract art. These recognitions served not only as validation of her artistic prowess but also highlighted her role as a trailblazer for women in a predominantly male-dominated field.

In the art community and among art critics, Mason’s standing evolved from an emerging artist to a respected and influential figure, known for her distinct style and contribution to the development of abstract art. Her work, characterized by a sense of freedom and exploration, continues to inspire and resonate within contemporary art circles, affirming her enduring legacy in the art world.

Final Thoughts on Emily Mason’s Contributions to Abstraction

Born into an artistic milieu and honing her craft under the influence of her mother and her experiences both in the United States and abroad, Mason developed a unique artistic voice that resonated deeply within the abstract art community. Her work, characterized by a distinctive use of color and texture, pushed the boundaries of abstract expressionism and brought a fresh, emotive perspective to the movement. Mason’s career, marked by a series of notable exhibitions and recognitions, reflects her evolution from a budding artist to a respected figure in the art world.

Reflecting on her enduring influence, it’s evident that Mason’s artistic voice was not just unique but also ahead of its time, inspiring future generations of artists to explore and express themselves freely. Her approach to color and form, deeply personal yet universally appealing, has left a lasting impact on the trajectory of abstract art. Mason’s legacy extends beyond her individual works; it lies in the path she carved for artists who seek to convey their innermost experiences through abstract expression.


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