My Own History with Alden Mason: A remembrance of a brave and bumptious life.
- Greg Kucera
I first knew Alden Mason's work when, as a high school student, I would come into Seattle from Federal Way to see the galleries and what was being shown in 1973-74. Mason was showing his "Burpee Garden" series then at Polly Friedlander's roughly realized, but ever so chic, gallery space on Yesler Street. I remember the paintings as containing the most vivid, jewel-like colors and the most expressive, delightful paint surfaces I had yet seen in paintings in Seattle.
My own history with Mason continued at the University of Washington School of Art, where Mason taught for over thirty years. When I started college there in 1975, Alden taught me in drawing and design courses. Though I also had courses from influential professors such as Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford, Bob Jones and Michael Dailey, I always felt a kinship with Mason for his irreverence, and for his infectious view of life. He was an impressive teacher, and an even more important to me as an artist.
In 1979, I started to work part-time at Diane Gilson Gallery where Mason was represented. During my tenure at Gilson, I also began to work as a studio assistant to Mason, mixing paint, stretching, priming and framing his canvases. Mason proved to be an inventive, thoughtful artist in his studio, generous with his time, his advice, and the stories of his travels.
Working there, I saw his paintings from the time they were just blank rectangles of canvas (painted black), through his rough drawings on them in charcoal, and then through the eventual scratchy lines of paint that would become filled in with acrylic color, applied through squeeze bottles. These paintings moved back and forth between comically figural and completely patterned, eventually becoming, by the mid-1980s, large heads or monumental figures that filled the canvas from edge to edge. His drawings also featured similar figures but lacked the thickly textured patterns.
After Gilson closed in 1983, I opened my own eponymous gallery on Second Avenue. Alden took a great chance in being represented by my gallery, and through his trust and encouragement, other artists such as Gene Gentry McMahon, Francis Celentano, Roger Shimomura and Frank Okada, soon joined the gallery as represented artists. I could not have achieved any early success at the gallery without Alden's support, faith and loyalty.
In the mid-1980s, his work made another significant development forward as his raised lines of paint receded into patches of scratchy colors, as he mixed the paint freely on the canvas with the nozzles of the squeeze bottles. His drawings in oil pastel on board greatly resembled the paintings in color range and in having only a slightly raised texture. Alden felt he had finally unified his drawing with his painting and this work continued to the end of his life. As the work progressed, Mason could levitate several figures at once in his paintings at once dissolving, emerging, and mutating from one into another, as they cavort across the canvas. In 1990, the gallery published a catalog on his "Courtship Series" with essays by Gerald Nordland and Bruce Guenther. In the forward I wrote, "Each new body of work seeks to explore uncharted territory. Each new painting promises to better translate his observations into a painterly language. Being summoned to Alden's studio to view 'the most marvelous painting yet' has become a familiar and personal joke between us. Yet each time I hear excitement register in his voice over a new painting I am reminded that his lack of complacency keeps him vital."
My gallery represented Mason from 1983 to 1996. We did nine shows of paintings and drawings with him in that time and I am grateful for everyone. Since 2003, Mason has been represented by Foster/White Gallery. In 2008, we collaborated with Foster/White Gallery to produce two simultaneous exhibitions of Alden Mason's work in our two side-by-side galleries. Foster/White, because they represented the artist, showed his recent works in acrylic on canvas, or watercolor on paper.
The Greg Kucera Gallery showed his earlier work in an exhibition titled "Burpee Garden" Revisited: Paintings 1973-1976." Two of the paintings in our show were among those works Alan Stone acquired, then exhibited, and held onto for the intervening thirty-five years. We were pleased to present them for the first time in Seattle. In addition, we showed several "Burpee Garden" paintings and watercolors on resale from local private collections. Every work in the show sold as there is rarely so little of his work available.
Burpee Garden Series
For Alden Mason, the 1960s had been a decade of searching for himself, working through nature and landscape paintings, then some hard edged, flat colored paintings styled after a Pop Art sensibility, and ending with more gestural works harkening back to deKooning and other abstract painters.
If the 1960s were about searching, the 1970s proved to be a decade of finding himself, as Mason produced some of his most memorable and groundbreaking work. Mason was very involved with taking his natural inclination for watercolor to a new scale of abstract work, usually at least 30 x 40 inches in size. The watercolor works challenged the polite scale and subjects of his landscape and seashore paintings with their boldness, abstraction and scale. The rich, earthy quality of these watercolors contained large ovoid pod shapes, seemingly both grounded and buoyant. The paint both swirled around the pods and dripped into the grounding of them. While the overall palette was subdued, brilliantly colored details feature in many of them.
His drawings during this period were similarly large works, often 50 x 40 inches, using oil pastels rubbed with thinners and, while figural in nature, contained some of the same aqueous nature of the watercolor paintings. These drawings ranged from landscapes to figure drawings, often completely overwhelmed with sexual energy and innuendo. Rock formations, seen during trips through the Southwest deserts and parks, became loopy phalluses and swollen breasts. Large head drawings suggested the notion of representation of personality and mindset but were entirely ungrounded in the specificity of portraiture. Curiously, this bust portrait format had already become, by 1968, the central focus of his star student Chuck Close's work-though Close's heads become abstract only up close and are stringently descriptive from a distance.
The "Burpee Garden" series dates from 1972-73 specifically but, in sensibility, goes on to include all five years or so of these oil paintings until 1977. The series title derives from the Burpee Seed Company catalog which Mason remembered from his early years growing up on a farm in the Skagit Valley. These large and sumptuous works were widely viewed as triumphant innovations as Mason's career progressed. With their audacious color, surprising scale, and exuberant abstraction, they represent a break with the somberly colored poetic narratives that had typified painting here following the advent of the Northwest School, and artists such as Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Mason's significance is obvious in the way the "Burpee Garden" paintings mark a distinct turn toward in that linear history. Along with other abstract artists working in Seattle such as Francis Celentano, Michael Dailey, Robert Jones, William Ivey, Frank Okada, Michael Spafford, and Margaret Tompkins, Mason influenced the development of many younger artists here.
The special quality of these "Burpee Garden" works is understood in their lack of predictability. They are painted on a heavily gessoed canvas ground that has been sanded to a tooth similar to watercolor paper. The color is pooled and poured on, then dragged, pushed and pulled around by house painting brushes, rags, and even brooms. Positioning himself on trestles spanning the width of the sheet of canvas, the artist hovered over his paint surface, often kneeling a few inches above the surface. With this method, which belies a look of great spontaneity, Mason had surprisingly great control of his gesture and imagery, rarely showing an actual brush stroke. His brilliant, jewel-like color itself came from fine quality oil paint, thinned down with all manner of thinners, varnishes and driers. In this liquid state, the paint had become akin to watercolor and Mason dealt with it similarly---but now on a heroic scale, often about 70 x 80 inches to 80 x 90 inches. The paintings could take days to dry and he could correct a work while it was still wet by wiping it clean down to the gesso but, once dry, he didn't make correction. There are some small works as well, but most often they are edited from larger works Mason rejected as a whole painting, while saving the "good parts" from them as separate, smaller "cut-down" works.
While many artists from Guy Anderson to Frank Stella used house painting brushes in their work, none of their work looked like Alden's. Similarly, Jackson Pollock and others spilled, poured, flung and dripped paint, but their works are more performative than Mason's. While painted and poured horizontally on the floor, like Helen Frankenthaler's work, they are not stains on raw canvas like hers, though he, too, embraced the "happy accident" that came with this kind of spontaneous gesture. The paintings and drawings of this period resemble most the works of artists like Arshille Gorky, or the Los Angeles painter, John Altoon.
By Mason's estimation, there were only about 70 - 80 of these large oil paintings painted between 1971 and 1977. As time goes by more and more of the major works are in museum collections, making them rare in the market place. In some of the later oil paintings one can detect loosely realized figures among the pools of color but the paintings largely remained at odds with the drawings during this period. In 1973, following the spectacular success of his first exhibition of the "Burpee Garden" series of paintings at Seattle's Polly Friedlander Gallery, Alden Mason visited New York at the invitation of his friend and former student Chuck Close. Close encouraged him to install a number of his "Burpee Garden" paintings in Close's SoHo studio in the hopes of finding a dealer in New York. Notably, Close arranged for the maverick art dealer Allan Stone to view Mason's work.
Seeing the paintings Mason installed in Close's studio, Stone agreed to buy all of them and to represent Mason's work in New York. Allan Stone showed Mason's paintings in New York through the late 1970s, finding an international market for the work. Some of the "Burpee Garden" paintings were also shown to great acclaim at Ruth Schaffner Gallery and Gerard John Hayes, both in Los Angeles, and at William Sawyer in San Francisco. Through exhibitions with these galleries on both coasts, many of these dynamic paintings were acquired by museums and important collectors. (Earlier, Mason had showed with Zoe Dusanne's and Gordon Woodside's galleries in Seattle, Esther Robles in Los Angeles, and Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, BC.)
"Burpee Garden" paintings are represented in the collections of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Denver Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Whatcom County Museum of Art, among others, as well as corporate and private collections all across the country.
Despite his need to abandon oil painting because of its detrimental effect on his health, this short-lived series of paintings remain the pinnacle of Mason's early success. By 1977, the toxicity of the oil paintings had ravaged the mucous membranes in his sinuses and nasal passages. As he was literally positioned directly above the paint surface, he was breathing in large quantities of paint and thinner vapors. He became prone to horrific headaches and was warned by his doctors to leave this dangerous, though lovely, medium behind.
Acrylic paints were the obvious choice with which to work as many other artists had embraced them over the toxic qualities inherent in oil paints. His hope has been to continue the "Burpee" paintings in washes of acrylic paint. He began by experimenting with thin washes of acrylic over the white surface similar to how he had used oil paint. Mason was working with very broad gestures and brushstrokes that mimicked, but weren't convincing, as a furtherance of the "Burpee" series. He was dissatisfied with the pastel range of color. Mason began to experiment with a black painted background. This allowed the acrylic to sit on top of the black and lose its soft, candy-like, color. He showed these dramatic works on canvas and paper in his first show with Diane Gilson's gallery in Pioneer Square.
They were accompanied by works on paper that were more like drawings than paintings, made by dropping gobs of only slightly thinned acrylic paint onto a paper surface, again painted black, sometimes with washes of even thinner paint over them. He would drag the paint around with chopsticks into delicate trails of paint connecting one glob to another, often fashioning faces and heads from the white lines and colored puddles.
Perhaps, this attention to the linear aspects, along with the use of ketchup or mustard type squeeze bottles, made him realize that the acrylic paint could do something he hadn't done with oil paint, namely make a raised line with it. He was thrilled to see a union between his paintings and drawings.
In 1980, his second show at Gilson's was titled the Celebration Series, as much for the breakthrough it heralded in his style, as for his new relationship to his girlfriend, Karen Stumpf, soon to become his second wife. The paintings were joyous and, again, entirely fresh looking, unlike what any other artist was making by using a raised line of acrylic paint as a middle ground between his painting and drawing. While many were as small as 20 x 20 inches, others were as large as 80 x 80 inches. The raised line was used to make dizzying patterns of a multitude of colors. Some resembled the microscopic life seen under a slide, others the fantastic patterns of Central American textiles such as molas. Some relied on symmetry and others seemed to have no organization to their whimsical patterns whatsoever.
The Senate Chamber Murals, Olympia, WA
It was during this period, in 1981, Mason was commissioned to make the pair of 12 foot by 44 foot paintings to grace the Beaux Arts architecture of the Washington State Capitol Senate Chambers. A group of legislators decided in 1989 that the murals were inappropriate to the neo-classical architecture of the historic legislative chambers. Alden Mason, along with Michael Spafford, Greg Kucera Gallery, Francine Seders, (Michael Spafford's gallerist), and lawyer Leonard Duboff, working with Fred Mendoza formed the "Mural Defense Fund" and fought the case very publicly. The case was lost in the end when a judge ruled them as not compellingly site specific. Mason's murals were uninstalled and moved from Olympia to storage in 1987. Both Spafford and Mason would have preferred their work to be destroyed than to be installed elsewhere. Aside from these ill-fated murals, paintings from this series also included several other civic commissions that are still in place and well loved.
Alden Mason at the Wright Exhibition Space.
Phen Huang and Greg Kucera co-curated Alden Mason: In Memoriam 1919-2013, an exhibition of Alden Mason's work shown at The Wright Exhibition Space from April 25 to June 30, 2013.
The exhibition was designed to be a bit of a retrospective, with concentration on the major themes of his work. The exhibit contained a few of the large head drawings in oil pastel or acrylic on paper from the 1970s; the Burpee Garden oil paintings from the early to mid-1970s; the patterned paintings in acrylic from the early 1980s; the figural paintings from the late 1980s and through the 1990s; the abstract work in acrylic on canvas from the late 1990s and into this century; and the late watercolor and oil pastel works Alden created in the last few years of his life.
This exhibition was not a full retrospective, but a survey of his brilliant career, since the early 1970s. It was a different than the various museum shows during Alden's life. As two of his dealers for Alden during the last 30 years of his life, the co-curators combined their knowledge of which collectors owned some of the finest works of his life. Kucera represented Mason from 1983 until 1996. Foster/White has represented Mason since 2002 and continues to represent his estate.
Huang and Kucera also asked a number of critics, artists, curators, and dealers, to write a group of short descriptions of various aspects of his career for a memorial publication and for label information within the exhibition. These writers included the co-curators, but also critics like Regina Hackett, Gerald Nordland, and Sheila Farr, curators such as Beth Sellars and Bruce Guenther, and artists such as Roger Shimomura, Fay Jones, and Chuck Close.
Curatorial statement: Late in his life, Alden Mason hoped for a retrospective museum show to define the phases of his career. He wanted major works from each series to represent his artistic oeuvre. His seventy years of painting revealed a range of media from watercolor to oil paint, then to acrylic paints, and finally back to ink and watercolor. Moving through these unique styles proved Mason's ability to innovate and resonate with all audiences over an extended period of time.
In curating this exhibition, we aimed at fulfilling his request. As art dealers who represented his work for lengthy periods during his life, we each knew of favorite works in our community to bring to light in this show. We aimed for work that had not been previously shown in his various museum exhibitions such as his drawing show at Seattle Art Museum (1986), mid-career retrospective at the Henry Gallery (1987), survey exhibition at Museum of Northwest Art (2000), and his late career exhibition of works from the collection at Seattle Art Museum (2010).
We are grateful for the opportunity to co-curate this exhibition at the Wright Exhibition Space. We thank Virginia Wright for the opportunity to honor Alden Mason. We both thank Alden for his faith and encouragement of us in return. Phen Huang and Greg Kucera
The Alden Mason Foundation
After his death in 2013, as suggested in Mason's will, the Alden Mason Charitable Foundation for the Arts was formed. Its purpose is to "distribute grants or funds to institutions, such as museums or schools which will exhibit the artwork of Alden Mason" and perpetuate understanding of his work; provide access to research, preservation and publication; and, ultimately, to distribute funds to charitable organizations and deserving artists. The first goal is to publish a large format monograph on Mason with essays by Robert Ayers, Regina Hackett, Roger Hull and Rock Hushka. The book will be illustrated with many images from public and private collections. The foundation is also working with the Tacoma Art Museum to present a selective retrospective of Mason's work in a few years.