This Light-Filled Studio Was the Catalyst for an Artist’s Creative Flourishing

Vanessa Lawrence
·4-min read
Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth
Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth

From ELLE Decor

Ever since Virginia Woolf published her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, in which she stated that women require financial and spatial independence in order to write, people have invoked her work’s title in arguing on behalf of female creative and spiritual autonomy. Though it does not make specific reference to Woolf’s indelible investigation, the show “Chelsea Paintings,” at the Miles McEnery Gallery in New York through February 13, seeks to continue elucidating the ways in which solitary square footage can have a foundational impact on a woman’s creative output.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation and the Miles McEnery Gallery
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation and the Miles McEnery Gallery

“Chelsea Paintings” focuses on 22 works by the late abstract Colorist painter Emily Mason, made between 1978 and 1989, after she had moved into a new studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. (The Bruce Museum in Connecticut is also showing a retrospective of her work online through May 23.) Born in 1932 and raised in New York City, Mason was the daughter of the celebrated abstract modernist painter Alice Trumbull Mason; as such, the young Mason grew up enmeshed in the midcentury art world. She accompanied her mother to social gatherings at the Eighth Street Club, a Greenwich Village loft frequented by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Mark Rothko. Elaine de Kooning was her occasional babysitter, and de Kooning and the painter Joan Mitchell were both instrumental in Mason’s youthful artistic development.

Photo credit: Christopher Burke Studio
Photo credit: Christopher Burke Studio

Earlier in her career, Mason shared a rental studio in the Village with her husband, the German painter Wolf Kahn; but space was tight and so Emily began looking for a larger workspace to buy. She found a 4,700-square-foot converted loft on West 20th Street and purchased it in 1979. The Miles McEnery show highlights the effects that this transition had on Mason’s work.

According to Steven Rose, the executive director of the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation and Mason’s assistant of more than a decade, up until her death in December 2019, Mason originally intended to share the West 20th Street space with Kahn. But he preferred to retain the rental studio, and so she had the floor-through, top-floor loft, in a circa-1906 building that was formerly a garment factory, all to herself. The artists Peter Schlesinger and Lenore Tawney were neighbors. Mason and Kahn enlisted the architect Michael Rubenstein to spruce things up, a renovation that he finished in 1981.

Photo credit: Christopher Burke Studio
Photo credit: Christopher Burke Studio

Mason was known for her intuitive approach to analogous color theory—in which hues are juxtaposed based on their proximity on the color wheel rather than on their points of contrast—and prior to her move to Chelsea, she had produced more works on paper and paintings of a smaller scale. The West 20th Street rooms provided an obvious increase in space in which she could spread out.

“You’re not going to be doing four-by-five-foot canvases all the time [in a smaller place],” Rose says. “This new studio allowed for her to have multiple things going on at once, so she didn’t have to just commit to one vision at a time. It’s about having the multiplicity of gestures as well.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation and the Miles McEnery Gallery
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Emily Mason and Alice Trumbull Mason Foundation and the Miles McEnery Gallery

Equally important as her increased expansiveness was the wonderful light in the West 20th Street loft, an important facet for someone known for her color sense. Situated on the 11th floor of the building, the studio has a skylight at the entrance and north-facing windows in the front rooms, whose environs Mason used as her workspaces (with a communal area for hosting visitors). She employed the loft’s back rooms, with their southern light, for storage (of her work and her mother’s archive), photographic cataloguing, and also as a greenhouse, where she grew many plants, including begonias. Fortuitously, zoning laws in the area prevented taller buildings from going up and obstructing her light. Kahn and Mason also owned a country house in Vermont, in whose converted blacksmith’s shack Mason would paint, but even then, she would bring her works back to the Chelsea studio before declaring them finished—the tree cover in Vermont proved a strong and undesirable filter.

Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth
Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth

And the combination of space and light in Mason’s West 20th Street space, which she retained up until her 2019 passing and whose future use is still being decided by her namesake foundation, added up to another formative component of Mason’s work: time.

“One of the things that drew me to the paintings in this show is how thin they were. She would put very thinned oil paint on canvas, and it has to sit there for a while before she can move it, otherwise it causes unintentional drips,” explains Rose. “Having this space allowed her to become a little more patient.”

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