View of “Shutter Paintings,” 2021–22, at Washburn Gallery, showing Bearings, 1965 at center. COURTESY WASHBURN GALLERY
“Like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground”—that’s the Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki explaining what enlightenment feels like, but he might as well be talking about the late style of Alice Trumbull Mason, the subject of a quietly superb exhibition at Washburn Gallery. Nothing she paints is all that bold or new—yellow triangle here, thin white rectangle there—but each shape is ever so slightly intensified by a mystical rightness of color and balance. Some of the time, the effect is faint enough to miss entirely, and even when you notice, it’s easy to get frustrated with Mason for not floating up to showier heights. But isn’t it enough that she’s floating at all?
For decades, gallerists’ answer was, more or less, “no.” Mason didn’t have a solo show in New York until she was almost 40, and at the time of her death in 1971 she was a pretty minor figure, well-connected but hardly well-known (a 1973 Whitney retrospective changed this somewhat, but not much). Even today, the art world has struggled to give Mason her due, since her style is neither passionately gestural (i.e., easy to interpret psychologically and thus biographically) nor big and boastful (i.e., easy to sell to rich idiots).