Alden Mason Retrospective
Two days ago, we went down to the Wright Exhibition Space* to see their latest show, Alden Mason: In Memoriam 1919-2013. It consists of 35 of Mason’s paintings ranging from 1970 to 2008. On walking in, you pick up a foldout six-page card stock pamphlet containing photos of paintings, photos of Mason himself, and fifteen notes written by painters, art dealers, art critics, and the exhibition curators. The same texts are on the walls, in lieu of details about the individual paintings themselves.
*I have explained in previous posts on the Wright Exhibition Space—for instance, this one—that it “is a small gallery that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. I highly recommend going, whatever the show, because the art is superb, the mix of art is interesting, you often have the space to yourself or nearly to yourself, there’s an informative little printed guide, and there’s often a docent to introduce you to the show and chat with. The gallery is open Thursdays and Saturday, with free admission.”
Perhaps I should have made it a point to read the curator’s note, written by Phen Huang of the Foster/White Gallery and Greg Kucera, the eponym of his own gallery. I’m reading it only now. But Sylvia, the docent, urged us to save the texts for when we got home, enjoying the paintings while there, and we followed her advice. Plus, she gave us her own helpful overview about Mason and the different phases of his career. As for the curator’s note, we learn that
late in his life, Alden Mason hoped for a retrospective museum show to define the phases of his career. 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. He wanted major works from each series to represent his artistic oeuvre. 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.
Mason grew up about sixty miles north of Seattle. As critic Sheila Farr explains,
the fields of the Skagit Valley were Alden Mason’s playground and the wild cratures and farm animals his friends. Born July 14, 1919 in Everett, Washington [about 20 miles north of Seattle], Mason grew up on a Fir Island farm near the banks of the Skagit River. Alden was just five years old when his father, a house painter, died of lead poisoning after years of working with lead paints.
A slight, precocious child, prone to illness, Alden attended the Skagit City School, a two-room country schoolhouse, where he skipped second grade and forever felt he was struggling to catch up with others. But in the natural world, he was at ease: he built birdhouses, went fly-fishing, collected butterflies, experimented with taxidermy and never forgot the thrill of having a tiny swallow land on his finger for a few moments and gaze into his eyes. His first drawing instruction came from a mail order cartoon class and he recalled his love of those images, “with figures jumping, hopping and smooching. They were having more fun than I was. They lived in a brighter world.”
Mason spent decades on the faculty at the University of Washington, retiring just as I arrived. Chuck Close, surely his most famous student, writes:
Alden Mason was my teacher, my mentor and my friend. He has probably had more impact on my work and my career than any other person. I wouldn’t be who I am today—or as successful—if it weren’t for Alden.
I consider him the greatest painter to come out of the Pacific Northwest—for me even greater than Mark Tobey or Morris Graves. I studied with him from 1960-1962. He was encouraging, inspiring and often tough on me—probably when I needed it. … Luckily, we talked a week before he died and I was able to tell him about the impact he had on me, my life and my work, and that I loved him like a father.
Several people address Mason’s interest in birds, and his wide-ranging travels—the Mexican coast, the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea, and so on—to see them. Gerald Nordland talks about Mason’s technique:
Images of the exotic birds and characters he encountered entered into his art making. The paint body of these works is fiercely manipulated with a very personal sense of touch; colors are worked directly into one another. … The ground establishes an active but thoroughly consistent environment for the figures, fish animals, birds, and hybrid forms which Mason conjures up with the eloquence of a shaman.
The exhibition closes a week from today. I highly recommend going, if you’re in the Seattle area.