Alden Mason

Burpee Garden exhibitions, 2008
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 Allan 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 much of his work available.

Burpee Garden Series, 1972-77
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. From 1972-73, 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 from 1970-75 were similarly large works, often 50 x 40 inches, using oil pastels wiped with thinners. While figural in nature, these large drawings contained some of the same aqueous nature of the watercolor paintings since the paint thinner dissolves the thick waxy pigment in the oil pastels and disperses it so it can be moved around the page suspended in the thinner like watercolor pigment is in water. These drawings ranged from landscapes to figure drawings, often completely overwhelmed with sexual energy and innuendo. Rock formations, seen during trips through the Southwest’s 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 facial 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 forward 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 by encouraging bold color, large size, and important scale in painting.

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. His brilliant, jewel-like color itself came from fine quality oil paint, diluted with all manner of thinners, oils, varnishes and driers. The color is pooled and poured on from many glass vessels containing the thinned paint. Once poured or splashed, Mason dragged, pushed and pulled the fluids around by house painting brushes, sponges, rags, and even, it has been said, brooms. Positioning himself on a trestle spanning the width of the stretched 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 surprising control of his gesture and imagery, rarely showing an actual brush stroke. 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. Mason worked in a concentrated period of several hours, often all day or into the night. While still wet, he could correct an area by wiping it clean down to the gesso. The paintings could take days to dry but, once dry, he didn't make correction.

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 the 1970s look most to the works of artists like Arshille Gorky, or the Los Angeles painter, John Altoon.

By Mason's later estimation, based on the shows he had then, there were only about 70 - 80 of these large oil paintings painted between 1972 and 1977. There are some small works that are whole canvases as well but most often smaller works are edited from larger works Mason rejected as a whole painting. He would save the "good parts" from them as separate, smaller "cut-down" works.

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, 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 Wash Paintings and Works on Paper, 1977-79
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 had 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 on the white backgrounds. 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 from a squeeze bottle onto a paper surface, again painted black. He would drag the paint around with a chopstick into delicate trails of paint connecting one glob to another, often fashioning faces and heads from the white lines, sometimes with colored washes and puddles of even thinner paint inside them.

Squeeze Bottle Paintings, 1980-85
Perhaps, this attention to the linear aspects, along with the use of ketchup or mustard type squeeze bottles to make the initial drops, 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.

Over the long arc or his career, Mason tried many different painting styles and working methods. Through his non-traditional paint applications, steadfastly refusing to use paint and paintbrushes in academic ways, Mason freed himself to experiment in the way that he encouraged his students to be free and spontaneous. He was an iconoclast encouraging others to paint with courage and conviction and to move out.

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.

By the mid-1980s Mason’s work were mostly heads and figural works done in various degrees of this raised line of paint and with varying levels of liquidity. In some works the line is rigid and in others it’s soft and the lines melt into one another. By the end of the 1980s, the raised line broke down into a less obvious raised surface as he began to mix the paint freely on the canvas with the nozzles of the squeeze bottles, creating patches of paint that were similar to the oil pastel drawings in a scratchy, scribbled kind of line. This was a new kind of expanded scale drawing for him and he energized the line with an invigorated hand, renewing interest in the large heads and figural works similar to the early 1970s but now 70 x 80 inch canvases, rather than 50 x 40 inch drawings on paper. 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. Alden felt he had finally unified his drawing with his painting and this work continued to the end of his life.

Drawing into Painting, 1985-2002
The work of the late 1980s finally fused Mason’s drawing style with his painting style. This had been a long-held dream of his and it was a slow progress to get there. The drawings from the 1960s shared small gestural notations with the paintings. The Burpee Garden era drawings shared turpentine as a solvent with the larger oil paintings. But never was there a one to one comparison of style, content and visual appearance between the works on paper and the works on canvas.

Continuing to use the squeeze bottle as the delivery method of the paint to canvas, Mason left behind the raised lines and patterning, and embarked on a series of paintings that used the tips of the squeeze bottles to spread the paint around as any artist would use a drawing tool. Suddenly the scratchy surface of his paintings resembled the scumbled surface of the concurrent oil pastel drawings. Now he had a liquid method of painting that left a much flatter but much more expressive texture on the canvas surface. By diluting the paint just enough to make a raised line that would melt slightly as it was applied, he could draw outlines and features, and then scratch the paint around with the bottle tip to create a rich scribbling of paint that looked drawn as much as painted. Meanwhile, the drawings in oil pastel gained a richness of color that repeated in the warmth of the paintings.