I. Looking at Books

Books, for some of us, are like friends—indeed, it might not even be entirely too extravagant to suggest that perhaps, for some of us, they figure among our closest of friends. If at first it is striking to notice the presence of books in so many of Frank Mason’s portraits, and further thought, diminishing the surprise, confirms the proximity of books in our lives, then lingering with his paintings in a contemplative spirit may provoke, in still further thought, a wonderful revelation of this intimacy. In “Artist’s Father Reading” (1941), the gaze of the beholder is gently drawn into the pleasure of an intimacy so singular that it eludes the grasp of words.

We are surrounded by books; yet their presence is often reticent, accommodating other concerns. In Mason’s paintings, this reticence is respected without forfeiting the lucidity of a relation that it would perhaps not be inappropriate to describe as distinctively “ethical” in its character. This impression is especially compelling in “Anne and the Italian Tutor” (1966), where it is rendered with the most tender of sentiments. It is also to be noticed in “Anne Reading Ouspensky” (1967) and “Young Emersonian” (1989), and, with more reserve, in the portrait of Sir Winston Churchill (1952).

Of course, two paintings in this exhibition make the book its principal thematic, celebrating the book in allegorically suggestive representations: “The Book of Ages” (1976) and the more recent still life, “Book and Candle” (1995), with its luminous atmosphere of baroque melancholy, reminiscent of the works of the religiously inspired French painter, Georges de la Tour (1593-1652). And in one of the paintings in this exhibition, “Bach Fugue No. 5” (1949), it is not a book, but rather a musical composition, a page of musical notations, beautifully inscribed, that the painter celebrates, offering a work of exceptional lyricism, its melodic flow of lines, contours, and forms itself a fugue, evoking for the activity of vision a lyrical replication of the musical experience.

II. Portraits

In Frank Mason’s portraits, something important about the character of the individual always comes to appearance. The artist’s gaze, behind, or before, the production of these portraits, is moved by a warmth of feeling, a benevolence, a generosity of spirit, receptive and hospitable to the enigma of that appearance. What is enigmatic most of all is the way in which he simultaneously touches on something enduring whilst releasing the stayed moment to the grace of its temporality. Perhaps, for obvious reasons, this is most noticeable in his family portraits: Anne Reading Ouspensky”, “Artist’s Father Reading”, and “Artist’s Mother at Tea” (1945); but the portraits of Winston Churchill (1952) and Percy MacKaye (1951) are no less exemplary in this regard, for they too, by way of their subject, present to the gaze of the beholder the gaze of the painter, the sympathy in his vision embodied in the gestures that have determined the touching of the brush on the canvas. In the portrait of the artist’s mother, the painter’s love is embodied in the movement of brush strokes with a lyrical quality reminiscent not only of the serene restraint of Vermeer, but also of the freely expressive brushwork of Frans Hals. And in Mason’s “Othello” (1964), these brush strokes have been released to a bold, expressive intensity that evokes not only the dramatic presence of the subject but also the drama of the artist’s vision itself as it recorded its felt sense of the encounter in the tracework of paint. The powerful energy manifest in the brush strokes that evoke Othello’s robe reveal more immediately than any words could the wild, impulsive nature of Shakespeare’s tragic character.

III. Semblance

In Frank Mason’s works, as in the paintings of all great painters, the mystery and magic of painting—that wondrous emergence of semblance—will be missed if one overlooks the touches that are seemingly without significance: for example, the glistening silver on the domes in “Maria della Salute, Venice” (1984), the touch of white beneath the left hand and the equally luminous orange placed to the right in the portrait of Churchill, the light from the window that spreads its pale hues on the floor in “Art Students” (1983), the brilliant triangle of white at the top of the book in “Anne and the Italian Tutor”, and the impasto effect on Othello’s forehead. To call attention to only a few of the innumerable little touches that make all the difference in the world—quite literally, in fact, making the difference between the compelling emergence of a world and the failure of the work to reveal any compelling world.

IV. Background/Foreground

Mason’s paintings—be they portraits, still lifes, or landscapes—show a master’s love of the background: not only, like Rembrandt, a deep insight into the significance of the background as a dynamically recessive spaciousness that grants visibility, grants presence, to that which is presented in the foreground, but, possibly more fundamentally, and again like Rembrandt, the fearlessness which enables him to surrender the demand for visibility, yielding to the drama between emergent forms and invisibilities taking place in the background. Like the backgrounds in the Dutch master, the backgrounds in his portraits, however dark, have a wonderfully expressive vibrancy. In “Anne and the Italian Tutor”, for example, the two women are situated—or rather encompassed—in what appears to be a very large room; the features of this room are only hinted at through the encompassing darkness. The effect of this composition, giving the background such a powerfully intense presence, giving it the quiet force of the possible, is to bestow upon the encounter, the conversation, a dramatic, even enigmatic quality, provoking the beholder to contemplate many different interpretations and imagine many different narratives, to inform what is there to be seen. In other words, the looming background, though in purely objective terms greater than the women, actually concentrates our attention on them, instead of diminishing their presence. But it also at the same time renders their relationship intensely enigmatic, creating a dramatic moment that suggests countless possible narratives. What is the question that causes Anne to cease reading and call upon the tutor? Or what has the tutor said to Anne that causes her to look away from the book, using her hand to keep her page? What is being said? The background, in this painting, is sheer alembication—and the most absolute of questions.

Most of all in Mason’s portraits, but also in some of his other works, the sublime presence of the abyssal, the presence of absence, looms: it is as if, whilst celebrating their subject, these paintings understood the haunting fate of mortality, the transience of all things sensible. If the darkly looming backgrounds in the portraits seem to embrace the figure in a womblike enclosure, warm and benevolent, they also remind us of the impenetrable night that is death and the tomb that is waiting. “Book and Candle” is only the most explicit evocation of this eternal story of transience; but even the portraits are set into deep, dark, yet intensely dynamic backgrounds—backgrounds that are warm and hospitable, whilst also conveying at the same time a profoundly religious sense of the infinite and eternal, a space-time dimensionality which transcends worldly existence.

Even the gentle landscapes often yield the majority of the canvas to the sky, iconographic abode of the divine and the angelic, giving it a strong, living presence, showing its dominion in the glory of its spaciousness.

V. The Lighting

Mason’s paintings remind us to attend not only to the light, but to the lighting—to the giving of light, the advent of light, the appearing of light. In his paintings, the lighting itself, often a slanting shaft of light coming from the upper right region of the scene and giving a sometimes startling incandescence to whatever it touches, becomes a significant subject, transforming its condition as mere object to assume countless roles in the very constitution of the image. Not the least of these roles is the representation of substantiality, as if the lighting that the painter lets fall upon things had the power to awaken their slumber, to draw them back into the material world and redeem their insubstantiality; and yet, this same lighting also marks the things it touches with an irrevocable transience, an incandescent ephemerality. The lighting is an inscription that signifies the presence of spirit.

VI. Prismatic Reflections

There are some thought-provoking material similarities between paintings and books. Books are pages of flat white surfaces marked with legible print; paintings are canvases, flat white surfaces, marked by legible paint. Legible because visible. If the printing on the page reflects the shadows cast by thought, the paint on the canvas reflects the hand’s translation of an experience with vision. The printing represents the traces of thought, the traces of meaning: it traces the shape of a thought. The paint on the canvas is the trace of a gesture: it is what remains of that gesture, a residue of its shape, its movement across the canvas. Both books and paintings are invitations, calling vision to a reading. They are archives, investments of sense: their meaningfulness first appears only through the gesture of reading. Books and paintings are alive only when their sensible sense is awakened by the movements of a vision that repeats and retraces the shapes and movements it sees before it.

The meaning that book and painting communicate is not merely something intelligible; it is also, simultaneously, something sensible. The meaning is an intertwining of the sensible and the intelligible, the visible and the invisible, the legible and the illegible. The words that figure, that appear in their visibility on the page would be nothing without the white paper, its empty illegible background: the legible requires the illegible. Likewise, the configurations of paint that appear in their visibility on the canvas would be nothing without the invisible.

In order to be true to the visible, true to its truth, the painter must become a guardian of the invisible, that sublime darkness without which there could be no visibility. The visible is what, in a gesture of the eyes, emerges, sometimes suddenly, sometimes only gradually, from invisibility. But this invisibility never entirely releases it from its disposition.
The true art of representational painters requires that they understand the emergence of an illusion, a semblance, from the application of pigment to the flat surface of the canvas, and are able to let the taking place of that emergence itself come to appearance.

Setting the eyes in motion, a painting comes to life. What the painter saw belongs to a past that, by virtue of its appeal to its futures, can never be made completely present. The pigment on the canvas is no more real, and no less real, than the temporalities of its readings.

Paintings, like books, call for readings. Each reading produces a distinct interpretation. But all readings involve codes of decipherment, an archive of preceding interpretations, and a rich fund of worldly experience and knowledge. In both cases, the eye must be trained; nevertheless, this training merely develops the capacity to exercise freedom in the forming of an interpretation.

Once upon a time, the word appeared only in letters produced by the hand. In the works of Frank Mason, the art of painting continues to celebrate the gestures of the hand and the birth of meaning emergent from the traces left by the brush in the hand. The joyful celebration of the creative gesture is especially evident in his “Othello” and “Artist’s Mother at Tea”. These paintings manifestly refute the Cartesian view of the painter who, in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play “Emilia Galotti” (1770), lamented the gesture’s mediation as a tragic loss of meaning: “On the long path from the eye through the eye to the pencil, how much,” he exclaimed, “is lost!” Studying these paintings, what one sees through the lens of our very different time and sensibility is rather the operation of a wisdom in the hands that no idealization of the art can seriously refuse to acknowledge: a wisdom, namely, born in the divine spirit of love.

- David Michael Kleinberg-Levin


Arts & Letters Exhibition, Paintings by Frank Mason
Salmagundi Art Club Library
Dec 5, 2006- Jan 30th, 2007 (extended through end of January)

The Salmagundi Club is located at 47 5th Avenue on the corner of 12th Street.
The library is open weekdays from 1pm to 5pm.
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