"Montezuma" is a perfect example of the visual grammar Washington painter Alden Mason used throughout his decades-long career. The painter was known for layering bright pops of color to create vivid, humane, and sometimes cheeky paintings. This piece and dozens of others are currently on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum’s Fly Your Own Thing, the first retrospective of Mason’s work since his death in 2013 at age 93.
Curated by professor emeritus of art history at Willamette University Roger Hull, the exhibition walks viewers through eras of Mason paintings. Fly Your Own Thing also coincides with the release of Alden Mason: Paintings, a book on Mason’s career spearheaded by Seattle gallery titans Greg Kucera and Phen Huang of Foster/White Gallery. Collectively, it's an astounding tour of one of the most imaginative painters to ever come out of the Pacific Northwest.
Mason received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Washington in 1945 and 1947, respectively. Described by curator Hull as "irrepressible, witty, gregarious," and "full of fun a lot of the time," Mason spent 32 years at UW as a popular professor, counting artists like Chuck Close and Roger Shimomura as mentees.
The retrospective at BAM is organized to reflect his breadth, dividing his eras across galleries. You should linger in all of them, but if you're pressed for time, jump to his Burpee Garden series.
Mason achieved national recognition for his Burpee Garden series (1972-1977), named after the W. Atlee Burpee & Co. catalog and seed packets his family received while he grew up in Skagit Valley. The series was a major departure from his earlier paintings, which were watercolor landscapes and abstract paintings similar to Willem de Kooning. These are giant, taking up whole walls, composed of pure watery color.
“They offered an alternative to what some considered to be the outmoded approach of the ‘Northwest Mystics’ with whom Seattle painting had long been associated,” wrote Hull to me over email. “In contrast, the Burpees were big, colorful, exuberant. They were likened to a fresh take on color field painting. They seemed to offer a gust of fresh new creativity from the Pacific Northwest.”
To create these works, Mason diluted oil paint with additives to get a loose consistency. This effectively turned the oil paints into watercolors, trading in thickness for an aqueous texture. Mason painted these Burpee paintings horizontally on the floor to avoid the effects of gravity and drip marks. He constructed a low bridge in his studio to allow him to get close to each piece.
But by the end of the decade, inhaling the oil concoction's toxic fumes had a major toll on his health. At the urging of his doctor, Mason stopped using oil paint and moved on to acrylic, ending the Burpee series. The tragic irony is that Mason’s father, a house painter, died of job-related lead poisoning.
After making the necessary transition away from oil paints, Mason embraced a new "squeeze-bottle" method of painting. Loading acrylic paint into a squeeze bottle, he made tidy works that recalled woven fabric or planted gardens.
His travels to South America influenced his patterns and colors, moving him toward sandy pinks, terracotta brown-oranges, and royal purples. He even incorporated metallic paint into some of his work, giving it a shimmery, radiant quality. Mason eventually used the tip of the bottle (or a chopstick) to paint, leaving us frenetic compositions like "Montezuma."
Walking through Mason's retrospective, it's difficult to believe that the same artist made every painting and drawing.
"I think he was always searching for perfection," Kucera told me, reflecting on the ever-changing nature of Mason's prolific career. Kucera was a former student of Mason's at the University of Washington and represented him from 1983 to 1996. "I'd be sitting at my desk at the gallery and Alden would call and he would be laughing and he would say, 'Oh, Greg, you have to come by the studio tonight. I have just painted the best painting of my life!' And this would occur every couple of months."
Perhaps Fly Your Own Thing is best viewed as a testament to the capacity for creative change. Over his seventy years laboring with canvas and paper, Mason never feared starting over, hot on the trail of the next best version of himself. It's a pleasure to ride by his side.
Alden Mason: Fly Your Own Thing is up at Bellevue Arts Museum until October 10. Learn more about the show here.