Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Good Afternoon. You're going to hear a lot today about Frank Mason's artistic genius, his lifelong efforts to save and pass on the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters, his monumental battles with restorers and his, well let's say, unique, personality. I'm sure some of those things will slip into my remarks, but what I'm going to focus on is Frank Mason the instructor of composition, color, portrait and figure painting, in studio 7, on the 4th floor, at the Art Student's League of New York. As one of the thousands of students Frank taught I’d like to paint a picture for you, if you’ll excuse the pun, of what it was like to study in the Mason class. One of the many things that I loved about Frank was that he always wore a tie and jacket to work. The dress clothes were an important part of who Frank was. They showed his respect for the League and its traditions, his respect for his students, and his respect for painting. When he arrived at the League to teach he would first stop in the office where he would leave the jacket, don his smock, and of course, tell a few stories before heading upstairs. He was frequently seen at the League with an entourage, someone he brought with him from his studio, someone he met in the office or in the lobby or cafeteria, he always picked up 3 or 4 people on his way to class. As they approached the classroom we were alerted by a roar of laughter. Frank was generally heard before he was seen, his laugh was one of the most recognizable sounds at the League. Then the door would fly open and everyone would drop their brushes and gather around to hear what Frank had to say and watch the critiques. He would often start a critique by asking “Where's your effect?” If you ever hear an artist talking about a light effect you can be pretty certain that he spent some time studying with Frank. The light effect is the greatest concentration of light in the painting, it organizes the painting, sets the tone and the mood, it is the poetry and it is central to the Mason philosophy of painting. One day Frank became frustrated that no one was getting a good enough light effect in their painting so he picked up a hand palette and the biggest brush he could find. He loaded the brush with what seemed like half a tube of white paint and blasted the painting in front of him. “There's your effect” he said and moved on to the next painting. We all knew we were in big trouble. “Where's your effect?” he asked the next student. Then whap, another blast of white. He continued to move though the entire class asking each student “Where's your effect?” and then swatting their painting. And as he did this each painting came to life. It was amazing. It was like watching a miracle worker healing the sick. Finally he handed back the palette and brush and said “Now don't forget that.”
At other times though he could be quite lighthearted. “I don't have my Maroger medium today” a student said as Frank approached to give him a crit. “Who needs it?” Frank replied “I can paint a masterpiece with shoe polish.” Many of the moments that students remember are of Frank being big and bold, amazing and exhilarating. But he could also be very gentle and delicate, sitting and modeling halftones on a portrait, or explaining the subtlety of triads of color, or following the contours of a standing nude. I remember one time he was working on a small nude with such intensity and care, he never noticed that one of the students on the other side of the room was working on a 4' x 6' painting.
You never knew what Frank was going to do or say when he approached a painting to give a critique. One day one of the students arrived late and couldn't find an easel where he could see the model, so he set a crumpled old tube of paint on the stool next to him, hung a C clamp off the side of the stool and started to paint this odd composition as a still life. It was a pretty good bet that Frank was going to ignore him and go on to the next student, but he didn't. Instead he gave him the most beautiful critique, not only showing him how to make the C clamp float in space but giving him a lecture on Emerson while doing so. For Frank it was not about painting a C clamp but a chance to demonstrate how to paint atmosphere. With all due respect to the many great painters here today, for me no one could paint atmosphere like Frank. He was the master of painting something he couldn't see with materials he didn't have. Although he was brilliant at painting atmosphere, he was not always quite so successful at explaining it to his students. One time he started a critique with a casual remark, “You need a tube of atmosphere paint,” then proceeded to rework the student's canvas showing him how to bring more light and air and space into his painting. But the lesson the student got was that he needed a tube of atmosphere paint. So after class he went downstairs to the League's store and asked for a tube of atmosphere paint. The fellow behind the counter, who had studied with Frank, asked “What class are you in?” “Frank Mason's class” he said proudly. “Oh I see” said the salesman, and then with a devilish grin added “Well, we're out of atmosphere paint. Why don't you go next door to Lee's, they might have some.” So he went to Lee's and said “I need a tube of atmosphere paint.” The salesperson seemed puzzled by this request but she checked through her list of supplies, then said “We don't carry that, why don't you try Sam Flax down on 53rd street.” So off he went to 53rd street where he was mercifully told that there was no such thing as a tube of atmosphere paint. If Frank were there he probably would have said “Now don't forget that.”
Frank had more to say than he could fit into the format of the class at the League. So he would teach still life painting at his studio on Saturday, run a sketch class on Tuesday night, and conduct a month long landscape class in the summer. The Tuesday night sketch class was a particular favorite of mine. A dozen or so of Frank's heartiest students would trek down to his Broome Street studio after the class at the League was over. The model would pose in front of a pot belly stove and we would sit across the room and draw for 3 hours. Frank would come downstairs, martini in hand, to give us critiques for the last hour. What we had struggled to do in 20 minutes he would easily do in 20 seconds. He always made it look so simple, so graceful, so lovely and human, so profoundly beautiful. I tried drinking more martinis but apparently that wasn't the secret.
Toward the end of the school year students would start to disappear from the class at the League. They were preparing panels and tubing strings of greens and violets for the upcoming landscape class. Frank loved painting landscapes and he was unstoppable when he was painting outdoors. Once the class was to meet on the top of a mountain to paint a view of the valley. The weather was blowing and the sky was ominous. Some of us set up our easels, weighing them down with various heavy objects. Others didn't even get out of their cars. As we painted the wind came up harder, and it started to rain. The first easel blew over. All the palettes were spotted with raindrops. Then Frank arrived, wearing a poncho and brim hat. As we gathered around to watch him work on a student's painting, another easel went over. Frank, undeterred, painted with complete concentration even as his poncho whipped uselessly around him and water dripped off his nose. It didn't matter that he was cold and soaked through; he saw only the scene, only the light effect he wanted to paint. Often it seemed as if he was in a competition to see whether the artist or the weather was the greater force of nature. Frank usually won those battles.
Anyone who has ever spent time with Frank has their favorite Frank story. You might think that his passing would be the final chapter, but I have a posthumous Frank story. After attending his funeral service and sharing memories at the Salmagundi Club, Elizabeth and I walked down to Chinatown with some old friends, who had also studied with Frank, for a bite to eat. On our way back uptown there was a late afternoon shower, then the sun quickly returned. Rainbows appeared and disappeared as we walked. After we got a good ways uptown we turned and looked back downtown to see the most magnificent rainbow I've ever seen. It was right over Frank's studio. We all thought the same thing at the same time. It was Frank. He was letting us know that he was still painting, only now the sky was his canvas and his palette was the full spectrum of light.
So for everyone who ever studied with Frank I want to thank Anne for allowing us to spend so much time with him, and thank you Frank for sharing your enormous talent, inexhaustible curiosity, and contagious love of life. The world has lost a great artist, the League has lost a legendary instructor, and we have lost our mentor and our friend. Enjoy your new palette maestro, and as you said to us so many times “Paint a good one.”