Nature is a treasured muse. From early cave paintings to contemporary depictions, it has been a source of inspiration that artists have turned to again and again. Now through 26 June, Christie’s Southampton gallery presents Nature Abstracted: Vivian Springford, Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason. The exhibition, which includes 61 paintings available for purchase, features abstracted responses to the environment from three distinct artists. Working in separate but parallel styles, Springford, Kahn and Mason are linked by a focus on vibrant colour patterns that reflect their varying impressions of the natural world.
Like ripples on a pond’s surface, the compositions of American painter Vivian Springford (1913-2003) tend to generate from a central point, blooming outward in colour and energy. Her subject matter takes us into fields of vision both boundless and microscopic. In any one instance, we could be looking at a grand portrayal of the universe or the details of a flower in bloom.
The broad array of works on offer by Springford belongs to the Vivian Springford Archive, which is the largest privately-held collection of the artist’s work, records and ephemera. Early illustrations and photographs from the artist’s archive give insight into her interests and what later inspired her bold, kaleidoscopic works of the 1970s and 1980s. For example, the shapes and outlines of hot springs and geysers from her photos of Yellowstone National Park correlate to her own compositions.
While there is resurging interest in her work today, Springford had faded into relative obscurity by the end of her lifetime. ‘There were so many female artists not afforded the same type of success as their male counterparts,’ says Kathryn Marber, Junior Specialist in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art department in New York. ‘Abstract Expressionism in particular is associated with this myth of machismo, but over the last decade or so there’s been a big push to acknowledge those who were previously overlooked and undervalued.’
As part of this re-evaluation of the art historical canon, Springford’s oeuvre has seen heightened interest. She was spotlighted in the 2016 exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum and is now represented in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Like Springford, abstract painter and printmaker Emily Mason (1932-2019) has also been a recent recipient of overdue recognition. An artist who tended toward spontaneity, Mason is known for painting in a physical, layered way and experimenting with material innovations. She primarily worked in oil, developing a unique layering technique while on a Fulbright scholarship in Venice. ‘She would dilute oil paint to the extent that it would flow almost like watercolour, allowing her to play outside the realm of traditional techniques and explore dripping, overlapping and bleeding colours,’ says Paige Kestenman, American Art Specialist at Christie’s.
The paintings on view in Southampton span decades of Mason’s career and demonstrate her expansion into more experimental techniques. There is none of the formal, geometric abstraction championed by her mother, the pioneering artist Alice Trumbull Mason. Instead, her style is both emotional and physical; something that is not just observed, but also felt.
Paintings by German-born American artist Wolf Kahn (1927-2020), on the other hand, reflect a more literal approach to landscape painting. Perhaps the best known of the three artists’ oeuvres, Kahn’s work can be found in the permanent collections of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and has only gained in popularity since the artist’s recent passing in 2020. He consistently depicts vibrant bucolic scenes that are grounded in recognizable elements like trees, ponds and horizon lines.
As his career progressed, however, Kahn grew bolder and more confident in his colouration, a change that is evident throughout the works on view in Southampton. ‘We see him gaining colour confidence over the years in comparison to his earlier works that tended to have a more muted palette,’ explains Kestenman. Paintings like On the Jenck’s Farm II from 1974 stray little from reality, whereas later works such as 1989’s A Slight Curve at The Meadow’s Edge demonstrate a more daring colour scheme and move away from representation. The result is a body of work that exists outside any one movement; a rich blend of Color Field painting, Abstract Expressionism and Impressionist traditions.
Though their styles differed greatly, these three artists complement one another through their shared focus on colour and organic patterns. Nature Abstracted presents a rare opportunity to revel in the variety of approaches to similar subjects, and the multitude of ways in which nature can be interpreted. ‘It’s exciting to bring together three artists that are united not only in their subject matter and emphasis on colour, but also in the exciting trajectory of their markets at the current moment,’ says Kestenman. ‘We’re thrilled to bring these works to a new audience out in the Hamptons this summer.’