Raymond Mason

St Mark’s Place, East Village, New York City


Not on display

Raymond Mason 1922–2010
Acrylic paint, epoxy resin and box
Object: 686 × 1249 × 495 mm, 33.2 kg
Presented by Mme Andrée Stassart 1983

Display caption

Mason has lived and worked in France for fifty years, but his central concerns, with narrative, close observation and the rich diversity of humanity, are in the tradition of the eighteenth-century painter Hogarth, whose vivid evocations of contemporary life helped create the foundations of a native English school of art. Birmingham-born, Mason has recalled how he 'spent a sickly childhood looking through curtains at a brick-lined street'. In 1971, finding himself in a Manhattan coffee shop, his 'heart...warmed by the sight of the brick fronts opposite', he drew the view through the window as 'an extravagant populace trouped the sidewalks in sharp noon sunlight. All travellers enjoy sitting watching a foreign world pass by'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03797 St Mark's Place, East Village, New York City 1972

Acrylic on epoxy resin in glazed and painted wood box with integral base, 27 × 49 3/16 × 19 1/2 (686 × 1249 × 495)
Inscribed ‘Raymond Mason/1973 5/6’ on upper face of horizontal board at bottom front of interior of box (nearest figures to inscription are those with turban and with shoulder bag), and ‘ST. MARK'S PLACE EAST VILLAGE N.Y.C. as seen through the window of the Village East Coffee Shop. 1972’ along front edge of integral base
Presented by Mme Andrée Stassart 1983
Prov: Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris; Mme Andrée Stassart
Exh: The Hard-Won Image, Tate Gallery, July–September 1984 (100, repr.); Raymond Mason, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, September–November 1985, Musée Cantini, Marseilles, December 1985-February 1986 (65, unspecified cast repr.in col., pp.114–15)
Lit: Raymond Mason, St Mark's Place East Village, N.Y. Sculpture by Raymond Mason, exhibition catalogue, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, November 1974 (eight different views of unspecified cast repr. in col.); Phyllis Derfner, ‘Raymond Mason at Pierre Matisse’, Art in America, lxiii, May–June 1975, pp.90–1 (detail of unspecified cast repr.); anon., entry on this work in Raymond Mason, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, 1982, p.40 (unspecified cast repr.; also repr. in col. p.16)

This sculpture was made in Paris in 1972 in recollection of a scene observed by Mason in New York in 1971. He still owns the original plaster, from which the full edition of six casts in epoxy resin has been made in the studios of Robert Haligon at Perigny-sur-Yerres and at Brie-Comte-Robert in the suburbs of Paris. There will also be two casts hors-edition. Each cast is painted individually by Mason.

The dates inscribed by the artist along the lower front edge of the work and inside its glazed box are each in error by one year. Mason stencilled the inscription on the lower edge in June 1984, to make this example consistent with the others in the edition, but in the final digit he inadvertently gave the date at which the work was sculpted, rather than the date of the original scene which it depicts. In the inscription made several years earlier in the interior of the work he inadvertently gave the date at which this cast was painted, rather than the date at which it was sculpted.

The following account by Raymond Mason of the origins and meaning of this work was published by Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York in November 1974 on the first occasion of the exhibition of any example of the edition:

The sobering thought is that almost every person who sees my sculpture of St Mark's Place, East Village, in the Pierre Matisse Gallery, must know that district a hundred times better than I do.

At the least. I saw this particular scene once, for two hours, in November 1971.

It was quite by accident. I went to visit my old friend Jason Harvey who lives on Cooper Square and coaxed him into making me a drawing-board to fit the piece of paper I'd brought down-town for that purpose. I was waiting for the showing of my Paris market sculpture in this same Gallery [this refers to ‘Le Départ des Fruits et Légumes du Coeur de Paris, 1969’ which is reproduced in colour in the catalogues of Mason's retrospective exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, 1982 and at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1985] and in the meantime I hoped to draw some of the skyscrapers in central New York, particularly the curved one then just nearing completion on 57th Street. With this intention in mind I was re-entering the subway in the same Cooper Square when I realized that it was lunch-time and that I'd more easily find food where I was, than up-town on a Saturday mid-day. I went to the first eating-house I saw on a corner of Third Avenue. It was Tony Provenzano's ‘Village East Coffee Shop’.

I sat down by the window which on that side looks out onto the first four buildings of St Mark's Place. During the meal I greedily ate up the spectacle outside where an extravagant populace trouped the sidewalks in sharp noon sunlight. All travellers enjoy sitting watching a foreign world pass by. I felt particularly fortunate because I soon noticed that some of the more curious faces in that street outside passed by my window again and again as though incapable of breaking through an invisible barrier at the end of the block. Maybe, too, my heart was being warmed by the sight of the brick fronts opposite. I was born in Birmingham, England and had spent a sickly childhood looking through curtains at a bricklined street-except that my bricks had been red, to be sure, while these were painted black or white. In any case I forgot that I had intended to draw buildings which scrape the sky. Here were people very much down to earth, some perhaps barely risen from it, judging by their strange outfits that suggested a bivouac way of life. And here, too, at my side was my brand new drawing-board with its fresh sheet of paper. Not having drawn in days-and feeling hungry in that way too - I took out my pen and ink. The coffee-shop proprietor had no objections. On the contrary, he stood behind me and told me all he knew about each face or feature as it appeared on the paper. It takes an Italian to recognise things that fast. (If St Mark's Place is East Village mythology, Tony Provenzano was my Homer. If it is Hell, as some say, then he was my Dante.)

From then on I can't honestly say whether this or that detail of the scene struck me at the time or only seemed to grow significant when looking at the drawing a month or two afterwards in Paris or at an even later date when I had begun the sculpture and things were becoming more defined. When did I first give importance to the word ‘Pazza’ which is situated in the exact center of the composition and which in Italian means ‘mad’? Was it before or after my coming to the very conclusion that a certain streak of folly ran through my little group of characters - the drunkard mad from drink, and his neighbour from smoking God knows what, the girl mad for her man who, with a cycling helmet on his head and some sort of palm-branch in his hand hardly appears an embodiment of reason. As for the man wandering around dressed as a soldier of the War of Independence ... Of course, I'd better mention that I saw these individual people exactly as I attempt to show them here and they all appear in the original sketch. Two moments do come to my mind which made a mark at the time and, as it were, a move in my direction. I had begun by drawing the police-car stationed just outside the window because it had a sculptural silhouette with its siren and the alarm-signal on the roof. The policemen seemed to have the same battlemented fixity so I was surprised when I realised that they had left the car and were sitting drinking on my side of the glass in the coffeehouse. Less large than life they looked, like actors got down from a stage. The second occasion was the arrival of the drunk. He came feeling his way across the window, moving clumsily like a lobster in the aquarium of a sea-food restaurant. That hand on the glass gave a relief to the drawing and another significance to the window as I realised later on once back in Paris. I had left New York shortly afterwards without returning to East Village and the drawing lay amongst others in the studio.

It returned to my mind because in the midst of my winter's work of finishing and painting the remaining copies of the Market sculpture (32 apples, 80 oranges, 108 leeks, 160 faces, etc.) I felt I needed some ‘light relief’ and the mid-day scene in St Mark's Place seemed just the thing. However I was aware that a deal of concentration would be involved and for a time I was content to imagine the sculpture as it would be when finished. At the same time I described it to one or two people giving them the impression that it was already half-done. One night sitting on the glass-enclosed terrace of a café I was speaking of it again to friends just arrived in Paris. ‘And the best of it,’ I concluded, ‘is the hand pressing against the window, just like here, before our very noses.’ My friend's wife is a sculptor and her approval of the idea put me to shame and the next day to work. I've related this random succession of events to show with what ‘irresponsibility’ I finally sat down - to do what? Solely, I must admit, to reproduce as guilelessly as possibly and within drastic limits of scope and scale my brief vision of that vivid thoroughfare. The general concept of the sculpture was accordingly simple. It would consist of a windowed-box in which I could stage the scene and place the various dramatic personae just as they had played before my eyes. The notable difference would necessarily be that whereas I had sat within and watched them without, now they would be inside and myself the outside spectator.

Given these conditions, what kind of sculptural interest could I hope for?

Essentially it would have to stem from the very heteroclitic nature of that crowd of figures. In the foreground, an uninspired Hindu, a mystical intellectual, the drunk, the smoker, the lovers, the hippy, a bum. Behind them, the two policemen, a cosy Negress, a Latin-type running, the man with the feathered helmet, a bruiser and his Portuguese pal. On the sidewalk opposite, though hardly to be seen, are nevertheless the man who sits on the steps (all day and every day according to Tony), a girl in hot-pants, a dog, an Arab, a Negro stooping for a cigarette-butt, a girl off to visit the shops, the cook serving a pizza to a truck-driver, a loafer, a Negro mammie with her little girl, a bearded guy, an old man, a young Negro and, at her window on the second floor, a dejected blond. If I can group these people together I also have to consider that they must reorganise themselves in a dozen other ways so as to present a coherent picture to the viewer who will change his angle before the window. The moving eye will give momentum to the separate elements so that they can come and go in a continual metamorphosis, sharply emphasised by the colour employed. This bristling between the figures should be measured and intensified by the rigid windowbars and the geometry and lettering of the facades across the street. If the little space can come alive its inmates might seem to breathe. Accordingly I must accept all incidents, all accessory facts, as vivifying since they enrich the outlines; their crenellation claws and stirs the air around. (As I have said I was at the onset fascinated by the turreted-roof of the police-car.) Similar attempts to tap the vitality of out-door life have been evident in most of my street scenes and more particularly in the Market sculpture where I first used colour to detach and personalise a quantity of separate elements. This isolation of various groups in the latter sculpture had its counterpart in my direct modelling in plaster to make component forms, hollow from the back-thus easier to cast into the resin - the edges of which being defined by the very limit of the spectator's vision.

I sat down to sculpt the East Village scene along precisely similar lines.

While engrossed in the making of my little peep-show, various thoughts came my way which I'll mention for what they're worth.

There was an Arab looking rather lost on the sidewalk opposite. In the sculpture he stands close to the Irish cop beside the police-car; a couple of inches away - maybe three. Now there's a greater gap than three inches between an Arab and a Irishman. So there comes a push of space between them, or so it seems to me. And accordingly between the other racial and social types which mingle in that exotic street. A difference in sentiment or in expression also creates a gap. Travelling from the convulsed face of the drunk to the pacified grimace of the smoker represents a break in space and time, yes, a journey. I once noticed this on an alabaster Roman column featuring on alternate sides the masks of tragedy and comedy. There was no knowing the slenderness of that column. I had forgotten this.

In the same line of thought, it occurred to me, while I was painting the sheet-iron chimney beside the drab lace curtains, that the more I made it look like a chimney and the closer I could get to making a curtain - the more, in short, that they showed likeness to themselves - then the more they would differ from each other. They would thus tend to move apart to a minute degree. Minute but immeasurable so therefore why not infinite?

I've already said on another occasion that I expect a work of art to speak of everything. What I saw through Tony Provenzano's window gave me an inkling that there may be a sculptural way of expressing it.

Mason's only drawing of St Mark's Place, described above, is in a New York private collection and has not been reproduced.

In a letter of 6 April 1986, from which all the following quotations are taken, Mason wrote that this was the first of his sculptures ‘to attempt the reading of emotions, giving an added complexity to the sculptured web’.

Mason has made several other works in which notional or represented glazing is interposed between the viewer and the depicted human image. One was:

a plaster sculpture in my 1956 show at the Beaux Arts Gallery which represented a nude girl behind a glazed window where the shadow of the windowbars emphasized the curves of the body. All this in a box approximately 110 × 70 × 40cms. The sculpture was destroyed afterwards in the friend's house where I had left it. As far as I know, no photograph exists although I have some drawings.

The Tate has photocopies of these two drawings. The catalogue of Mason's retrospective at the Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1985 reproduces as fig.11 part of the plaster of Mason's sculpture ‘Le Voyage’ 1966 which was to have represented a family in a car, seen through the windscreen. The couple in the front seats are looking towards the viewer. The very small original model for this work (private collection, Paris) was in colour, and included the car's windows. In 1976 Mason made a drawing (of which the Tate has a photocopy) titled ‘Vous êtes la Gioconde’. This represents a dense crowd of people in the Louvre, seen from the viewpoint of the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Leonardo da Vinci, at which almost all those in the crowd are staring intensely and with varying emotions. Mason writes that ‘most of my groups look at something or other but particularly, of course, the Illuminated Crowds which did begin... with “Vous êtes la Gioconde”’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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