Frank Herbert Mason died yesterday. He was a renowned professor at the Art Students League and a portraitist in the tradition of Rembrandt, but I remember him as my neighbor on East 82nd Street during the 1950s.
His son Arden, who has since grown up to be a trompe l'oeil painter in Vermont, was my brother Will's best friend, and every morning found the three of us, about to walk to school, arguing some point of culture outside Mr. Cooper's cigar store on Lexington Avenue. Yorkville was quite exotic in those days: the butcher, baker and candlestick maker still had their emporiums below street level. Indeed, when Daitch opened its first supermarket in 1960, soon after the city tore down the Third Avenue El, my mother walked her boys over to see it, marveling that, "Now, we will be able to buy everything in the same place!"
To my mind, Arden Mason was a lucky guy, as fortunate as my best friend Michael Chambers, whose father played French horn for the New York Philharmonic. Whereas my Dad, in the stereotype of Sloan Wilson's 1950s bestseller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, had to report to a downtown office every day, Frank Mason disappeared into an undisclosed location called "a studio" to grasp at magic from a mysterious array of invisible muses. There was no distinction between the avant-garde and the traditional: just to be an artist in 1950s New York was to be an invisible sorcerer fathoming a world where all else feared to tread.
Proud of his father, Arden Mason wore black rimmed glasses and, at age six, manufactured his own performance art. My family lived on the top floor of a ten story building and it was Arden's privilege to stride, like a tightrope walker, along the risky edges of our rooftop, driving my brother and me crazy with fear. Happily, Arden survived, becoming a realist artist like his father. The two of them gave something to me which drives me to this day, that the magic of art is a bottomless well and a limitless sky, to be travelled always with daring and care.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).