John Mason 1928-2019

 John Mason, who died a week ago at 91,  made big things out of clay. Very big things. Abstract sculptures and walls that had to be fired inside a walk-in kiln. Artworks that required the strength of more than one man to move.


 Mason was one of the band who joined forces with Peter Voulkos and other adventurous artists – like Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Henry Takemoto and Paul Soldner et al – at the Otis Art Institute in the mid-1950s and helped to lead a revolution in clay.

Suddenly,  clay was hot — and cool. No longer restricted to utilitarian objects, clay could be pushed to its physical and expressive limits. Further, it didn’t have to be craft; it could be art. And that made clay irresistible to a variety of artists, mainly male, who resisted craft-based media but were drawn to the idea of breaking boundaries and ignoring rules. It was labelled Abstract Expressionist Ceramics (in a famous essay by Rose Slivka) and it modified the experience of some very old Japanese pottery tropes and Zen and gave it a new contemporary context to the sound of modern jazz. Ceramic tradition and Fine Art tradition were both involved in parallel ideas and sensibilities at the same time.

While Voulkos was leader, he mostly spent his time making his own work and expected his students to develop their own interests. Mason took on scale, in a grand way particularly for ceramics. He said. “I had a studio, and I had access to the materials and the equipment, it was like, here’s the challenge: Mix up a ton of clay and go to work. To make it happen, for me, was to make sculptural pieces and to make big walls. There were no prescriptions for any of this that I knew about. It was, do it and see if it works. And if it doesn’t work, change it and make it work.”

His critically acclaimed work, “Red X,” a red-glazed sculpture measured about a metre and a half square and was 40cm deep is often on display at its home, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in west LA.

John Mason's "Red X," 1966, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
John Mason’s “Red X,” 1966, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 
His works initially seem minimalist but when looking at his art the surfaces are jammed full of information. You can almost envision their passage through fire. He shifted to metal, brick and stone in mid-career but in later life returned to ceramic.
Mason taught for many years and was famous for his long pauses finally followed by thought-provoking remarks and includes artists such as Chris Burden and James Turrell among his sculpture students. More of his work can be seen in the sculpture garden at the Pasadena Art Museum, east LA.
His final exhibition was at Scripps College in Claremont just last year in 2018 at age 90.
John Mason's "Geometric Form, Dark," 1966, 59 inches by 43 inches by 25 inches.
John Mason’s “Geometric Form, Dark,” 1966, 150cm x 110cm x 65cm at The American Museum of Ceramic Art in LA.
Only Nagle, who was youngest of them all, remains of that group now. He is still exhibiting regularly, with new work via Mathew Marks Gallery.


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3 responses to “John Mason 1928-2019

  1. Voulkous Mason’s teacher from the 1950’s was a strong influence on Mason’s work. Transforming traditional forms into large sculptures by pushing the parameters of clay outside of a domestic vessel into life size forms, with as much energy and power as the abstract expressionists painters influencing their art at that time such as De Kooning and Arshile Gorky. Mason moved clay into the history books of modern clay making by challenging the physical boundaries of clay and building unconventional large sculptures, that required walk in kilns to deal with their scale. Revolutionising a new approach to large scale clay works.

    Donna Hanson

    • Thank you for that. Its useful addenda to my comments. I’m trying to post it but there seems to be a new system and I cannot find a link now… will keep trying…

  2. good luck with that – annoying when the system fails !

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