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.