A giant has passed from the earth, the same earth that he shaped so powerfully. John Mason has died at the age of 91.
Mason was a man of the American West – born in Nebraska, raised in Nevada, and based in California for the whole of his long career. From the heartland of his youth he retained a certain quiet integrity, and also a sense of grand scale. But it was Los Angeles that served as the crucible for his art. He gravitated toward ceramics early on, never to let it go – studying initially at the Los Angeles Art Institute (later Otis) and then at the Chouinard Art Institute with the potter Susan Peterson; Ken Price was in the same night class.
It was in 1954 that he met Peter Voulkos, who was at first a mentor and then an ally. Though quite different in their approach, the two men had tremendous stores of energy and willpower, which they directed toward a shared project: the complete reinvention of their medium. Within three years they were also sharing a large studio on Glendale Boulevard, outfitted with industrial scale equipment. They started transforming clay into sculpture, ton by ton.
Photographs taken in this studio show Mason working vast quantities of material, shifting it with all his might either on the floor or against the wall. These images irresistibly recall Hans Namuth’s iconic pictures of Jackson Pollock in his own studio. Indeed, what Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists were achieving in paint on the east coast, Mason was doing in ceramic out west: gestural abstraction at massive scale. His largest works, like Blue Wall (1959), were wholly unprecedented: phenomenological sculptures that seemed to materialize perspectival sight lines, as big as buildings but totally liberated from decorative architectural ceramics.
During these years he showed at the pioneering Ferus Gallery, which introduced Los Angeles to the very concept of the avant garde, partly through the presentation of leading figures from New York City such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. The Ferus also quickly established itself as the epicenter for California’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. In addition to artists with a close association to Mason, such as Price, Ed Moses, and Billy Al Bengston, the gallery also helped to launch local artists involved with Pop (like Ed Ruscha) and the perceptually oriented Light and Space movement (Robert Irwin and Larry Bell).
Mason had three monographic exhibitions at the Ferus from 1959 to 1963, meanwhile transforming himself into a primary exponent of geometric abstraction. Red X (1966), now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, still astounds: it would have been incredibly difficult to execute in clay, but also exploits the possibilities of the material through the addition of a free-flowing red glaze. Mason was given a one-person show at LACMA, prompting John Coplans, the influential curator and early editor of Artforum, to hold him up as an exemplar of craft and concept united: “That there has been little or no precedent for the use of this material as a prime medium for ambitious art is now no longer a matter of consequence or any barrier to its usage and acceptance… The richness and variety of the work Mason has produced over the past decade stand as a testament to the constant and extended dialogue between his artistic aspirations and his means.”
The ensuing decade saw Mason embark on yet another ambitious body of work, undertaken while he was teaching at Hunter College in New York. He was not maintaining a traditional studio at this point, instead working with prefabricated firebricks – an everyday ceramic material. This body of work culminated in The Hudson River Series (1978), an exhibition that took place at six museums using different bricks each time; at the conclusion of each installation, they were simply returned to the supplier. There was an obvious material relationship here to Minimalist sculpture, but Mason’s conceptual interests were closer to the wall drawings of Sol Lewitt, or the space-constructions of Buckminster Fuller. Instead of physical interaction with clay, he was now involved with the pure logic of symmetry: reflection, rotation, inversion and translation.
These principles remained central in Mason’s later monochromatic sculptures. Typically vertical in orientation and totemic in mood, these explored a spectrum from the mathematical to the figurative, often marrying the two. He continued to challenge himself technically, making complex “torqued” forms of intersecting slabs – defying clay’s tendency to slump in the heat of the kiln. He also revisited his own past, such as the spear and cross forms he had done in the 1950s. Particularly when seen in groups, the complex vectors of these late sculptures create an exhilarating sense of kinetic movement. Developed entirely from geometrical principles, they nonetheless seem to dance, as if in celebration.
With Mason’s passing, we have lost an artist of uncommon rigor who was also capable of dramatic intuitive leaps. He showed that great sculpture could be made in any material – if that material were thoroughly mastered. Toward the end of his career, he was increasingly recognized for the durability and breadth of his vision, with inclusion in the Whitney Biennial (2014) and exhibitions at the Getty Center (2011) and Yale University Art Gallery (2015), among others. Albertz Benda began representing him in 2016 and presented the monographic exhibition John Mason: Sculpture in 2017. He is survived by his wife Vernita and two children, Jairlyn and Stuart, and several nieces and nephews.
Mason is survived, too, by his works, which were always made with unswerving dedication and clarity. When he was interviewed by Paul J. Smith for the Archives of American Art, in 2006, he was asked whether he had any dreams for the future. His reply, typically modest, nonetheless captured a secret of his success: “I always have new projects. I don’t really think of them as dreams. I mean, it’s how you spend your day.”
- Glenn Adamson, January 21, 2019.