John Mason, Who Expanded Ceramics’ Boundaries, Dies at 91 | Modern Society of USA

John Mason, Who Expanded Ceramics’ Boundaries, Dies at 91

John Mason, Who Expanded Ceramics’ Boundaries, Dies at 91

John Mason, an artist who helped expand the boundaries of what could be done in ceramics by creating imposing wall reliefs and other expressionistic sculptures in a field that had often been defined by pots and vases, died on Jan. 20 at his home in Carlsbad, Calif. He was 91.

The Albertz Benda Gallery in Manhattan, which represented him, announced the death.

Mr. Mason was one of a group of artists who, studying under the pioneering ceramist Peter Voulkos in the 1950s, blew past utilitarian definitions of what clay was good for and made experimental, often very large works that ended up in galleries and museums rather than craft shows.

A dramatic example was “Blue Wall,” an abstract clay wall piece 21 by 7 feet, created in 1959.

“I used the only big, empty space in the studio” to make it, Mr. Mason said in a 2006 oral history for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. That space was the floor — he slammed blocks of clay onto it, working and shaping them there, then cutting the resulting sculpture into sections so it could be fired before being pieced back together on a wall.

He, Mr. Voulkos (who died in 2002) and others were aggressively looking for ways to overcome the limitations of clay and glaze that had confined earlier ceramists.

“There were no prescriptions for any of this that I knew about,” Mr. Mason said. “It was do it and see if it works. And if it doesn’t work, change it and make it work.”

“Sometimes there were two teachers,” he recalled in the oral history. “On some occasions there was only one.”

“The first large-scale sculpture I made was in ’57,” Mr. Mason recalled. “It was a spear form.”

Soon he was making large wall reliefs as well.

Mr. Mason also began teaching — first at the University of California, Berkeley, where he presided over a summer session in 1960, and then at Pomona College and the University of California, Irvine. He had shows at the influential Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and elsewhere, including, in 1966, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

A midcareer survey in 1974 at the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art included some of his first firebrick works, and in 1978 he offered what he called the Hudson River Series: six firebrick installations at six different locations, beginning with the Hudson River Museum in New York and including the Corcoran Museum in Washington and institutions in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Des Moines and Austin, Tex.

Critics weren’t always sure what to make of these site-specific brick structures.

“Viewed from above,” Vivien Raynor wrote in The New York Times of the Hudson River Museum exhibition, “the big blond slabs look no more than a process-conceptual statement about the firebrickiness of firebricks and the proof of geometry.”

Mr. Mason had relocated to New York in the mid-1970s to teach at Hunter College. He retired from there in 1985 and returned to the West Coast.

While at Hunter he met Vernita Fay Hall Widmann, whom he married. She survives him, as do a daughter, Jairlyn Mason, and a son, Stuart.

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