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.”
Not all of his work was on the scale of “Blue Wall,” though, and his interests were constantly evolving. Works whose rugged surfaces showed the artist’s kneading and slashing of the clay gave way to smooth geometric forms like “Red X” (1966), a formidable piece at roughly 5 feet by 5 feet, whose title describes it.
In the 1970s he abandoned clay for a time and made site-specific works out of firebricks that manufacturers would rent or loan to him; at the conclusion of the exhibition, the artwork would be disassembled and the bricks returned.
He went back to clay in the 1980s. He was still making new work well into this decade.
“We have lost an artist of uncommon rigor who was also capable of dramatic intuitive leaps,” the curator and author Glenn Adamson wrote in a tribute on the Albertz Benda website. “He showed that great sculpture could be made in any material — if that material were thoroughly mastered.”
Alva John Henry Jr. was born on March 30, 1927, in Madrid, Neb. His father raised Appaloosa horses. His parents divorced when he was young, and when his mother, Florence, remarried, his stepfather, Albert Mason, adopted him. The Masons were dairy ranchers in Hazen, Nev., and he was educated in a two-room schoolhouse for first through eighth graders.
“Sometimes there were two teachers,” he recalled in the oral history. “On some occasions there was only one.”
As a child he liked to draw, and to build things. “My parents gave me a set of tools at a very young age,” he said, “and I always had a pocketknife. And I still have the scars.”
He attended high school in Fallon, Nev., where there were few art offerings, but a helpful teacher encouraged his nascent interest in photography. He was frustrated, though, that he could not achieve the results he sought.
“I really wanted to do some things that were visually interesting,” he said, “but I realized my limitations.”
And so in 1949 he went to California to study at the Otis Art Institute, now the Otis College of Art and Design. At first, he said, “I took everything except sculpture,” but in his second year he signed up for a ceramics course and became interested in that field.
He switched to the Chouinard Art Institute, becoming the technical assistant to Susan Peterson, who taught ceramics there. In 1954 he met Mr. Voulkos, who had come to Otis to start a full-fledged ceramics department, and Mr. Mason returned there to work with him. He also took a job for a time at Vernon Kilns, which made casual dinnerware.
“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.