John Mason had been making pottery for about four years before he joined Voulkos at Otis Art Institute in 1954. The association enabled Mason to break through the conventions of the craft tradition that had restricted his intuitive response to the plasticity of the medium. Quickly he exploited this plasticity in a pot form by denting, flattening, or creasing the vessels, or in clay plaques by subjecting them to surface incident of dent, fold, or tear. By 1957, Mason concentrated on building forms of clay reflecting the physical properties of the medium. In a series of wall reliefs, he assembled strips and hunks of clay in gestural configurations. A large wall-relief piece in 1960, comprised of eighteen two-foot-square rectangles, had a troweled, modeled, landscape-associated surface, which reflected an active play of light and shadow. Generally monochromatic, through the application of colored slip, the pieces were often heightened with the bright local color of low-fire glazes. Showing little debt to recent sculptural predecessors, these reliefs emulated the gestural content of Abstract Expressionist painting.
By 1960, Mason concentrated on a series of freestanding vertical sculptures, made by assembling rectilinear strips or hunks of clay into a columnar shape. This approach related the space-form tensions of the surface articulation to the contained energy of the mass, evoking a vigorous sculptural presence. The vertical, columnar form of Mason's sculpture implied an organic, growing energy. To probe to the source of this energy and take his formal investigations to an essential, primordial expression, Mason began building cross-shaped pieces, simplifying the gesture around a centralized source of energy and thereby achieving a more abstract symbolism. Subsequently, the attenuated cross arms were contained in massive circle or cross forms - stele-like monochromatic pieces.
In this same time period, his ideas and inquiries about art were allied with a group of Los Angeles painters for whom Abstract Expressionist painting prompted experimentation. Greater visibility was offered these artists in March 1957, when Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz, who had each been showing the work of young artists in their respective galleries, joined forces to open the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. In the fall of 1957, Mason had a solo exhibition at Ferus, followed by three more, in 1959, 1961, and 1963. In May 1960, Mason's sculpture was presented in a solo exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum.
From: "Ceramic Sculpture in California: An Overview", by Suzanne Foley. Catalogue essay for "Ceramic Sculpture: Six Artists", published by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1981.
As they evolved, the vertical pieces became more massive and geometric, with smoother surfaces and fewer protrusions. Greater emphasis was placed on the form with less emphasis on the manipulated surface. With each successive piece, the surface texture became flatter and more compacted and began to function like a skin. The pieces began to take the form of elemental images, multi-armed totems, crosses and X's. Employing emotionally highly charged symbols like a cross could easily have reduced the power of the pieces to cliches. The use of these universal signs, however, increases their aura of timelessness and mythic presence. These sculptures do not refer back to any specific cultural prototype but instead convey more generalized, primordial qualities. The increased scale of these pieces is dramatized by the introduction of recessed spaces and small, slit-like openings in the center of the pieces. These interior spaces, as sexual or organic references, underscore the basic relationship of the pieces to the natural world.
Further enhancing his scale and the simplicity of his shapes, Mason began working on a series of massive, free-standing wall reliefs in 1964 and 1965. Standing 7' x 14', the walls were composed of huge, contiguous modular panels, a structuring device necessitated by the size of the kiln. The first wall, which had been constructed in 1960, was more involved in surface texture, and consisted of an overall textured surface of spatulated and modeled clay. Colored originally by a blue grey slip, the piece was later sprayed with a matte iron oxide glaze from the side, creating shadows. The shadows and highlights that constantly move on the surface due to the play of light give the piece a sense of organic vitality.
The walls of 1964 and 1965 were more massive and included a centered X image standing out in relief against the textured background. This central figure became more uniformly smooth and monolithic, assuming a geometric character which the first wall did not have. Because of their scale, the walls are experienced architecturally rather than in relation to human scale. The coloration and starkness of the overall forms give them a forbidding quality.
The walls are transition pieces between Mason's totemic, vertical pieces and the monolithic primary shapes which follow. The single-color monolithic forms of 1966 increase the reductive tendencies of the walls and illustrate the shift in his emphasis from surface manipulation to a more structured and geometric form. His forms were reduced to the simple, non-hierarchical shapes of the rectangle, cross and X. By utilizing geometric forms he eliminated the direct references to nature and the more obvious traces of the artist's hand.
From "John Mason Ceramic Sculpture" by Barbara Haskell, Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, 1974.
Despite the difficulties experienced in working in the medium, Mason is never a repetitious artist. His work is singularly various. Not only is there a high degree of individuality implicit in each piece, but in the relationship of one sculpture to another there is an obvious diversity of imagery. The employment of cruciform shapes was not only the beginning of a maturation of his conceptual approach, but it also led to a complete revision of his means. Impelled by the necessity of finding the techniques to cantilever his shapes more freely, Mason finally realized that a whole range of forms hitherto thought of as impractical in the ceramic medium could henceforth be employed. His more recent work, with its general tendency toward a further enhancement of size and an overall simplicity of shape, results from this impulse. A very recent and striking example is the large cube-shaped sculpture covered in a reticulated flowing glaze of red over slight touches of green. Mason works without drawings or plans; he is, in fact, a serendipitous artist capable of obtaining the most unpredictable qualities from his medium. The uniqueness of his recent work, particularly the manner in which the cracks caused by firing and the liquid quality of the surface glaze reinforce the strangely organic overtones of what is obviously a geometrical figure, is ample testament of this facility.
The massiveness of Mason's sculpture derives from the immersive scale of the new American Painting. The relationship between the size of the new painting (larger than a man) and the tension arising as a consequence of its containment and compression in a restricted space (the gallery) was to have a distinctive effect on all of Mason's sculpture. David Smith's sculpture, for example, by virtue of its metallic crispness of shape and highly reflective surface, is best seen in an open natural environment. The changes in light illuminate, dissolve and distend surface and shape, thus intensifying the scale. In contrast, Mason's work is best seen within a man-made or architectural setting, the cruciform shapes biting into the surrounding space and the surface of the medium taking on enhanced richness with the intimacy of viewing.
Mason's reliefs invariably consist of a series of contiguous panels structured within a modular framework. The centered image, again cruciform in shape, has large, chunky masses of spatulated clay in movement and poised against an intricate background, the surface texture fragmenting the form. In contradistinction to his free-standing sculptures, these reliefs are enhanced by changes in natural light, which serve to vary the depth of cast shadow. Mason's reliefs are extremely restrained and unusually reflect the local color of the material.
In contemporary sculpture, the image, its surface, and its color are integrated at a level rarely achieved in the past. In fact, this emphasis on a holistic quality, plus the search for new materials and means to extend the syntax of sculpture, is central to the form-sense by which the new may be recognized or differentiated from past work. Mason's sculpture is surprising in its unexpected, viable use of a material long deemed lost to ambitious art. He is not only capable of endowing his massive images with a rich complexity of associative values, but in helping to free ceramics from its long tradition of vessel shapes and the intimate scale he has persuasively demonstrated the flexibility of a hitherto limited material.
From: "The Sculpture of John Mason", catalogue essay by John Coplans, exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1966.