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John Mason


John Mason: Sculpture, 1958-1969 Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, 2017

Front and Back Cover:

Kayne Griffin Corcoran

Mason in Studio, 1960

1201 S La Brea Ave

Work in progress for solo exhibition at

Los Angeles, CA 90019

Pasadena Museum of Art

PH: 310 586 - 6886

Photo by Robert Bucknam

FX: 310 586 - 6887 www.kaynegriffincorcoran.com


John Mason: Sculpture, 1958-1969 Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, 2017

Front and Back Cover:

Kayne Griffin Corcoran

John Mason in Studio, 1960.

1201 S La Brea Ave

Photo by Robert Bucknam

Los Angeles, CA 90019 PH: 310 586 - 6886 FX: 310 586 - 6887 www.kaynegriffincorcoran.com


John Mason: Sculpture, 1958-1969 Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, 2017

by markings from his fist. In a time when other sculptors were embracing assemblage, welding industrial materials, and using found objects rather than traditional bronze and stone, Mason transformed his chosen medium, fired clay.

“Well, it’s seeing a vision you have. But it also is learning about what’s possible in the medium. And there aren’t any precedents, so you say let’s find out. Let’s do it. Make it happen.”1 Introduction

Mason’s monumental works derived from his investigation of the properties of the medium, but also embodied formal principles. His raw and powerful sculptures address the themes of symmetry, mass, modularity, and rotation—each of which is recurrent throughout Mason’s career—and evolved from direct physical interaction with the material. Unlike Voulkos, who made his wheel-thrown and assembled sculpture with traditional methods, Mason had no precedent or parallel.4 5 Mason has been, more than any other sculptor in clay, a solitary force for innovation. This exhibit presents sculpture that demonstrates Mason’s line of thought,

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, John Mason radically challenged the accepted limits of ceramic sculpture, completely breaking with established pottery traditions. Simply stated, “It wasn’t about tapping into an existing structure and continuing it. It was like fabricating something fresh,” Mason said.2 Using his strength to manipulate mass, build walls, and slam raw clay to the floor, he was no longer bound by rules.3 Consider Mason’s unprecedented X-Wall, 1965, standing seven feet high and fourteen feet wide, weighing over six tons. The contiguous panels, eighteen inches thick, are punctuated

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his insistent and inventive methods, and his subsequent progression through several series.

known as Silverlake, on Glendale Boulevard. The two set about building a studio that would allow for their separate ambitions in sculpture. The main pivot in Mason’s early career came at this time: the development of large-scale abstract sculpture. Since Mason’s strength lies in his independence, that quality served him well in the company of the gregarious Voulkos. John Mason has always been a pensive man who followed his own path, committed to the processes of the studio. He was part loner, part risk-taker, and a builder of form who engineered mysterious monoliths. In fact, his colleagues and one of his dealers have often commented about Mason’s independent, almost exclusive nature. As Irving Blum described it, “…he was more private, I would say, and was really apart from this kind of exchange that I talk about.”7

This work has often been seen through the lens of media-specific criticism or limited by curatorial intent. Mason’s champions as well as his critics sometimes cast him as a follower, or as a member of a regional group.6 He was neither; he was always on his own path. The personal history of the artist—and his temperament—has more to say about Mason’s work than the critical categories applied. First, he is often cast as a member of the Otis group. Second, he was promoted as part of something misidentified: Abstract Expressionist ceramics. In contrast to previous narratives and groupings, we present the evidence of Mason’s studio activity and his solitary artistic practice. That revolutionary work is particularly appropriate today as a new group of young artists from all disciplines renews the activity in sculpture made of clay. Mason was a progenitor, over five decades ago. This exhibit tracks Mason’s development from the years 1958 to 1969, with significant examples from private collections as well as those borrowed from public holdings.

Mason came by this naturally, often working late into the night—a habit that he traced to his early years in Nevada: “…before I ever came to LA, when I was in Nevada sometimes I was awake at night and I might even on occasion go out and take a walk through the fruit orchard or down the road… And the skies are very big in the desert, you know.”8

For John Mason, there was a defined turning point in 1957. He and Peter Voulkos rented an old building near the Los Angeles area

Later, when Voulkos had gone to Berkeley, in 1959, and Mason took over the

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Glendale Boulevard studio completely, he remembered, “…mostly it was pretty quiet and it was an excellent time for me. It suited my temperament…I did not find it, you know, at all helpful when I wanted to work to have other people around. And nights were when I did the creative work.”9 With his move to the shared Los Angeles studio on Glendale Boulevard in 1957, he began to develop methods and concepts that would sustain his work throughout his career. As a sculptor who builds with basic forms, Mason also designed each series to experiment with sheer mass and volume, or verticality, or vitality and color.

1960s made solid, mysterious geometric shapes that surprised his viewers as well as the critics. Mason’s methods of fabrication changed very rapidly during this productive period.

“Well, my experience is that I see certain things reoccur in the work unconsciously…so a lot of work has a direct correlation with the material and the use of the material or the techniques or tools. Other work seems to come from some other intellectual space.”10 At first, Mason began to make massive rough-hewn sculptures and then, in 195960, he broke into another kind of building, with a totemic verticality that seemed to be simultaneously thrusting, yet primal. He eventually built huge cross forms, at times influenced by primitive art, and by the middle

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Early work, 1958

the surface to marking. Since both Mason and Voulkos hailed from Western states (Mason spent most of his formative years in Nevada; Voulkos was from Montana), the rugged individuality of the piece seems to mirror the artist’s personality.

The earliest works in this exhibit, from the collection of Peter Voulkos, are demonstrative of Mason’s early methods, though on a smaller scale. A slab-built 1958 platter form, thick and rough, exemplifies the raw and forceful handling of the clay, as well as the coloration of the early massive walls. Rough-hewn and expressively handled, this piece has the repetition of rectangular form and the inclusion of direct, tooled surface. The blue and white glazes are applied intermittently, allowing the sand-colored body of the substrate to show.

A vase form, a work that recalls Mason’s transition from pottery, is unusual because of its clay body—a white substrate that would allow the use of a light glaze with rutile and iron. Even here, Mason asserts his individuality, exploiting clay’s plasticity in a pot form by flattening and creasing the vessel. A taller example from 1958, Vase, proved to be an exceptional harbinger of two elements that Mason explored for decades: the “slight rotational effect” and the use of bold color.11 This torque, or rotation, showed up on a larger scale by 1959-60. In the ironically

A smaller plaque shape with rounded corners, the blue-glazed 1958 untitled platter form, includes a rough relief that resembles a mountain range. As with the larger platter, Mason distorted the form by denting with tools, flattening, or bending and subjecting

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titled Vase, far too large to be considered a traditional vessel for holding flowers, the strong marks of hands and tools are evident. The heavy stoneware clay shows throwing lines on the interior, indicating the use of wheel-thrown elements, but it is pushed in from the exterior, and then repeatedly creased and crushed. Marks from a wooden paddle remain on each of the three sections—joined, rotated, torqued, and paddled into one form. The color, primary red and yellow along with black, seems to be applied over a dark brown iron in some areas, but the dark sandy clay is left bare in others.

Pasadena Museum of Art in 1960. In the present exhibition, Untitled Vertical Sculpture, 1961, is an example of these primal, almost vertebrate works. These pieces have a kind of mass that is also representative of energy, or perhaps growth. Their evocation of some kind of primordial world, without a direct figurative reference, marks them with a mysterious presence—something that Mason referred to as the “power of an object.” The Vertical Sculptures are also examples of the artist’s method of moving around the sculpture as he built, in rotation. By using a central wooden post, Mason established a vertical axis, around which he revolved as he slammed on the freshly mixed clay. “I compacted clay around an armature—a wooden member,” recalled Mason.12 Over the course of 1961-62, Mason made close to a dozen of these Vertical Sculptures, and aggressively manipulated the clay with his hands and blunt tools. Directly forcing the material onto the wooden armature and allowing it to dry, he then fired the pieces— causing the center support to burn out in the heat of the kiln.

Vertical Sculptures, 1960-62 Three works in this exhibit represent the early vertical sculptures, which Mason started developing by working with the physical properties of the material—the weight and plasticity of clay. Instead of slamming it down on the floor, as he had done with the material for the Blue Wall in 1959, Mason began to build around a central axis in a very straightforward fashion. There is a palpable sense of the discovery of this method and the strikingly totemic vertical sculptures that he began to produce.

The remaining void from a burned-out central armature is clearly visible in Vertical Sculpture, 1958, a significant example from the Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics.13 Built from the ground up, this shows Mason’s alternating use—horizontal

A studio photograph from 1960 shows the artist in front of a massive wall, with attenuated and seemingly primitive standing forms in the foreground. This image appeared later, as the poster for his one-man show at the

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and vertical—of clay slabs. An example of the axis concept in helix symmetry, where structure builds up vertically in step with a helical rotation, this work stands and turns. Here, the rough edges show only a few tool marks, as Mason builds, then turns, and builds and turns again. The elements show different dimensions of squares, rectangles, and long strips. The latter, in fired clay, are roughly equivalent to the dimension of the wooden armature. On this sculpture, Mason uses a much more somber, muted palette, ranging from a gray slip with white and cobalt, to some black.

A huge, looming Untitled Vertical Sculpture, 1963, is both raw and fecund. With dual bulging masses at the base, it is simultaneously phallic and totemic. The thrust is stunningly vertical, and equivalent to the sense of activity that accompanies its making. Here, we see bilateral symmetry as found in nature—the whole is divided in the center into two roughly equal halves. Again, the method matched the man, as “just handfuls or big chunks of clay were compressed together around a supporting member that would allow them to hold their shape while they began to dry.”15

“I made the second series in ‘62,” Mason further remembered, “and these pieces were much easier to move around than some of the other things. You’d fire a number of them in the kiln at once. And both the gray wall and some of these vertical sculptures were shown at the Ferus Gallery, probably in ‘61.”14

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Wall Relief, 1962 Mason addressed the architectural concept of modularity: the idea of a grid with equal parts, its relationship to architectural form, the use of modularity in building, and the way that modules are related to an overall form. He had considered a career in architecture, but realized that he wanted to maintain his independence, and could not do that as an architect.16

challenge to fit something and to adjust it so that it looks right and is right when it’s finished.”17 He made two versions, one with an almost grey, or neutral glaze, and the other in a dark, bronze color. Ever resourceful, Mason dealt with the physicality of the material, its shrinkage and some of the practical challenges of the fabrication: “I went to work to make some tile, and I did that on the floor. And I had set up a grid with a stainless wire, so once it was finished, I could just pull the wire up through it and it would cut the tiles”.18

Untitled Wall Relief, 1962, is similar in its use of modularity, scale, and surface to the Untitled Pair of Doors, made as a commission for the actor Sterling Holloway, a major Los Angeles collector. Mason was approached by Holloway and commissioned to work on the design and fabrication of a pair of entrance doors. Completed in 1962 in South Laguna, the Sterling Holloway residence was designed to house Holloway’s collection, and Mason worked directly with the architect on the double doors at the entrance to the new home.

The thick tiles, with surface markings of hands and tools, resembled the Grey Wall, 1960, which had been described as “…spatulated and modeled clay” by Suzanne Foley.19 With the wall reliefs in particular, Mason achieved a scale and power that gives a sense of awe. As John Coplans wrote, “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.”20

“Well, fortunately the building was not built at that time and the architect was in the process. So through meetings and conversations with the architect, plans were made so the structure would support the weight of the doors. Since clay shrinks, that’s always a

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Mason also worked in simple forms, such as the intersection of two lines, which in Mason’s work became known as the Cross. In this exhibition, White Cross, 1964, is a prime example. By this time, each successive piece seemed to enhance Mason’s process and intuition. At the core of Mason’s practice was his emphasis on materiality, weight, and process. Now, the crossing of lines and forms began to appear in his large-scale sculpture. In each of the Crosses, we see an increase in the thickness and weight of the clay, requiring a corresponding increase in drying time and slower firing time. Their weight could now be measured in tons. The first was titled Black Cross, 1961, and the second, Green Spear, 1961. Sculpture like this tested the accepted rules about thickness as well.

Sources and ideas Each series of Mason’s work during this time was set up to explore the properties or technical limitations of his medium, fired clay. Some recorded the direct physical interaction of the artist with the clay. Grey Wall, for example, was made on a huge tilted easel, built of three-quarter inch plywood, and covered with canvas, with a four-by-four at the bottom for support. This was another inventive way of working, with no parallel in traditional ceramic practice, which was based on the potter’s wheel, slab-building, or moldmaking: “So the clay is soft…Probably in the beginning I smeared it on and built it up to a point where I just took handfuls and slammed it onto the material that was already there. And then you say, well, I want that to be a little more uniform. How am I going to do it? You either had to get a tool and pound it, and I just found my fist worked quite well to even it out.”21

“It was very thick, probably at least 16 inches in depth. And the whole mythology around ceramics was you couldn’t fire anything of any thickness. Otherwise it was going to blow up in the kiln. Well, you know that was another thing that I knew wasn’t true. But the technology had to change.”23

Mason had a history with a simple form, the X. An elemental image, it had first appeared in Mason’s work around 1957, when he made a series of works now known as the X-Pots. “That had some history in my work that went back to when I was making pottery actually. I used some of that imagery in the pottery.”22

White Cross, 1964 is the largest of the sculptures that uses a white glaze. It’s also a piece that Mason took as a challenge as he made a series of simple cross forms and massive X forms. For Mason, it wasn’t about beauty or religion. He relied on his affinity for

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the mystery and power of the object. About the cross form, he said:

John Mason, Interview with Frank Lloyd, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery Archives, Scripps College, 2010, unpublished transcript, Part 2, p.2. See also: Suzanne Muchnic, “Telling an Endless Story with Clay,” Los Angeles Times, Calendar section, February 2, 1997: “There was a feeling that the time had come to do something else,“ [Mason] said. “The question was, what it would be, what form it would take and who would do it?”

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“Because it is a primitive form and it does predate its use by various religions. So I’m going back to the early days. And I said it may be controversial and it may disturb some people, but I’m interested in that imagery. And I was interested at that time, too, in primitive art and had access through Ed Primus and David Stuart, who had a gallery on La Cienega that did show it.”24

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Mason, Interview with Lloyd.

John Mason, quoted in J. Bennet Olson, “SoldnerMason-Rothman,” Craft Horizons 17, (SeptemberOctober 1957): 41. “The currently popular mechanistic concept of craftsmanship is a truly alarming concept that is indicative of the influence of our industrial age. This concept has been furthered by teachers looking for a simple ABC way of teaching crafts. It has been passed on from teacher to student not as a concept but as a set of rules and postulates that make it possible for anyone to be a fine craftsman. But there the line is drawn, fine craftsman—not artist.”

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With the Cross series, Mason produced his most well-known major works, including Red X, 1966 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Yellow Cross, 1966 (Oakland Museum of California), and Cross Form, 1962-63 (Art Institute of Chicago). These massive sculptures, each pushing the technical limits of the medium and presenting a culmination of Mason’s exploration of form, remain as evidence of his singular accomplishment.

Rose Slivka, “The Artist and His Work, Risk and Revelation,” in The Art of Peter Voulkos, Kodansha International Ltd., New York, 1995, p.44-45: Slivka writes “…Mason was Voulkos’ partner, friend, and collaborator, but remained an independent artist.” Also, “Mason was the one who could hold his own.” 4

Susan Peterson, “Ceramics in the West,” in Color and Fire, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2000, p. 104. Peterson writes “…today one of the most outstanding figures in contemporary international ceramics.” See also: Suzanne Muchnic, “Telling an Endless Story with Clay,” Los Angeles Times, Calendar section, February 2, 1997: “Within a few years, he was building fired clay walls that earned nationwide critical praise and curatorial interest.” See also: Suzanne Muchnic, “John Mason,” ArtNews, New York, April 1997.

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Frank Lloyd ____________________________________

The dominant critical narrative has been “Otis Clay,” which centers on the graduate program of ceramics at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, established

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in 1954 by Peter Voulkos. However, John Mason had studied ceramics since 1949 at LACAI and subsequently at Chouinard from 1953-1955, as a teaching assistant under Susan Peterson. Mason was not a follower of Voulkos, but rather a peer, as evidenced by their shared studio in 1957 apart from the Otis group. See page 53 in Mary Davis MacNaughton et al, Revolution in Clay, Scripps College and University of Washington Press, 1994, or Christy Johnson, Jo Lauria et al, Common Ground, American Museum of Ceramic Art, 2012. Another dominant critical narrative, “Abstract Expressionist Ceramics,” derives from the exhibition title and essay by John Coplans, organized in 1966 for the University of California Irvine. Coplans followed Rose Slivka’s use of painterly language in “The New Ceramic Presence” with his own painterly allusions. Neither Mason, nor any of the other artists included, were served well by the unfortunate title of the show (suggested by Professor Joseph Monsen), which refers to a movement in painting centered in New York in a previous decade, which by 1966 had long been superseded by Pop Art and Minimalism. See John Coplans, Abstract Expressionist Ceramics, University of California, Irvine, 1966, 54 pgs. See also Dr. Cecile Whiting, “Contemporary Art, Studio Ceramics, and the Clay Revolution in Los Angeles”, in Common Ground, American Museum of Ceramic Art, Pomona, CA, 2011, p. 93-95.

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Mary Davis MacNaughton et al, Revolution in Clay, Scripps College and University of Washington Press, 1994.

13

Paul Smith, Oral history interview with John Mason, 2006 August 28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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15

John Mason, in conversation with Frank Lloyd and curator Leslie Jones, May 20, 2017 at Edward Cella Gallery. Mason’s later Hudson River projects are based on drawings that are made with architectural drafting tools on vellum. The drawings, he said in this interview, are part of a process that leads to the development of ideas.

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Mason, Interview with Lloyd.

Paul Smith, Oral history interview with John Mason, 2006 August 28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

18

Suzanne Foley, “Ceramic Sculpture in California: An Overview”, chapter in “Ceramic Sculpture: Six Artists”, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1981.

19

Joann Phillips and Lawrence Weschler, At the Ferus Gallery, Interview with Irving Blum, Oral History Program of the University of California Los Angeles, Regents of the University of California, 1994, p.152.

John Coplans, “The Sculpture of John Mason”, exhibition catalogue for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1966.

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John Mason, Interview with Frank Lloyd, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery Archives, Scripps College, 2010, unpublished transcript, p. 33-4.

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Ibid.

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Mason, Interview with Lloyd.

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Mason, Interview with Lloyd.

Ibid.

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Mason, Interview with Lloyd.

22

Ibid.

23

Ibid.

24

Ibid.

Janet Koplos, “John Mason,” published in Innovation and Change, Arizona State University Art Museum, Phoenix, 2009, p. 124.

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© Frank Lloyd, 2017

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John Mason: Sculpture, 1958-1969 Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, 2017 Installation Views

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John Mason: Sculpture, 1958-1969 Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, 2017 Works in the Exhibition

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John Mason Untitled Vase, c. 1955-56 ceramic 10 x 6 Ÿ x 4 ½ inches

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John Mason Untitled, 1958 ceramic 7 ¼ x 10 ¾ x 1 ¾ inches

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John Mason Untitled, 1958 ceramic 18 x 14 ½ x 3 ½ inches

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John Mason Untitled Plaque, 1958 ceramic 14 x 20 x 3 inches

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John Mason Vase, 1958 stoneware 24 x 8 x 6 ½ inches Loaned by The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College

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John Mason Untitled, c. late 1950s-early 1960s ceramic 47 x 69 x 1 inches

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John Mason Untitled Vertical Sculpture, 1960 stoneware 63 ½ x 14 inches

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John Mason Sculpture, 1961 stoneware 42 x 13 ½ x 11 inches Loaned by The Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College

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John Mason Untitled Wall Relief, c. 1962 stoneware 92 x 66 x 8 inches

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John Mason Untitled, 1963 ceramic 25 x 20 ½ x 12 inches

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John Mason Orange Cross, 1963 glazed stoneware 64 x 49 x 16 inches

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John Mason Untitled Vertical Sculpture, c. 1963 glazed ceramic 84 x 24 x 29 inches

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John Mason White Cross, 1964 ceramic 67 x 66 x 21 inches

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John Mason White Cross, 1964 (side view) ceramic 67 x 66 x 21 inches

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John Mason Untitled, 1969 ceramic 14 x 18 x 2 inches (approximate)

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John Mason Untitled, 1969 ceramic 14 x 18 x 2 inches (approximate)

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John Mason Untitled, 1969 ceramic 14 x 18 x 2 inches (approximate)

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John Mason Untitled, 1969 ceramic 14 x 18 x 2 inches (approximate)

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Acknowledgements I would like to thank the partners at Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery—Maggie Kayne, William Griffin, and James Corcoran—for their steadfast support of this exhibition. They, along with their committed staff, made this possible. Colleen Grennan, Paige Huntley, and Alexandra Lippman worked directly with me during the organization and assembly of the show, as well as the many contacts with lenders and the artist. Genevieve Day, Nicholas Gregory, Tim Schneider, Dion Tomasini, and Antonia Oliver were also instrumental in organizing the show. I would also like to thank John and Vernita Mason for their gracious participation. I have known the Masons for over twenty years, and this presentation signifies that long history. It was an honor to present such a monumental group of John’s work, and I appreciate their contributions. Scripps College is due special thanks for their generous loan of two artworks from the Marer Collection of Contemporary Ceramics. These works greatly enriched the show, and I am grateful for their inclusion, which helped to illuminate the development of Mason’s work. Thank you to Kirk Delman, Collections Manager and Mary MacNaughton, Director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, for facilitating such an important loan. Finally, I’d like to thank my staff, Kelly Boyd and Gabriel Seri, for their efforts to bring this exhibition to fruition. They worked behind the scenes for a year and half to coordinate the many moving parts involved in a show of this magnitude. Kelly and Gabriel have also produced this publication. Frank Lloyd

Image Credits Robert Bucknam, cover, back cover, pp. 1 (right), 3 Susan Einstein, p. 28 Flying Studio, courtesy of the artist and Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles, frontispiece, pp. 4, 8, 10, 14, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22, 29, 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37 John Mason, courtesy of John Mason, pp. 1 (left), 7 (left), 7 (right) Roxanne Hall Morganti, pp. 38, 39, 40, 41 Gene Ogami, p. 31 Gabriel Seri, pp. 5 (left), 5 (right), 24, 25, 26, 27 John Waggaman, p. 42 All images of artworks are © John Mason, 2017.

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John Mason: Sculpture, 1958-1969 Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery, 2017

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John Mason: Sculpture, 1958 1969  

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, John Mason radically challenged the accepted limits of ceramic sculpture, completely breaking with establ...

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