Over four decades, John Mason has created a body of ceramic art noted for its increasingly conceptual and geometric nature. In the mid-1950s, as a student of Peter Voulkos in Los Angeles, he was an active participant in the aesthetic revolution that reshaped the field of American ceramics, transforming tradition-bound studio potters into avant-garde clay sculptors.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Mason created towering, handbuilt clay sculptures and large ceramic wall reliefs whose monumentality and raw, gestural surfaces were comparable to abstract expressionist paintings. Increasingly, however, his wall-bound and vertical pieces became more massive and reductive, their surfaces smoother and less overtly expressive. A gradual shift toward a more geometric aesthetic occurred, and by the mid-1960s, centralized motifs of crosses and X shapes predominated.
By 1966 John Mason found the process of working directly with damp clay to create large monolithic pieces that required firing to be a handicap technically, and he began to question his very involvement with ceramics. In the early 1970s he abandoned clayworking altogether, and began instead to use commercially manufactured firebricks. Stacked and arranged in geometric formations, these modular units allowed him to create large scale, conceptual sculptures with a precision and speed impossible with traditional ceramic techniques. Moreover, the use of these industrial modules eliminated all traces of personal touch, resulting in anonymous, abstract works whose plans were predicated on elaborating simple ideas of symmetry—translation, rotation, and reflection.
In 1984 John Mason returned to making ceramic objects—vessels and plates, as well as free-standing triangles, squares, and rectangles. Modular forms often installed as ensembles, they were decorated with glazed geometric surface patterns that either accentuated or contradicted their elemental shapes. By 1986, however, the artist had isolated a particular format with which further to explore ideas of pure form—a large, four sided vessel whose geometric shape was given a distinctive contropposto, axial twist.
Vessel (86.4.P) (1986) [1993.54.9] is one of an ongoing series of monumental "torque pots" exemplifying Mason's recent explorations in geometry and mathematics. Although the slab-sided walls of the massive, architectonic vessel are not aggressively twisted out of plumb like other examples in the series, the raised neck of the diamond-shaped pot has been twisted slightly out of true, and set deliberately at a contrasting angle to that of the pot. This double geometric distortion imbues the piece with a subtle, yet firm formal tension.
The surface of the dark-blue-glazed container is covered with a network of darker, raised lines that form a complex web of interlocking triangles. This design is directly related to a series of drawings made by Mason in 1986 that were based on mathematical relationships and geometric descriptions. There are actually two, interconnected and evolving diagrams that combine to form a larger, all-over pattern. The weblike lines describe three-dimensional, geometric bodies rotating in space, contradicting the planar and static nature of the vessel's physical form, and further infusing it with a visual tension.
Jeremy Adamson KPMG Peat Marwick Collection of American Craft: A Gift to the Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994)