Ceramics in the Expanded Field: The Art World, the Clay World, and the Case for John Mason

John Mason, "Irvine," 1973.

Let’s suppose that ceramic art, done by artists who were clay handlers before anything else, got accepted as sculpture proper – that and nothing less. Would this redound to the credit of ceramics? I altogether doubt it.

– Clement Greenberg, “Status of Clay,” The Ceramics Symposium, Syracuse, New York, 1979

John Mason, “Red X,” 1966. Image courtesy of LACMA.

When asked to speak at the 1979 Ceramics Symposium in Syracuse, critic Clement Greenberg denied he had knowledge of or interest in clay work. Yet his presence there says something about the ceramists who invited him. Since the late 1950s, these artisans had increasingly identified as artists (over potters or craftspeople), and sought acceptance from the art establishment. Their ambition depended on erasing the distinction between craft and art. John Mason, who died in early 2019 at the age of 91, was one of the first ceramists to view himself as a sculptor rather than a potter, and one of few to attain art-world renown. Known for imposing abstract works like Red X (1966), Mason produced monumentally large work in fired clay, and experimented with new approaches to form and color. In short, he was not only a craftsperson, but an artist. But does it, in Greenberg’s words, “redound to the credit” of Mason’s work to consider it only sculpture, to disavow its origin in ceramics?

Greenberg insisted on medium specificity, believing that the best work in ceramics would embrace its own character as clay and remain separate from other kinds of art. By ’79, though, Greenberg’s dogma had fallen out of fashion, and was no longer reflected in artistic production (if it ever truly had been). Art had expanded into new forms and materials, though it failed to make room for ceramists and other craft practitioners. For them, the focus on a particular medium functioned more as a source of meaning than as a restrictive frame, even as they pushed their material far beyond its conventional limits. With the rise of what critic Lucy Lippard termed “the dematerialization of the art object,” material specificity grew passé, while Conceptualism undermined the importance of craftsmanship. Behind this change was the desire to radically expand the field of art, but far from making room, it undermined craftspeople at precisely the moment they began to see themselves as artists. The reigning New York art establishment, unaware of (or uninterested in) California clay as its own context, interpreted new developments in ceramics as clay imitation of what East Coast artists had already been doing for years.

John Mason, “Geometric Form, Dark,” 1966.

This was particularly acute in Mason’s case. In the 1950s, when he built enormous reliefs like Blue Wall (1959) by slamming clay onto the floor of his studio, Mason was seen as a latecomer to Abstract Expressionism. Later slab-built works like Geometric Form – Dark (1966) were identified as Minimalism in clay. If, as critics claimed, Mason copied Jackson Pollock in the 1950s and Donald Judd in the ‘60s, in the following decade he was said to imitate Carl Andre. In 1972, looking to explore regular geometric forms, Mason stopped working with the kiln for a time and turned his attention to firebrick – a pre-made clay form, and one famously associated with the Minimalist sculptor.

Mason had long been fascinated by symmetry. Firebrick, a standardized unit, lent itself to the elaboration of symmetrical forms. These exercises became the Hudson River Series (1978), an ambitious group of sculptures and a multi-part exhibition that crisscrossed the country. In Hudson River Series IV, presented at the inaugural installation at the Hudson River Museum, squares of the same area – two, four, or six bricks high – are set in a row, aligned rhythmically at their corners. Using the firebrick as a module, Mason called attention to shifts in scale and proximity between different forms. He understood these works as experiential, meant to unfold in time and space.

“The problem,” wrote the Village Voice in 1978, “is that Carl Andre has been using this tone row (and this particular material) for many years.” It’s difficult not to compare the Hudson River series with Andre’s Equivalent works of 1966 – a series of eight sculptures, each made of 120 bricks, which embodies the artist’s modular approach to sculpture. Both Mason and Andre used unmortared, stacked firebrick; both were concerned with proportion and scale, and the viewer’s phenomenological experience of the work. Perhaps Mason was a decade late to modular sculpture, just as he was to everything else. In fact, there are many differences, visual and conceptual, between Andre’s and Mason’s works in brick, but the most forceful is one of context: Andre’s works belong to the art world, Mason’s to what I call the “clay world.”

Carl Andre, “Equivalent V,” 1966-9. Image courtesy of MoMA.

In fact, Andre’s originally used artificial limestone or “sand-lime” brick, which he preferred for its sharp edges and white color (similar to marble, a traditional sculptor’s material). He remade the Equivalents in earthy firebrick after finding that the sand-lime factory had closed. But if the material was incidental for Andre, for Mason it was decisive. The Hudson River Series is made of ceramic, just like Mason’s earlier works, and firebricks are made of heat-resistant clays, which are used to build potters’ kilns. But the Conceptualism of these works is also rooted in the materiality of clay. Central to Mason’s Hudson River Series is that, instead of traveling to each venue, the bricks themselves were sourced locally, from factories nearby. Not only did the installations change in each iteration, so did the bricks used to build them. If we understand Mason’s work as art-world Conceptualism, the materiality should be insignificant: only the idea, the form, matters. But within the context of the clay world, where generations of potters dug their own clays from the ground near their homes, we realize that the different bricks embody the specific clay of each region. Each installation reflected not only local industry, but also the soil itself: a ceramic spin on site-specificity.

Mason’s use of firebrick functioned as a hinge between ceramics and Conceptualism, between the clay world and the art world. This is precisely what caught the attention of art historian Rosalind Krauss, who had, in the late 1970s, begun to theorize a new form of art. That theory, most famously published in her influential article “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (October, 1979), was built on Mason’s work – not despite, but because of its ceramic identity.

In the article, Krauss argues that the Modernist term “sculpture” has been stretched beyond recognition by artists’ recent experiments in Land Art and installation. Rather than historicize these new works by connecting them to older precedents, she proposes new terminology to describe this “expanded field” of art. The essay came out in the same year as the Ceramics Symposium in Syracuse,” where clay artists sought to gain recognition as art by inviting Greenberg, Krauss’s mentor. Since then, critics and scholars of the clay world have worked to legitimize avant-garde ceramics, using precedents from art history – often Krauss’s argument­ – to do so. Yet there is dissent: instead of borrowing from Krauss, some suggest that ceramics should find examples of Conceptualism within its own discipline.

Overlooked in this debate is that Krauss’s “expanded field” already belongs to the lineage of ceramics. In 1978, the year before her essay appeared in October, Krauss had published its arguments, along with versions of its famous diagrams; she wrote the catalogue essay for Mason’s Hudson River Series, much of which is identical to the October article. The main difference is the focus on Mason, who is only briefly mentioned in the later piece. Apparently, the influential arguments of the “Expanded Field” were based in no small part on Mason’s work. In her catalogue essay, Krauss asserts that Mason’s work with clay propelled him into the expanded field. Ceramics, she says, is “marginal,” too caught up with the functional qualities of pottery “for the name of ‘sculpture’ to extend to it.” Several craft writers have misinterpreted the line as a slight, though in both essays, Krauss holds up artworks that surpass the criteria of sculpture as among the most vital of her time. But unlike other critics, she did not assimilate Mason into an existing paradigm. Instead, she used his work to conceptualize an entirely new kind of art.

John Mason, “Blue Wall,” 1959.

In the intervening years, Krauss’s “Expanded Field” – and many of the works she mentioned in it – have become legend. But Mason’s Hudson River Series has left only the lightest footprints on art history. Perhaps the art world cannot allow a ceramic artist to occupy a leading role unless they become a sculptor proper. But the central position of Mason in Krauss’s expanded field demonstrates otherwise.

To argue for Mason’s work as sculpture, rather than ceramics, is to view the art world as less restricted, less specialized, and less context reliant than its clay counterpart.This is easily dismantled; Andre himself once proclaimed, “I like works of art which are invisible if you’re not looking for them.” Just as part of the meaning of the Hudson River Series is “invisible” without some understanding of a clay context, Andre’s Equivalents are linvisible as art unless the viewer knows to look for them. Context is crucial to understanding any work of art, and since the 1960s, the specific context of the art world has been decisive in art’s meaning. Since 1979, the context of the clay world has, too.

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