The Whitney Museum's Biennial opens Friday, March 7, and includes work by alumnus John Mason ('57) and faculty member Joel Otterson. Both artists blur the difference between art and craft.
Mason's abstract clay sculptures completed over the last six decades have contributed to changing the medium. From 1957-1965, Mason focused on exploring the physical properties of clay—its possibilities as well as its limitations, constantly experimenting with plasticity, pushing clay to its technical limits, and developing innovative firing techniques. His tall vertical sculptures, huge wall reliefs, cross forms and geometric shapes explore symmetry, rotation, mass, and the integration of color and form. His interest in primitive art is manifested in the mysterious and totemic quality of many of his works. L.A. art critic Suzanne Muchnic, writing for ArtNews, describes his position: “A major figure in ceramic sculpture, Mason emerged in the mid-1950s as one of the leaders of a revolution that transformed clay from a craft to a fine art medium … In his latest work, Mason has proved himself a master builder and sculptor who knows how to get the most out of a relatively simple three-dimensional form.” As John Coplans writes, “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 form and intimate scale he has persuasively demonstrated the flexibility of a hitherto limited material.”
Joel Otterson scours swap meets for found objects that become part of his assemblages. For the past 30 years, he has made sculpture that combines aspects of domestic handicraft with traditional sculptural materials such as copper pipe, woodworking, pottery, porcelain, china, earthenware, concrete, marble, and stained glass. Using quilting, lacemaking, and sewing, traditionally associated with feminine crafts, Joel turns these humble materials into muscular art. He was one of the youngest artists ever selected for a one-person exhibition in the Projects Room of the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y. (1987), and has been included in both the 1993 Venice Biennale, and "Made in L.A," the first California biennial held at the Hammer Museum, L.A. "Brancusi would be one of my favorite artists and influences. I make everything myself. I also love decorative arts, furniture, dinnerware, and architecture, because it’s all about living. My influences are eclectic, and for me it speaks about our “postmodern” world and especially about being American. I am very interested in how an inanimate object can trigger an emotion."