Helped by new technologies, today’s glass artists are pushing this ancient medium beyond its traditional boundaries.
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A ghostly, translucent kimono, its sleeves raised without containing any arms, seems to stand up by itself. A glistening orange bowl is full of carrots, but on the outside instead of the inside. The towers and bridges of a city seem to rise up from a transparent slab mounted on a spare, modernist table. These astounding works—by Karen LaMonte, Charlie Miner, and Norwood Viviano, respectively—reveal just some of the possibilities of glass as an art medium, possibilities that have been latent from the ancient beginning of glassmaking but that are only now being realized due to developments in technology and technique. Today, what is usually referred to as “studio glass”—that is, glass conceived of a medium for fine art—is reaching a new level of creativity, with artists taking increasing bold sculptural approaches that take glasswork farther away than its old status as a craft to make utilitarian vessels or objects of decor. Glass is now taking its place as a medium for sculpture, and with its unique ability to transmit as well as reflect light, it can do things that other materials can not. Some artists, Viviano for example, are using glass as one component among several for pieces that can only be called conceptual art.
“Glass is unique,” says Bill Traver, owner of Traver Gallery in Seattle, Wash., founded in 1971 at the outset of the studio glass movement in the U.S. and the first gallery to show studio glass. “That’s because it’s transparent, because it has the quality of using light in a way that no other material can. Not only can it be blown, it can be molded and used in many different ways.” As a veteran advocate for studio glass, Traver has been gratified by the mainstreaming of the medium and the ever-increasing attention given to it by the art world at large. “Glass has always been ghettoized a bit,” he says, “but more and more we’re seeing artists who have majored in fine art and have something to express and have chosen glass as their medium. I think we’re moving away from the ‘glass for glass’ sake’ mentality and toward a situation where the material is appropriate to the expression.” Just recently, Traver notes, the University of Washington, long a center of glass education, has completely integrated glass into its sculpture department, along with clay, stone, and metals, under the rubric “3D4M”—three dimensions, four materials.
David Austin, of Austin Art Projects in Palm Desert, Calif., which specializes in glass, concurs with Traver: “The studio glass movement gave contemporary artists a new technical vocabulary. We are now seeing the marrying of that vocabulary with a narrative not formerly associated with the medium in the creation of some of the most thoughtful work ever conceived in glass.” Corey Hampson of Habatat Galleries, a specialist dealer in Royal Oak, Mich., says, “Today, in the technical aspect of handling glass, whether it be blown, slumped, or cast, the artists are pushing the envelope constantly, taking it away from the vessel form, becoming more conceptual, being accepted more into the fine arts.”
“Technology has had a big role,” says Traver. “The computerization of annealers allows them to cool the glass over long periods of time very accurately, which allows artists to use color in ways it never used before.” He explains that colors can be incompatible with each other if the rates at which they cool are different, he explains. With the new technology, artists can make color rods, which are analogous to a painter’s tubes of paint. “In the past,” says Traver, “you had to separate one color from another with clear glass, otherwise they would crack. Now you can lay color on top of color on top of color.”
As an example of this technology-enabled creativity in glass, Traver cites Carmen Vetter, who is having a one-woman show at the gallery this month. “She is using glass in a very sculptural, unusual way,” he says. “Her pieces are panels, to be hung on a wall. They are fused, highly textured, and minimal at the same time, especially in their use of color. They’re all about texture and surface, and they’re very, very beautiful.” Vetter’s work is strongly geometric, with an emphasis on symmetry in tension with fractal-like, irregular-looking patterns.
Another artist who is doing new things with glass is Toots Zynsky, although she is by no means a newcomer to glass. Zynsky was one of the first students of artist-teacher-entrepreneur Dale Chihuly, one of the prime progenitors of the American studio glass movement through his co-founding of the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash. She went on to work at what is now known as UrbanGlass, a major glass workshop in New York City. This past September, she was awarded the second annual “Glass in Venice” prize, for her “absolutely original techniques and ideas.” Zynsky’s work combines a sculptural method with the use of thin filaments of colored glass in a way that takes traditional Venetian-glass concepts and moves them forward into a new context. In Zynsky’s hands, the colored threads become lines to draw with. In 2011–12, Zynsky had a solo exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York. Her most recent work can be seen now at David Richard Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M.
In the current climate, many galleries that do not specialize in glass nonetheless maintain quite strong glass programs. One example is Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, also in Santa Fe, which represents Matthew Szösz, a younger artist whose works challenge our intuitive sense of what glass can do without shattering. Some of his recent works appear to be inflated, as if the glass were a thin film of bubble gum. Others spin the glass out into reticulated skeins in which impossibly thin strips of glass follow obscure geometrical laws as they expand tenuously out into space. Onessimo Fine Art in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., represents three master glass blowers from Murano, Alessandro Casson, Massimiliano Schiavon, and Dino Rosin, as well as three artists from the U.S., Steve Funk, Susan Gott, and Duncan McClellan. According to owner Debra Onessimo, their works “encompass a wide range of techniques including blown glass, sand casting, fusing, cold working and sandblasting.” J. Willott Gallery of Palm Desert, Calif., shows the work of Richard Jolley, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based glass artist who makes figurative sculpture in glass. His 185-foot-long glass-and-steel work Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity, which depicts the entire story of the human race, will debut next month in the Great Hall of the Knoxville Museum of Art.
To understand how the studio glass world arrived at this point, it is important to understand the history, which arguably dates back to 1291. That was the year the municipal government of Venice ordered all glassmakers to move to the island of Murano in the Lagoon of Venice, fearing that the fires used to melt the glass could ignite the city’s mostly wooden buildings. Concentrated together on the island, craftsmen evolved a tradition of mostly secret recipes that made Murano glass a byword for the finest in aesthetic and technique worldwide. Fast forward seven centuries, and Murano’s hermetically sealed world opened up when Chihuly visited the island in 1968 and met Lino Tagliapietra, one of the greatest glassblowers of Murano, and the two traded ideas and techniques. Returning the visit, Tagliapietra came to the U.S., where he spent an increasing amount of time over the years, teaching students and helping set up studios. Eventually he started concentrating more and more on personal work, and had his first solo show in 1990, at Traver.
Glass technique had already been developing rapidly in the U.S. during the 1960s, stimulated by the teaching of Harvey Littleton, a ceramicist turned glassblower. Littleton, who died last December at the age of 91, was the son of the head of R&D at Corning Glass and brought serious scientific knowledge to the studio, which he imparted to students at the Toledo Museum of Art and the University of Wisconsin, among other places. Among those students were Dale Chihuly and another very influential artist and mentor, Marvin Lipofsky. One very important American glass pioneer was Dominick Labino, who played the combined roles of artist, teacher, inventor, and chemist. Hampson calls Labino a “mad scientist,” and his achievements are an excellent reminder that science can and should nourish art.
It is a testament to the vitality of the glass field that Tagliapietra, at 80 one of its most senior figures, is deeply engaged in creating new types of work instead of resting on his decades’ worth of accomplishments. In his studio north of Seattle, the Venetian master has been making very large-scale fused-glass panels, meant to be displayed hanging on walls, in which a traditional Venetian element called filigrano (lacy cane-like forms) are incorporated into the panels in way that resembles painting with glass. Another series he is working on, which touches on the realm of conceptual art, is called Avventura. In it, Tagliapietra has created a glass cabinet with shelves filled with some 60 traditionally blown-glass vessels of aventurine. Jim Schantz, of Schantz Galleries in Stockbridge, Mass., which represents Tagliapietra’s work, describes Avventura as “his way of paying homage to Roman and Assyrian glass, which are historical influences on his work. In this case, following tradition leads to a very contemporary style. Lino really embodies these two, history and the contemporary.” Of Tagliapietra’s recent work in general, Schantz says, “He is always, even at this point, trying to push for the next best thing you can do with glass, to see where the material can go if you take certain combinations and do it differently, with new ideas. This is heart of Lino’s work. It’s not just the fact that he’s a maestro, but that he’s an artist who wants to move his medium.”
In parallel with these developments in glass technique, the market for art glass has been developing: In terms of economics, it’s been growing, and in terms of market categories, it’s been shifting. “Collectors have been asking me where the market is going, and I say I see exciting things happening,” says Hampson, elaborating by referring to the history of his own gallery. “Habatat started in 1971, and there was absolutely no market. At that time only five percent of the gallery’s business was glass. It was actually the perfect time to start a gallery; all the ingredients were there. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were just a handful of artists working in studio glass as a full-time career. Now there are thousands working and supporting themselves. It’s been like an explosion over the past 50 years.”
With the growth in demand for glass art, the secondary market has also grown. “The market is kind of unusual,” says Hampson. “Because a lot of collectors who supported glass early on are getting old, but now a lot of really young collectors are getting involved. Based on the fine art world, I foresee a lot of works coming on the secondary market over the next 20 or 30 years or so, by artists like Dale Chihuly, William Morris, Marvin Lipofsky. I think the resale market is going to be pretty heavy as collectors pass on—those who don’t donate their collections or give them to their kids.” Lewis Wexler of Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia, which deals in glass as well as studio furniture, ceramics, and jewelry, says, “It’s still such a young field. It hasn’t reached its full potential at auction. You can still get it at reasonable prices, so it’s still a live investment for the collector. Where else can I get major works for less than six figures?”
The position of glass within the art world has also changed. Doug Heller of Heller Gallery in New York sees a sort of bifurcation going on: “Glass art is moving either into the fine art world or the design world, and away from craft,” he says. Heller, which has been in business for 40 years, has chosen the fine art side—the gallery recently moved to Chelsea to be closer to the contemporary art world. “Going to fairs, like Art Miami, we see many more all-glass dealers,” adds Heller, noting that there were about 12 at Art Miami this past December. Culturally speaking, glass have definitely moved into the mainstream, according to Heller. In the ’60s and ’70s, he recalls, “it was off the grid, countercultural, do-it-yourself. That has really changed.” Today, he observes, some artists are having glass experts—for example, at UrbanGlass—do the fabrication for them, translating their ideas into glass. They may not have trained as studio glass practitioners, but they appreciate “the seductiveness of glass, the way it transmits light, transparent or translucent. In that sense, glass has a fourth dimension, beyond the usual three of sculpture.”