Lino Tagliapietra has given two gifts to the art glass world—his own creative work and the techniques he has taught to generations of younger artists.
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Lino Tagliapietra has been working with glass for 70 years—and he’s only 81. That’s because he started at the age of 11, as an apprentice on Venice’s Murano Island, home to a millennium-old tradition of glass craftsmanship. By 21, Tagliapietra was recognized as a maestro (master glassblower) and embarked on a career with a succession of storied Murano factories, which he pursued until 1989, when he became a fully independent artist, creating incredibly innovative and stunningly beautiful works the likes of which the world has never seen. His first solo show was in 1990. So in a sense, Tagliapietra has been both a prodigy and a late bloomer.
His work over the past quarter of a century has earned him distinction in two ways—first, for his creative work as an artist, and second, as a teacher and mentor. In the latter role, he has been hugely influential far beyond Venice, especially in the U.S. art glass community. The roots of that influence go back to 1968, when the American glass artist Dale Chihuly visited Venice and met Tagliapietra. The two shared ideas and techniques, and Chihuly brought what he had learned on Murano back to the U.S. In 1979, he invited Tagliapietra to come and teach at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash., a place to which the Italian maestro has returned over and over again in the years since. He also maintains a studio of his own right outside Seattle.
Tagliapietra’s role in globalizing glass art is especially noteworthy in light of Murano’s legendary secrecy. While he is sometimes described as having divulged arcana that had never before been known outside the island, that is not, strictly speaking, true; however, Tagliapietra’s openness and accessibility (just about everyone calls him Lino) and his willingness to innovate based on time-honored techniques are typical of his personality and have made a major difference in the way several generations of glass artists go about their work. Tagliapietra is very often on the road, giving workshops and demonstrations—for example, this past February he spent two weeks blowing glass at the Hot Shop of the Tacoma Art Museum, where every day from early in the morning till late afternoon the public could observe him, Vulcan-like amid the furnaces, getting to grips with the red-hot material and working with his assistants to form the molten glass into astonishing works of art.
These works are extremely diverse both in form and color, and they stand on their own as pure sculptural expressions independent of any functional role as vessels. Since Tagliapietra remains just as active as ever, his most recent series show as much vigor as any over the course of his career. In the Ombelico series (2015), he causes long filaments of colored glass called canes in English and filigrana in Italian (the technique comes from Murano and dates back to the 16th century) to swirl concentrically through an oval shape, converging on a central point that evokes the idea of the “navel of the world” from ancient Mediterranean myth, the origin of life on earth. Some of the Ombelico pieces are monochrome, vivid orange or blue, while others combine myriad canes of different colors. The artist’s Nautilus series is, of course, inspired by the famous shell whose curves follow the law of the Golden Section. Tagliapietra says he found this particular form “very challenging, because it’s quite easy to make a mistake, and if you start with a little mistake you’re in trouble because it increases. I was scared to do it, but finally I found a way out.”
Tagliapietra’s art, in general, exists at the meeting point of abstraction and figuration (he himself has called it “a type of Impressionism with Venetian technique”). One of his recent series, the Dinosaurs, certainly doesn’t literally portray any prehistoric reptiles, but the elongated, curving shape of these pieces suggests the graceful neck of a water-dwelling pleisiosaur. Likewise, the energetic twisting of the Fenice (Phoenix) series somehow represents both the flight of a bird and the tongues of flame that consume the phoenix and from which it is regenerated. The Masai d’Oro series is based on the form of the shields used by the Masai people of East Africa, while the Fuji series is clearly inspired by the shape and constantly changing colors of Japan’s Mount Fuji, which Tagliapietra has visited and called “the most beautiful mountain in the world.” He is capable of drawing inspiration from any human culture or natural form and making it his own. One of his recent projects has been to create large, vertically mounted fused-glass panels that look like glowing paintings. These have often been compared to Mark Rothko’s abstract canvases, but Tagliapietra says they’re more indebted to Piet Mondrian, whose art he says he was “absolutely in love with” as a young man.
Growing up in Venice, Tagliapietra was first exposed to modern art through the city’s Biennales, where he saw work by such key artists as Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Mondrian, and, yes, Rothko. A particular favorite is Lojze Spacal, an artist from Slovenia (right over the Italian border from Venice), whose approach to graphic abstraction influenced the mosaic-like patterning Tagliapietra uses on some of his pieces. In the workshops of Murano, though, the young Tagliapietra was imbibing a very different set of attitudes and influences. The Murano glass world was very isolated from the contemporary art world, steeped in guild-based tradition, and it put up barriers to those wishing to enter.
Tagliapietra first saw glass being blown when he passed by the window of a Murano factory when he was six years old, and he immediately told his mother that he wanted to be a glassblower. Five years later, he dropped out of school to apprentice with the maestro Archimede Seguso at the Galliano Ferro factory, where for the first two years he was only allowed to carry water and sweep the floors. Eventually he mastered all the complex, intricate techniques and style that had been developing on Murano since the glass industry formally began there in 1291 (Venetian glassmaking actually dates back even further, to the early 10th century). During the 1950s through ’80s he worked at factories including Venini & Co., La Murrina, and Effetre International, which made functional vessels and decorative objects rather than works of fine-art sculpture. Throughout this period, due to postwar economic factors and cultural changes, the Murano glass industry was in decline. Passing its time-honored techniques on to the international contemporary art world turned out to be the best way to save them.
“It sometimes makes me sad because everybody apparently thinks I told the secret,” says Tagliapietra. In fact, some of the Murano techniques (labeled with technical terms such as zanfirico, reticello, pulegoso, inciso, and incalmo) had already been divulged by masters who traveled to London, Paris, Florence, and the U.S. earlier in the 20th century. (In the premodern era, glass masters were forbidden by law to leave Venice for fear of what they might give away.) Nowadays, even Murano has embraced openness; in 2002 the Abate Zanetti School was founded to teach ancient techniques to students from all over the world, and Tagliapietra himself has taught there.
For his part, Tagliapietra will use any method that will help him achieve the luminescence, form, and emotional impact he is looking for. He has adopted techniques he learned from Chihuly and other members of the American art glass movement that began in the 1960s, and in 2011 he collaborated with a team at MIT on a computer-based glass design project. The program was written to generate new cane forms beyond the standard ones, of which very few had been created in recent decades. Tagliapietra happily took some of the designs that the computer had generated, perceived that they could actually be realized in glass (for reasons having to do with physics, not all can), and made some large pieces with them.
For all that, Tagliapietra is still a very intuitive craftsman. He doesn’t even draw his design on paper before starting work, preferring to let the glass guide him. “I don’t do the drawing with a pencil but with the glass,” he explains. “I don’t draw very well, so I never express myself when I’m drawing. I need the glass in order to realize what I’m thinking. Actually, the glass helps you in many ways. You must give it the chance to express itself.” Like all glassblowers, he has to accept the unpredictable nature of his medium, which can cause pieces to collapse or fail to turn out, even at the last stage of a long and arduous work process. “When blowing glass, anything is challenging because it’s always possible to lose it,” he says. “The idea of the work represents the big conflict between the artist and the craftsman. The idea is wonderful, but you have to find the way to do it.”
In his ninth decade, Tagliapietra shows no signs of slowing down, either in terms of his work schedule or the speed with which he finds new ideas and inspirations. In a very basic way, he is a worker, formed in the factories, and he has to keep working. When he spoke with Art & Antiques, he remarked casually that earlier that day he had burned his hand on some hot glass in the Tacoma Art Museum’s shop. But it was O.K., he reassured us, nothing to stop him from doing what he needs to do. “It’s very important for me to work now,” he says, “to do different things with glass in the future, maybe with some new techniques. I have to go to work every single day.”
By John Dorfman