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Heart of Glass

The Yale University collection of American glass illuminates the history of the medium, from artisanal exuberance to modernist innovation and beyond.

Toots Zynsky, Spring Grass II, Amsterdam, 1983

Toots Zynsky, Spring Grass II, Amsterdam, 1983, fused soda-lime filet de verre, 14 x 31.8 x 33.3 cm.

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The modern tradition of art glass originated in the United States, but long before there was a Dale Chihuly or a Harvey Littleton, creative energies were being poured into the crucibles of American glassmakers. While positioned as artisan work for practical use rather than art for art’s sake, earlier American glass displays a vast aesthetic range and an attention to form and color that was meant to bring delight to lives both simple and refined.

However, the idea of collecting glass objects in a formal way never entered American minds until quite late in the day, toward the end of the 19th century. In the aftermath of the centennial celebrations of the Republic in 1876, an awareness began to develop with regard to the historical value of objects that had previously been thought of as just “old stuff.” The concept of “antiques” crystallized as collectors raided attics and curiosity shops for new-found treasures, very much including glassware. Into the early 20th century, antique glass was pursued more for its historical value than for its aesthetics, although that would soon change.

One of the most important pioneers of glass collecting in this country was Francis P. Garvan, a prominent Yale-educated lawyer and government official who lived in New York. He and his wife, Mabel Brady Garvan, came into a tremendous fortune when her father, an Albany, N.Y., industrialist, died unexpectedly in 1913. Although Garvan had already started collecting American antiques, he went into high gear after receiving this inheritance, which enabled him to operate in the same sphere as a select few “super-collectors” in the field, such as Henry Ford, Henry Francis du Pont, and Ima Hogg. Garvan was aided in this pursuit by an art advisor, the glass scholar Rhea Mansfield Knittle. She traveled the country scouting pieces for Garvan to acquire as well as enhancing his enterprise with her research and connoisseurship skills. Garvan also made savvy acquisitions when the collections of his predecessors were sold off at auction, such as those of Edwin AtLee Barber and Frederick William Hunter.

At his death in 1937, Garvan’s collection went to his alma mater, with which he had established a donor relationship some seven years earlier. At the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn., it forms the kernel of and original inspiration for a comprehensive American glass collection that extends to modern and contemporary art. These holdings have recently been epitomized in book form as American Glass: The Collections at Yale, edited by John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Gallery. Through 155 carefully chosen objects, photographed, catalogued, and explicated, American Glass tells the rich story of the medium in this country, from 18th-century mold-blown vessels to 19th-century pressed glass, glass in technology, stained glass, and the studio glass of our own time.

Also drawing on Gordon’s research is the exhibition “A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass,” which will be on view at the Yale University Art Gallery through September 29. Co-curated by Gordon and six Yale students, it presents 130 objects in thematic arrangements that shed light on American material culture and design history through the prism of glass. The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History loaned some objects to the show in order to extend the narrative to include Pre-Columbian objects like an obsidian knife from Central Mexico and the raw materials of glass art such as a raw opal from Nevada, which is a form of silica, the same substance that makes glass.

In Garvan’s day, early American glass was virtually synonymous with the name of Henry William Stiegel, a German-born glassmaker who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1750. His American Flint Glass Manufactory introduced leaded glass to this country (“flint” is a misnomer in that this process for high-quality glass started in Europe with ground flint introduced into the mixture, but in this country the term referred to leaded glass without any actual flint). Stiegel, a self-made tycoon with a big personality who was known as “the Baron,” dominated the glass industry in late colonial times and was the first American glassmaker to get his own monograph, which was written by the scholar-collector Frederick William Hunter in 1914, just as Garvan was getting started. A notable Stiegel piece from the Garvan collection is a pocket bottle or flask for carrying small amounts of liquor. It was made—not from leaded glass—around 1764–70, and its rich purple color comes from an admixture of manganese. The bottle’s rippling diamond-like patterns were achieved by blowing the glass into a mold that pressed a design into it.

In the early 19th century, flint glass technique became even more elaborate, with an emphasis on cutting rather than pressing the patterns. Benjamin Bakewell, a Pittsburgh entrepreneur, acquired a failing glassworks and turned it around with high-grade production and clever marketing. A clear blown-glass vase, sparkling with prism- and pillar-cut facets, shows Bakewell’s ambition to create pieces that could stand alongside the best products of the European glass industry. A version of the vase at Yale was made in 1825 and gifted to the Marquis de Lafayette in appreciation of his aid to the American Revolution. It was engraved with a view of Lafayette’s home, La Grange, and the grateful French nobleman remarked that its “clearness and transparency might have been admired even by the side of the glass of Baccarat.”

From the next generation comes a piece with simpler technique yet a bold aesthetic statement. A leaf-pattern compote from either Pennsylvania or New England, circa 1850–70, in the Garvan collection, is made from pressed glass, but in thick pieces with almost modernistic forms rather than the delicate look of earlier pressed glass. Here aesthetic followed technology; by the mid-19th century, pressed glass had evolved to the point where it did not have imperfections that had to be hidden by intricate surface patterns. The boldness of this piece is heightened by the dark purple color that recalls vessels from Classical antiquity made of carved porphyry; here the hue was created by a combination of manganese, iron, cobalt, and nickel. The overall form of the compote is suggestive of the Italian Renaissance, in keeping with the Renaissance Revival movement of the period.

By the third quarter of the 19th century, a self-conscious art-glass concept had come into being in the U.S. The Sicilian Vase, a two-handled amphora-like vessel made by the Mt. Washington Glass Company in South Boston, circa 1878–80, evinces a combination of Classicizing historicism and ahead-of-its-time color experimentation. The pink, purple, blue, and green explosions of color over a black base make one think of the 1980s rather than the 1880s. The Sicilian Vase was apparently a response to public interest in recent excavations of Roman ruins, particularly at Pompeii, and the advertising copy somewhat hyperbolically described it as “manufactured from the Lava flows of Aetna.”

In the Beaux-Arts era, stained glass rose to prominence, spearheaded by Tiffany Studios. The Yale collection includes some truly spectacular examples, such as Education, the 30-foot wide Mary Hartwell Lusk Memorial Window (1885–92). This allegorical celebration of the life of the mind was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for Yale’s new Chittenden Library and named for the donor’s late daughter. In the center panel, angelic female figures with haloes labeled with abstractions such as “Devotion” and “Truth” are foregrounded by male figures quoted from Raphael’s School of Athens. In the left-hand panel, Lusk herself is portrayed surmounted by the word “Art” and backed by three angels whose haloes proclaim “Form,” Color,” and “Imagination.” Made before Tiffany had set up his own glass furnace, the window has glass sourced from various makers, including the Opalescent Glass Works of Kokomo, Ind. Among the other stained-glass treasures in Yale’s collection is Cherry Blossoms against Spring Freshet (1882–83), by Tiffany’s rival John La Farge, who referenced Japanese painted screens in this work.

The Yale collection, and the exhibition, do not limit themselves to these lofty heights of art—glass’ role in the history of American technology also gets its due, and considering the centrality of technology in American culture, that is very appropriate. The objects on view include a pair of green-glass spectacles from Philadelphia, circa 1825; an Edison light bulb from 1884–88; a Type H Triode made by the De Forest Radio Company in 1925; and a contraption from around 1890 called a Wimshurst Influence Machine. This was an electrostatic generator for amateur scientists to use in the home, made in Germany and sold in Philadelphia, consisting of a rotating glass disc bearing metal brushes, all mounted on a mahogany base. Glass’ importance in early photography is testified to by a framed ambrotype of the Peralta family of Oakland, Calif., taken around 1855–59. Daguerreotypy, which popularized photography in the 1840s, was eventually superseded by processes like ambrotypy that used glass plates coated with light-sensitive emulsions to form a negative image. And the show includes low-tech objects for everyday use made of glass, like a blown and etched-glass oil lamp with gilt bronze on a marble base, made in Sandwich, Mass., circa 1860–75, and an engraved green lead-glass salad dressing bottle made by T.G. Hawkes & Co. in 1916.

Modernist design enters the glass world in the 1920s and ’30s. An engraved Mariner’s Bowl made by Steuben Glass Inc. and designed by the sculptor Sidney Waugh in 1935 deploys classical mythological motifs in a spare and stark composition worthy of the Machine Age. A plate designed in the late 1940s shows the influence of geometric abstraction. Its maker, Maurice Heaton, an independent craftsman who was a veteran of the industrial design industry, favored plate glass to which he would apply powdered enamels either freehand or with stencils.

Abstraction is taken farther in a piece by studio glass pioneer Harvey Littleton. His Exploded Green Vase (1965) revels in the unpredictability of the glassblowing process, capturing forever the moment when, as Littleton blew too much air into the pipe, a planned vase form was transformed into something more interesting. The resulting piece, which manages to look both liquid and jagged at the same time, is a kind of Abstract Expressionism in glass. A more Pop Art approach to studio glass is seen in Marvin Lipofsky’s California Loop Series #2 (1969–70). The idiosyncratic, asymmetric yellow and orange shape, made up of colored bottle glass and uranium glass partly coated with electroplated copper, is playfully biomorphic.

Among the most recent pieces in the Yale collection is Hitch (1985), an abstract, uncolored work by Lynda Benglis, an artist who began outside the studio glass community and then came to work at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash. Benglis extended her practice of pouring and dripping latex into sand-cast lead glass. Here she manipulated the hot glass after removing it from the mold, creating an effect of viscosity and slow movement. And testifying to glass’ pictorial and representative potential, Josh Simpson’s Mega World (1991) uses pulled and lamp-worked soda-lime glass heightened with gold and silver leaf to create a model of the blue and green globe of Earth. Simpson, who is known for his glass planets, says he was inspired to make this one by seeing photos of the Earth from space taken by Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell.

Whether or not the conservative antiques fanatic Garvan would have appreciated such works has to remain an open question, but without a doubt the breadth of the Yale collections shows that American glass has always been and continues to be blown, poured, and molded into as many shapes as the human imagination can conceive.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2019

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