The long and diverse history of Steuben glass is chronicled in two exhibitions at the Wichita Art Museum.
Unbeknownst to many, the Wichita Art Museum in Wichita, Kan., has been quietly building a major glass collection. Around 20 years ago, a local doctor and art-glass enthusiast named F. Price Cossman bequeathed his collection, which was particularly rich in Steuben glass, to the museum. Not only that, but he left money in trust for it to acquire more, and thus was the seed planted. We have a really wonderful endowment for the acquisition of Steuben glass in particular and growing the glass audience in Wichita,” says chief curator Tera Hedrick. Several years after Cossman’s death, the museum constructed an addition, the Great Hall, and with some of the Cossman funds acquired a Dale Chihuly chandelier and a a glass bridge sculpture to install in it.
The other important donor to enrich the Wichita glass collections is Robert Burnstein, a Detroit psychiatrist who also has a passion for Steuben, especially late 19th- and early 20th-century center dishes and candlesticks. Burnstein “stumbled upon” the Wichita Art Museum, says Hedrick, and “has given us a ton of objects and continues to gift us from his collection each year.” In addition to its permanent collection, the museum also features special glass exhibitions such as “Preston Singletary: Raven and the Box of Daylight,” which was on view earlier this year (originated by the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash.) and “Cameo Glass in Context,” a show of contemporary takes on cameo by two artists, Charlotte Potter and April Surgent, in 2018.
Now, the Wichita Art Museum is presenting two simultaneous exhibitions that chronicle the creative periods of the Steuben enterprise. “Art of Fire: Frederick Carder and Steuben Glass,” organized in collaboration with Seattle-based scholar and independent curator Vicki Halper, examines the tradition begun by Carder, the English-born designer and entrepreneur who co-founded the Steuben Glass Works in 1903 and ran it for the next three decades. By showing works by contemporary artists such as Lino Tagliapietra, Dante Marioni, Kiki Smith, and Andy Paiko alongside the older pieces, the show demonstrates how Carder’s creativity continues to be relevant for today’s glass art. The other exhibition, “Catching Light: Selections from the Wichita Art Museum’s Burnstein Collection,” is an ongoing one that gives visitors an insight into the collector’s taste by focusing tightly on certain glass forms that appealed to him most.
Carder named his glassworks after Steuben County, N.Y., where it was located, and he and his partner Thomas Hawkes originally supplied blown-glass blanks to the trade in the glass-making town of Corning. Soon, though, Steuben was manufacturing from Carder’s own designs, which were based on Art Nouveau and employed mainly plant and floral forms in a profusion of rich colors, often heightened by fine engraving. Steuben Glass attempted to rival Louis Comfort Tiffany’s enterprise in New York City, and it largely succeeded. Carder, ever the enterprising technologist, came up with a formula for colored iridescent glass that he trademarked under the name Aurene; it was a way to directly challenge Tiffany’s famous Favrile glass without violating any patents. While he did not handle the hot glass himself, Carder was intimately involved in all phases of the glass production at Steuben, walking the factory floor to check on quality. His standards were hard to meet, and the limited quantities of production eventually hampered Steuben’s growth.
In 1918 the firm was acquired by the giant Corning Glass Works, operated by the Houghton family. In 1932, Corning reorganized Steuben Glass Works and essentially sidelined Carder from the decision-making process. Times were changing; clear glass was seen as more in line with the Art Deco look that was then popular, and Carder’s style seemed out of touch. A new glass formula developed at Corning, called G10M, made it possible to manufacture brilliantly clear, geometric designs that harmonized with the streamlined modernist aesthetics of the 1930s. Carder, undeterred, maintained a private studio at Corning until his retirement in 1959 at the age of 96, and he explored various creative avenues, including making glass sculptures with the lost-wax technique—a foreshadowing of the direction that the American studio glass movement would take during the next few decades.
Among the works on view at the Wichita Art Museum, a gold Aurene vase from 1912 perfectly expresses the way Carder channeled inspiration from nature into works of advanced glass technology without any sense of artificiality. The pale iridescent green of the background contrasts wonderfully with the darker green and gold of the leaves and curling stems. Contemporary Venetian glass master Lino Tagliapietra’s Pilchuck III (1996), made in partnership with the Steuben division of Corning Glass Works, echoes some of what Carder was doing, but in a less overtly naturalistic way, using abstract black swirls over a white background. A green Aurene lamp by Carder from 1915 is even more overtly indebted to the vegetable world; its form strongly suggests a flowering plant, and its color seems infused with chlorophyll.
Even before the takeover, Carder made some concessions to contemporary taste, as can be seen in a Covered Cup from 1925. The amethyst glass is transparent and delicately engraved not only with leaves but with birds on the wing. In the fateful year of ’32, he and designer Sidney Waugh created a sculpture, Gazelle, from the fully transparent new type of glass. Aerialists, a cup from around 1953 by Steuben designer Bruce Moore, engraved with images of flying trapeze artists, epitomizes the post-Carder style of the transformed Steuben Glass Works.
Kiki Smith shows what a contemporary sensibility can do with some of the old Steuben tropes. Her astonishing Tattoo Vase (2007), engraved by Max Orlacher at Steuben, takes a traditional and graceful vase form and wraps around it not a sinuous plant but a snake, which seems to bite its own tail like the ouroboros of ancient legend. We imagine that Carder would have approved.
By John Dorfman