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50th Anniversary of Contemporary Glass Key Information


50th Anniversary of Studio GlassA Brief History of Glass

By William Warmus

Glass is the buoyant medium. Phoenix-like, it literally emerges from fire and ash (and sand and a few other ingredients) and air plays a central role in giving it shape. Hollowness abounds and is celebrated. The process of making glass can be highly theatrical, the colors available are dazzling to the eye, the final object highly resistant to decay but simultaneously rather fragile, like an aging diva.

The natural history of glass begins dramatically wherever there are volcanoes, whose fiery eruptions emit rivers of molten rock that include obsidian, a darkly colored and highly opaque glass. This precious material was worked by prehistoric and ancient civilizations into a variety of tools—the Roman historian Pliny passes on a legend that mirrors made from obsidian reflected only shadows, not images. Through a glass darkly? In a tremendous reversal of scale, contemporary glass required the development of very small furnaces—portable volcanoes?—so that artists could make glass in their own studios.

It was about 1500-1600 B.C. that the human hand became involved in the direct creation and shaping of molten glass. Archaeologists theorize that the production of ceramics precedes glassmaking and that early glass was almost an accidental by-product of ceramic glazing, which is a glassy process. Glass and bronze or gold are sometimes used together in antiquity [contemporary artist Michael Glancy carries on the tradition], and there is conjecture that they were created in the same workshops, both sharing similar techniques including core-forming. Perhaps the metal oxides that are a part of bronze casting were appropriated by ancient glass makers as coloring agents. When the first objects made purely from glass begin to appear, it is in the Near East and ancient Egypt, where glass was sometimes made from ingots imported from abroad. Much of the best preserved evidence about the role of glass in society comes from the capital city of the Pharoah Akhenaten, known as Amarna, ancient Akhetaten, c. 1350 B.C.

There is evidence to indicate that glass was made at Amarna in what we would today describe as a small workshop setting, such as the excavated compound of the sculptor Tuthmosis. Maybe these ancient studios looked a little like the earliest contemporary glass studios, some of which had dirt floors and primitive glassmaker’s equipment—the log bench and tent that formed the studio in the early 1970s era of the Pilchuck Glass school north of Seattle come to mind. Glass was expensive to produce, requiring large quantities of scarce fuel to fire the furnaces, and required great skill to work while in a molten state. This made glass precious at Amarna, found mostly in association with the Great Palace and owned by Royals. It was considered an elite substance and signifier of status, comparable to gold or silver, and it is probable that the material’s rarity contributed to its prestige. This established a pattern that has been followed continuously: glass remains today among the most expensive artistic materials to create.

Significantly, Egyptian Royalty favored vivid colors in the decoration of palaces and tombs, and the flamboyant and intense colors available in glass vessels and inlays probably satisfied this aesthetic need. Glass was also recognized as an ideal ensemble player that sculptors could use to create complex multi-media works of art. The lapis blue glass inlays in the funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutanhkamen coexist easily within a solid gold matrix. Today, artists like Dan Dailey and Dale Chihuly produce intensely colored, flamboyantly crafted sculptures in workshop settings that would be the envy of the ancient Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptian glass was mostly cast or formed on a solid core, and it precedes the invention of glassblowing. The earliest blown glass objects date from the first century B.C. in the Roman Empire. Blowing is a fast process, and there was something of an explosion of interest in making glass for everything from drinking cups to souvenirs of gladiatorial contests to cinerary urns. Some of these works were signed by the artist who created them, most notably the molded glass vessels of Ennion, a few marked “Ennion made me.” The Romans also excelled at casting glass, producing extraordinary small scale sculptural portraits of emperors and the noble classes. But the technology of the time did not allow for the production of artworks of any scale, for example a head the size of the one by contemporary artist Hank Adams would have been impossible to produce. Maybe that is why ancient glassmaking is sometimes called a “minor” art? But does size really matter in things artistic?

The invention of glassblowing unleashed a rapid development in the medium. As Donald Harden noticed, in writing for The Glass of the Caesars, “There must have been some experimenting before glass-blowing became accepted and well understood by glassworkers... but ...within 20 or 30 years they proved capable of developing almost all the inflation techniques still present nearly 2,000 years later in the workshops of their modern successors.”  It is possible to argue that a similar pace of innovation was not again achieved until the “invention” of studio glass after World War II. Artists like Lino Tagliapietra and Dante Marioni  are direct successors to the phenomenal masters of ancient Rome.

As Rome fell, traditional glassmaking declined. The Middle Ages would have been a true dark age for the medium, but in reality it was the opposite: stained glass was invented and it satisfied an urgent need for lighted (but also sheltered) space within the great (but at times glacial) cathedrals that were rising throughout Europe. Abbé Suger, who is credited with the development of the Gothic style, thought of stained glass as perfect for symbolizing the entrance of spiritual light into the hearts of mankind. Thus glass became a premier art form, an atmospheric art full of mystery for the most spiritually inclined, a cinematic art capable of telling stories to everyman. Contemporary artist Judith Schaechter has found new ways to merge mystery and atmosphere, and news stories to tell, in her gothic inspired panels.

If the Italian Renaissance saw the revival of, and gradual improvement upon, many of the lost techniques of glassmaking known to ancient Rome, it was the late 19th and early 20th centuries that laid the most direct groundwork for contemporary glass. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco artists Emile Gallé, Louis C. Tiffany, and Rene Lalique, together with the visionary entrepreneur Paolo Venini, collectively explored and experimented with many of the processes and themes that have been adapted by contemporary artists. Nature became a supreme source of inspiration, whether as a dying orchid (Gallé) or a voluptuous Peony Blossom (Tiffany’s lamps). They willed their glass to come to life and flow like lava (Tiffany) or melt like ice (Lalique) and  loved accidental effects and the look of ancient weathered glass (Tiffany used bits of ancient glass in his windows). Small parts were composed into gigantic wholes (Tiffany’s windows for churches, Lalique’s outdoor fountains) or details were made so microscopically small that their effect became decadently precious and dreamlike (Gallé).  All four were masters of the ensemble and stagecraft nature of glassmaking, assembling skilled teams  of individuals to execute their ideas, sometimes employing famous architects and sculptors as designers (Venini enticed the architect Carlo Scarpa to create handsome designs in fused glass).

But glassmaking—especially glassblowing—is a difficult art to learn and the equipment required to make it is expensive. By the time of World War II, the traditions of artistic glassmaking were in danger of evaporating: Louis C. Tiffany, our nation’s premier artist using glass, had been dead since 1933 and his work long out of fashion. Glassmaking with artistic pretensions had been replaced by “industrial design” as practiced in factories. What to do?

Some consider the founding event of contemporary glass to be the creation by Harvey K. Littleton, in 1942, of a small glass sculpture representing a nude female torso. This was not done in the confines of an artist’s studio but within the high technology Vycor Multiform laboratory at Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.). Like many founding events that later evolve into organized and complex systems, it contains none of the accretions that have come to define studio glass today: the artist was not alone in the studio, in fact the “studio” was a scientific laboratory, about as far away as you can get from the spirit of the artist’s realm. And  Littleton considers the first work he made there an unsatisfactory object, not a work of art. It  certainly has the appearance of a derivative copy, appropriated from an ancient classical model, and made from a figure Littleton had shaped first in clay. Littleton’s progress in glass was interrupted by his service in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, but he kept up his work on glass intermittently thereafter, always with the goal of encouraging more aesthetic experimentation among glassmakers, and a subsequent torso cast in 1946 became the his first exhibited work. By 1962 Littleton was able to conduct a series of workshops (with scientist Dominick Labino and others) at the Toledo Museum of Art that are generally thought to mark the birth of studio glass.

What makes the 1942 object significant is that Littleton willed it into being, in the process anticipating the trajectory of contemporary glass. It was a point of conception, even if the gestation period was 20 years long. The rest would come later: the small furnaces (1962), the educational programs (1960s and 1970s), the museum and gallery exhibitions. Perhaps Littleton’s willfulness is the defining aspect of the contemporary glass movement—artists using glass are not noted for their reticence! Littleton, a Corning native, was perhaps influenced in this regard by Frederick Carder, the founder of Steuben Glass, who was something of a rebel and very strong willed.

Today we appear to have come full circle from Littleton’s earliest attempts to free art from industry, as artists (and not just those using glass) are ever more intent upon exploring the connections between art and science and technology, producing artworks that appear to have emerged from laboratories or factories, even as the appropriation of imagery from any age, era, or culture is accepted as an authentic method of art making. Glassmakers have been doing this—well, virtually forever—and so it is satisfying to see that the trajectories of the various parts of the art world are at last intersecting in fruitful ways.

It took Littleton until the 1960s to pull together all the basics that truly define studio glass: dependable studio scale furnaces and an educational curriculum to turn aspiring youngsters (among them Marvin Lipofsky and Dale Chihuly ) into glass artists, and to keep turning them out in mass, hopefully forever, all over the world. This movement was paralleled in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) by the pioneering teacher-artist pair Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova. An independent-minded Czech artist, Frantisek Vizner, working under Kafakesque conditions during the cold war era, succeeded in producing a series of vessels as perfect as anything ever made by human hands. 

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