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50th Anniversary of Contemporary Glass Key Information


50th Anniversary of Studio GlassGlass as Fine Art

By William Warmus

In its struggle to be recognized as a new species of art, studio glass has benefited from the recent multiplication of media. Artists (and audiences) have become more adventurous and may even be described as eager to explore and enjoy versatile and unorthodox art materials, whether they are high tech nanotechnology, low tech plywood, or somewhere in between, a place occupied by much work made in glass. The medium of studio glass is characterized by countless styles made in many countries, and so studio artists are inherently comfortable with multiple working approaches (think big factories and tiny blowtorches) and techniques (casting, blowing, engraving). During the early stages of the art, in the 1960s and 1970s, this multiplexing was sometimes seen as a limitation, as if the emergent medium had a flawed, schizophrenic personality. Now it is perceived as a distinct advantage. Glass is called “the new bronze” because of its highly desirable flexibility.

It should also be observed that a chief distinction of glass is that it is member of the small group of transparent  and fluid media. The others include water and cyberspace. All three share a “tele-vision” mode: objects embedded in these media can, under the correct modes of manipulation, remain visible at a distance: mistakes are difficult to conceal in such transparent realms. Distances can be artificially compressed, as when a slab of glass is ground into a telescope lens that makes the far seem near, or a stream of energy is coded to transmit an image from one place to another. And a key to the aesthetic of such media is the phenomenon of flotation, that objects embedded within these media defy gravity and appear to float in space, visible from all angles. This rich complexity makes the transparent media very challenging to the artist. They possess an openness, almost a nakedness, that inspires both desire and aggression.

And what sorts of art stories might be told in glass? Almost any type of story artists want, or need, to tell. That is among its chief attractions in an age of relentless artistic invention. And it is not a new role for glass. As a material for artistic expression, glass has long been part of multimedia artworks that seek to reinforce, and even create, legends. The funerary mask of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen is a masterwork of collaboration between the goldsmith and the glassmaker (for example, the inlays around the eyes are a dark blue glass: try to imagine Tutankhamen’s expression without these accents). That was 3500 years ago. By the year one, glassmaking had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, its products intimately familiar to princes and merchants, some of whom were buried in glass cinerary urns. And during the European middle ages, glass became the central medium, in the form of glowing stained glass windows inset into gloomy Gothic cathedrals, for portraying the entrance of spirituality into the heart of mankind. Glass is among the few media capable of transforming light.

Continuing in and expanding upon these venerable traditions, many of today’s studio glassmakers fit perfectly within a world where artists are expected to explore and merge diverse cultural influences. One and the same work might fuse Japanese formalism, Italian technical and color bravado, and American edginess of expression. In particular, it is a thesis of this book that studio glass artists have contributed significantly in four areas of artistic innovation: abstraction, realism, the investigation of natural forms, and what I call stagecraft: the theatrical presentation of artworks to an audience.

Pluralism emerged during the decline of formalism (primarily Abstract Expressionism) in the early 1960s. One of its defining characteristics is the emphasis of context over object: Politics, fashion, psychology, even religion and geography have all become essential elements in appreciating the meaning and quality of the artwork. And the speed with which the artist moves, in the form of adaptability, has become important. In the absence of any one defining style, all styles and all media compete for attention, and the successful artist is the one  who can outrun his peers, capture the fleeting attention of the public media and the art public, and then move on to some new innovation or sensation, his new found fame (hopefully) attracting an audience like a magnet.

Despite the attractions of pluralism, some key artists using glass remain unapologetic formalists who insist upon beginning and exhibit clearly articulated boundaries, and that indulge integrity of ending with the art object. They seek to create sculptures that form. The goal is to make something truly beautiful in an old-fashioned way, and to tempt age old desires: the eye’s delight in delicate color, the hand’s hunger for rich texture. Some of this work is not afraid to seem costly and elitist. And some is brittle, fragile, but also defiant and purposefully difficult: ultimately, the audience must find their way to the object itself (a reproduction just won’t do!), stand near to it, look at it or caress it. Formalist art is all about this challenge of appreciating and experiencing a definite object in all its lonely perfection. Formalists are the curmudgeons of the art world, but they can be endearing curmudgeons.

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