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The Palley Collection

Introduction to the catalog for the Lowe Art Museum (University of Miami) exhibition. This essay explores the connections between studio glass artists and the traditions of color field and watercolor painting.

 

Taking Form in Glass

Contemporary Works from the Palley Collection

By William Warmus

This essay (in a slightly edited form) appeared as the introduction to the catalog of the Lowe Art Museum (University of Miami) exhibition of the Myrna and Sheldon Palley Collection of studio glass artworks in 2000

 

 

Glass is an ideal sculptural material. It can be shaped in countless ways, tinted any color, made into sculptures of almost any size. True, glass is a high gloss, high profile art form that can sometimes seem overly precious and distant from the more earthy cares of the contemporary art world. And just when we are ready to deny glass a role as art, its fragility reminds us that it has, in fact, a central role to play in art: as a reminder that the underpinnings of aesthetic beauty are infinitely fragile. The fragility of glass connects it to the fragility of life.

 

One reason glass has been so successful as an art medium is that it has gained the support of collectors like the Palleys. The Palley collection, assembled over a period of twenty-five years, is one of a small number of major high style survey collections, including those assembled by the Saxes (San Francisco), Parkmans (Washington, D.C.), Sosins (Detroit), and Glicks (Indianapolis). Glass artists have been lucky to have the support of these, and hundreds of other, serious collectors, who travel the “circuit” of gallery exhibitions, symposiums, and art expositions and engage in a friendly rivalry for key artworks.

 

The successes of glass as an artistic medium tend to obscure the fact that less than 50 years ago, artistic glass was in danger of disappearing. The traditions of glass as art, dating back to ancient Egyptian times, and coming forward in America  as far as the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), had by World War II been largely replaced by industrial designers and mass produced  factory glass. Glass as art desperately needed new ideas and a fresh approach, and that came in the form of Harvey Littleton (b.1922) who effectively introduced small glass furnaces into the artist’s studio and launched an educational program in the universities to train future generations of artists to work comfortably with hot glass.

 

Littleton’s accomplishment is hard to estimate. Today there are hundreds of college glass programs worldwide, and thousands of artists working with glass. One of the beauties of the Palley collection is that it acts lack a combination time-lapse and panoramic camera, surveying and capturing the dramatic changes and best features of the landscape that Littleton discovered and seeded with his ideas about glass as high art.

 

Littleton’s own work was influenced by the American traditions of watercolor (as in Winslow Homer) and color field (as in Morris Louis) painting, as is the work of his prominent student, Dale Chihuly (b.1941). I think the argument can be made that when American abstract painting hit a dead end in the 1960s (in the form of broad expanses of color stained or sprayed onto canvases that seemed stretched to the tearing point), Littleton and Chihuly found ways to extend the impact of color by creating color field and watercolor sculptures in blown and hot worked glass of extraordinary limpidity and novel shape.

 

Paralleling the American scene, the great Czech artists and educators Stanislav Libensky (b.1921) and Jaroslava Brychtova (b.1924) drew upon the venerable Czechoslovakian tradition of cut crystal glass, merging it with the fine art styles of cubism and constructivism, to create cast glass optical sculptures like [insert title here] of surprising refinement and sophistication.

 

What defines glass as art today is similar to what defined it at the beginning of its history: glass art comes “from the studio” as opposed to  “from the factory.” Imported raw glass ingots seem to have been used in the ancient Egyptian city of Tell el Amarna (around 1360 B.C.), where one  excavator commented  (no doubt he was exaggerating) that “almost every family in the city appeared to be working in the glass and faience industry.” Glass was from an early time treated as a raw material (a very luxurious one), like semi-precious stone, or a prepared compound, like paints, that could be stockpiled and used as a palette by the artist. And glass was a part of an ensemble of materials that sculptors and craftspeople could use to create intricate, multi-media works of art. For example, the lapis blue glass inlays in the funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutanhkamen nestle comfortably into slots and hollows fashioned into the solid gold matrix.

 

Today, artists like Chihuly stockpile hundreds of color rods in their studios, while Dan Dailey (b.1947), a student of Chihuly’s, is noted for the deluxe ways in which he orchestrates glass and metal as an ensemble, for example in his lamp Nude Skulking in Weeds.

 

One of the difficulties of creating glass with a palette of colors derived from color rods is that these colors, for technical reasons as well as reasons of economy (the rods are expensive), must be used sparingly. Usually, the color tints are  put on, or within, a clear glass matrix (think of a painter’s canvas or a sculptor’s armature) that composes more than 90% of the molten glass gather that is subsequently blown into an artwork. Thus, most glassworks made this way share a high gloss finish (like a layer of varnish on a canvas or wax on a car). This shine can be highly appealing, but is also a challenge to the artist because it can sometimes impart a numbing uniformity to the work, and the glare of the clear surface can sometimes distract from the color harmonies within the artwork. Chihuly is a good example of an artist who works with color rods but has found a way to avoid these problems. By working very thin, or in some cases added an interior layer of opaque white, he draws our attention back to color and away from shine.

 

While much blown studio glass color is unambiguously cool (like winter) or glaring (like summer), a recent generation of glassmakers, including Dan Clayman and Hank Adams and Karla Trinkley and Robin Grebe, cast glass with solid colors that suggest an alternate climate. Their sculptures are solid and the colors extend all the way to the surface, or glow from deep within the core. The finely honed surfaces of these artworks, pitted with bubbles, activate the tints and texture the colors, resulting in a warmth and higher spiritual temperature. These are ambivalent spring and autumn colors.

 

In a formal sense, these are also narrative artworks. The quality of formal art depends upon the richness of the matrix of decisions made to create the object. We experience the artwork immediately, but the story of  the matrix, as revealed in the strata of the object, is what keeps us coming back. Is the viewer compelled to seek to unravel the story of all the decisions that the artist made in making it? In the presence of Clayman’s artifacts and Adams’ and Grebe’s Torsos and Figures, as well as Trinkley’s sculpted vessels, we feel an undeniable intensity.

 

Space does not allow me to do more than provide a few clues as to how contemporary glass might be interpreted. The Palley collection, with its focus on sculptural objects of the utmost integrity, provides much more. It is a key for opening this new world of art created from glass.

 

William Warmus

Ithaca, NY

August, 2000

 

Copyright William Warmus 2000

 

Warmus is a writer and former curator at The Corning Museum of Glass. He is past editor of Glass magazine, and his books include Dale Chihuly, recently published by Abrams in the Essential artist series,  Emile Galle: Dreams into Glass and The Venetians: Modern Glass.