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The New Bronze?

 

Microsoft’s Studio Glass collection

 

by William Warmus

 

Glass is an incredibly flexible and multi-faceted medium, adaptable to many uses and environments. It can be functional, artistic, scientific; flat, blown, cast and molded. Some have called it the new bronze because of its emergence as a favored substance by a wide range of sculptors, but its defining characteristic is in fact opposite to bronze: glass is a transparent medium. It plays with light.

 

Glass as a substance for art and communication belongs to the realm of the transparent and fluid media that also include water and cyberspace. All three are vehicles for communication over distances even as they appear to compress distance, magnifying the near and far. In glass, this means telescopes, microscopes, fiber optics, and works of art. Objects embedded within transparent media seem to float and defy the forces of gravity, becoming visible from all angles of approach. Such profoundly complex characteristics make glass very demanding both technologically and artistically, as the artist must take into account multiple viewpoints. Artists Norman Courtney and Bertil Vallien optimize the flotation aspect of their chosen material, embedding illusions within the solidified fluid matrix of the glass. This allows us as viewers to literally see into the usually opaque worlds of inner space, as with Norman Courtney’s “Piece of Mind,” or peer beneath the ocean’s surface, as in Bertil Vallien’s “Crossboat.”

 

Although part of the appeal of glass is its modern high-tech character, the medium is quite ancient: the earliest glass furnace is the volcano. Fiery eruptions produce a darkly colored glass know as Obsidian, which was worked by human hands, before recorded history, into tools and weapons. William Morris has taken inspiration from the pre-historic societies that would have made use of obsidian to create his “Artifact Still Life” sculpture and Bison vessels.

 

Much later, in ancient Egypt (around 1300 B.C.) glass was cast and shaped from ingots made in furnaces, almost exclusively for the use of the royal court, where its ability to imitate precious substances was valued: The inlays in the golden mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamen are glass, meant to represent lapis lazuli. The New Zealand artist Ann Robinson carries on this tradition of using glass to evoke other materials in her cast “Blue Ice Bowl.”

 

During the first century B.C., glassblowing was invented in the Roman Empire, and this mass production process introduced the delights and functionality of glass vessels to a wide audience: the earliest glassmakers even made molded souvenir cups with scenes from gladiatorial contests. The mold blown sculptures of Charles Parriott such as “Flowered Soldier” have technical roots in ancient Rome and subject matter synchronized to contemporary politics.

 

The fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of the Middle Ages saw a marked decline in the quality of blown glass vessels, but a parallel rise in the importance of stained glass. These windows served both the mind and the body: they kept the great Gothic cathedrals dry while allowing light to enter, and they transformed this light into a symbol for the spiritual. Cappy Thompson merges glass blowing and stained glass traditions in her enameled vessels, including “The Lion Tamer” and “Summer.”

 

The Renaissance saw the revival of, and improvement upon, many ancient Roman glass techniques, and the rise of the great Venetian tradition of glassblowing continues uninterrupted to the present day. Artists including Dale Chihuly (“Blue Putti Chandelier”) and Dante Marioni (“Whopper Vessel”) are direct heirs to the Venetian master glassblowers and designers. Seattle is frequently called the new Venice because of the unparalleled concentration of glassblowers inspired by Venetian techniques.

 

Stylistically, the period from 1875 to 1950 forms the most direct basis for contemporary glass. The artists Emile Gallé, René Lalique, and Louis C. Tiffany, and the entrepreneur Paolo Venini, explored many of the themes that have been adapted by contemporary artists using glass. And it was in the early 20th century that the ensemble and stagecraft aspect of glassmaking was brought into the spotlight by artists like Tiffany and Venini, who assembled skilled teams of individuals to execute their ideas and employed famous architects and sculptors as designers. Tiffany in particular delighted in creating complete, and mesmerizing, environments for his clients. Chihuly is sometimes described as the Tiffany of the twenty-first century because he uses team of glassblowers, works on a grand scale, and considers theatrical presentation to be an essential element of his style as an artist.

 

 

 

During most of its history, glass was very expensive to produce and confined to an industrial environment. Tiffany and a few other artists had access to glass because they enjoyed the financial resources to build factories and train glassworkers. The individual most responsible for getting hot glass into the artist’s studio is Harvey K. Littleton. In 1962 he conducted a series of workshops (with scientist Dominick Labino and others) at the Toledo Museum of Art that mark the emergence of studio glass. An over-simplified definition of studio glass might read: Small furnaces, big education. Just as the development of the desktop, or personal, computer revolutionized one world, the ability of artists to build small furnaces in their own studios revolutionized another. And the highly ambitious integration of glassmaking programs into the curriculums of hundreds of colleges and specialized glass schools worldwide since 1962 has produced a steady stream of trained artists. For example (just thinking primarily  of artists represented in the Microsoft collection), Dale Chihuly studied with Littleton, went on to found the Pilchuck school, and brought the famed Venetian maestro Lino Tagliapietra to teach there. Dante Marioni studied with Tagliapietra, and William Morris started his career in the world of Pilchuck and Chihuly.

 

Studio glass soon broke through the technical and educational barriers (I conjecture that this happened by the mid-1980s), and a dedicated group of dealers, collectors, and museum curators gave support to the new medium. By the 1990s, critics and art historians began to focus on the purely artistic aspects of work made in glass.

I believe that glass as sculpture has made solid contributions in the realms of abstraction, realism, the investigation of natural forms, and stagecraft—the theatrical presentation of artworks to an audience.

 

Working glass is an especially elegant way to explore and represent natural forms. The scientist D’Arcy Thompson was among the first to notice this relationship, when he wrote (in the early 20th century) that “The alimentary canal, the arterial system including the heart, the central nervous system of the vertebrate, including the brain itself, all begin as simple tubular structures. And with them Nature does just what the glass-blower does, and, we might even say, no more than he. For she can expand the tube here and narrow it there; thicken its walls or thin them. . . .The Florence flask, or any other handiwork of the glass-blower, is always beautiful, because its graded contours are, as in its living analogues, a picture of the graded forces by which it was conformed. It is an example of mathematical beauty…” The primary examples in the Microsoft collection of glassblowers exploring nature in this profound fashion are Dale Chihuly (in his shell shaped seaforms) and Flo Perkins (“Desert Plankton”).

 

In the realm of the abstract, artists like Dale Chihuly, Dante Marioni and Yoichi Ohira share in one of the deepest insights of studio glass: that breath can be used to stretch a glass canvas and to modulate and shape color. The colors that they work with on this canvas are controlled, not by a paint brush, but by the quantity of air introduced into the molten glass mass (more air equals thinner walls). For example, Chihuly tends to prefer very thin blown forms where the color becomes ethereal and translucent, Marioni works in the middle realm, blowing his “Whopper Vessels” out just far enough to keep the color opaque, and Ohira works with thick walled vessels that can hold embedded glass canes that become windows into the interior structure.

 

Glass artists have also added something new to the portrayal of human character that forms the basis for much of realism in art. Glass is ideal for expressing simultaneously what is on the surface and what is under the skin; its translucency can be precisely calibrated by the artist, allowing a variety of depths of psychic penetration. We see this in the work of Charles Parriott  (“Flowered Soldier”) where flowers overlay and camouflage the helmeted soldier, whose interior is hollow.

 

As for stagecraft, glassmaking is naturally theatrical. Dale Chihuly was among the first to realize that glassblowing is like Chamber Theater, only with the warmth and intimacy generated by a campfire or hearth: the glass furnace and glory hole. And as a transparent medium, glass dramatizes. It is an optimistic and buoyant art, amplifying color and light.

 

The multiplication of media and art styles since World War II has resulted in what might be called “Enduring pluralism.” Art making is now truly global and multimedia, with no single style ascendant. Studio glass itself is not really the name of a style, but rather of a common technical foundation shared by some artists and artworks. I like to think that artists now draw upon one “hyper-medium” available to all, and that glass is one component of this hyper-medium. In such a world, the crucial factor is how the artist makes choices. That has been true of art since ancient times, and remains the central engine of artistic creativity. And the artists we call “studio glass artists” are distinguished by the elegance and wisdom of their choices.

 

William Warmus

 

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