SOFA New York City

At the Park Avenue Armory

Internet Dispatches by William Warmus

Saturday, May 22, 1999 Update

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Marx wrote that the ghosts of ancient Rome watched over the birth of the French Revolution. At the venerable Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York City, the ghost of Louis Comfort Tiffany does indeed watch over the quiet revolution that has taken place in studio glass. The front of the armory is filled with rooms decorated by Tiffany Studios, while high overhead in the exhibition space is a Tiffany and Co. clock, surrounded by empty packing boxes, its hands  stopped forever at 10:30 (AM or PM?).

Visitors to the SOFA exhibition (May 20-23, 1999) may not immediately realize it, but all the makings for a thumbnail sketch of the history of studio glass are in place in the hall. A little detective work is, however, required. The first thing that will catch you eye is new work at Heller Gallery by the justly famous Italian maestro, Lino Tagliapietra. A detail of one of his large glass panels is below, made from canes of glass fused together like a mosaic. The centers of the canes that appear white in the image are in fact transparent, showing the wall of the gallery behind them. Tagliapietra is important because he was the first skilled Italian maestro to teach in America, and his influence on studio glass artists has been terrific.

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After the drama of Tagliapietra's new work, I went looking for sculptures by the founder of studio glass, Harvey Littleton. Several of his now rare artworks (he stopped making glass in 1991) are on display at Littleton Gallery, and the detail of the one below reminded me that Littleton was indeed aware of the Italian tradition of glassmaking, as the cross section of the sculpture is essentially derived from Italian cane forming techniques. Below, a detail of Blue Ruby Extended Arc, 1989. Littleton's particular genius was to take this ancient technique and turn it into a sculpture, perhaps a little like Duchamp turned a snow shovel into a work of art through the force of his will, except that the Littleton is far more beautiful.

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I happened to encounter the artist's daughter (and gallery director) Maurine Littleton while photographing this detail in the morning before the exhibition opened to the public, and she immediately took me over to Heller Gallery's "back room," a closet-like space with shelves where a very early 1960s work by Littleton was hiding behind a curtain. It is shown below in Maurine's hand for scale:

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O.K. I admit it may not seem like much compared to the extravaganzas of contemporary studio glass, but you need to put yourself back into the 1960s when Littleton had just "invented" (with Dominick Labino) the small furnace and techniques that allowed artists for the first time ever to work glass in their own studios instead of a factory setting. At that time, it was exciting just to blow a bubble from the ultra hot, honey molten glass. But even at that early stage, Littleton was an innovator--he stuck some bubbles on the side and made the work "pop," again updating an ancient process and bringing it into line with the spirit of contemporary art. It was a vessel like this one that the Museum of Modern Art acquired for its collection in 1965.

Major technical innovation is rare in glass. Even a seemingly new product like fiber optic cable has roots in the process of thread decoration developed in ancient Egypt and Sumer (c.1500 B.C.). Littleton innovated when he took the furnace out of the factory and put it into the artist's studio. Beyond Littleton, perhaps the major technical innovation with aesthetic impact was made by the artist Thomas Patti (exhibiting at Heller Gallery at SOFA), in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he combined the two vast areas of glassmaking, flat glass and blown glass, into a single artwork, producing objects of extraordinary subtlety. The detail below (at Heller) shows a blown bubble penetrating fused sheets of glass. Patti's work has links to color field painting and minimalism, the flat planes of glass forming a virtual horizon against which the bubble pushes.

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In the late 1980s and 1990s, Patti turned to architectural flat glass, producing panels fused from sheets of glass, "programmed" with reflective metallic layers and evocative of depth despite (or perhaps because of) their thinness. The daughter of the Manocherians (studio glass collectors) responds to one of these panels below (at Heller).

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A detail of the reflective "metallic" layer in the panel.

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Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) was the hotbed of the other significant revolution in glassmaking after World War II, led by the noted artists and teachers Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova (see way below for an example of their work). One significant artist in this tradition is Frantisek Vizner, although in some ways his work stands off to the edge. The two vessels below are at SOFA.

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Vizner bowls at Galerie Na Janskem Vrsku

In an elegant lecture at the Glass Art Society conference in Corning in 1984, Frantisek Vizner sought to clarify the position of his work: "The vase always was and still remains my positive destiny in glass...I look upon the contemporary decline in interest in the functional value of glass and the preference for free creation as fashion....The vase presents a frightening and at the same time beautiful limitation of functions: the simple limitation produced by the shape of the hand and then the law of pure production technology." Since my first encounter with his work in 1978, Vizner has represented the essence of the Czech spirit of glassmaking. There is an allusion to Kafka in the absurdity of carving precise vessels by hand in an age of rampant mechanical reproduction, a time when no one seems to care about details. And yet beauty (again like Kafka) emerges from this extreme, seemingly hopeless, repetitive labor. These are among the most perfect objects ever created.

The remainder of the studio glass history is under construction, but look below for more images from SOFA NYC

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Bertil Vallien sculpture at Heller


The "three birds" at SOFA

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Detail of Marc Petrovic sculpture at Riley-Hawk


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Detail of William Morris sculpture at Habatat


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Detail of Karla Trinkley sculpture at Elliott-Brown


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New work by Edols and Elliott at The Bullseye Connection


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Libensky-Brychtova sculpture at Heller


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David Reekie sculpture at Miller


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Chihuly Jerusalem series at Habatat


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Pike Powers (detail, with flame) at Elliott-Brown