By William Warmus
Above: Detail of Eve vessel by Lino Tagliapietra for Steuben, shown at SOFA Expo Chicago, October 1998. Blown and deeply engraved lead crystal.
The final version of this essay appeared in a publication by Steuben that accompanied exhibitions of the work of Lino Tagliapietra in New York and Chicago in the autumn of 1999.
The ancient art of glassmaking has something interesting to say about the spectacular and the private, realms traditionally held to be distinct. Lino Tagliapietra offers them in graceful balance: the spectacle of glassblowing aimed at the creation of an artwork meant to inhabit our private space. The dramatic environment of the glass factory is his theater for the creation of the intimate monologue, the fantastic object that he will form on stage. Tagliapietra describes this approach as "having a conversation with the furnace."
Born in 1934 on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon, Tagliapietra began as an apprentice glassmaker at the age of 11 and attained the rank of maestro by age twenty-one. In 1979, the artist Dale Chihuly invited him to the United States to teach; since then, in the words of Seattle artist Ben Moore, Lino has had "an insane impact" on the American studio glass movement. I call this the Lino effect, a harmonizing of perfection, wisdom, and mystery.
So it was perhaps inevitable that Tagliapietra and Steuben would meet. Steuben's Creative Director Peter Aldridge views the partnership as a melding of "the artistic talents of one of the greatest glassmakers of our time, with the extraordinary clarity and unsurpassed quality of Steuben glass." Tagliapietra says that, "the name Steuben is mystical and carries a lot of meaning for me. It was a name that I heard when I was young, and it was associated with many beautiful things I saw. It was a challenge, because I was using crystal instead of glass to make my designs. The quality of the crystal is high, but difficult to work with. It has broadened my appreciation for this medium." With the approximately 60 masterworks he made in Corning in 1998, Tagliapietra joins the select ranks of a group of artists and poets who have worked with Steuben since the late 1930s including Henri Matisse, Georgia O'Keefe, Salvador Dali, Isamu Noguchi, Marianne Moore and W.H. Auden. Exclusively among these, Tagliapietra is the first to form a body of work on the blowing room floor, supported by a team at Steuben.
It is a curious art, working with heat and smoke and noise and steel tools and red hot glass to create a fragile form that is frozen light, stopped motion, condensed breath. The perfection of Tagliapietra's Steuben vessels is all the more satisfying when the odds against their existence are tallied. You need what Lino calls "this incredibly fancy glass," fanatically pure. You need to keep it pure; Lino remarked after one blowing session that "with crystal glass, you see one tool mark, its like you killed somebody." Tool marks leave wounds that must later be erased with polishing wheels and hours of time. And you need Lino, the absolute maestro who can fix things when they go wrong. It is all like a struggle with some vast natural force.
The writer Paul Valery, meditating on the causes of perfection in Sea Shells, wrote that "there are certain special cases where we can compete with nature." Glassmaking is such a case, and in each generation there are a few (two? three?) glassmakers who seem to have been given a dispensation to compete with nature, not arrogantly but sympathetically. Perhaps nature challenges these glassmakers to give life to glass. Or perhaps there is a challenge to tackle the sublime spectacle of nature and try to tame it, coax it down into human scale. Tagliapietra's colleague and biographer, Giovanni Sarpellon, sees Lino as a seeker to "enhance" glass, to make "an object that is worthy of glass." He remarks that in the factory, "man may feel close to divinity." Tagliapietra describes it this way: "I have a total and exclusive relationship with glass, which I take from the furnace and bring into shape progressively. It is the center, the motor of the whole action. I follow it; I give it birth just like a midwife who must accompany natural movements."
Detail of Tagliapietra Saturno Sculpture for Steuben, shown at SOFA Expo Chicago 1998
I see Tagliapietra's competitiveness and his sympathy for nature when I look at Eve and Spiral Bowl. My initial reaction is pure desire: I want to own them. They satisfy some elemental need like the joy exercised in picking an apple from a tree or collecting sea shells along the ocean's edge. Look at Eve: A big lung full of air, a neck too small to let that air escape. As artist Martin Blank says: "a huge inhale, but it cannot exhale." A brave neck: so delicate, almost severed by the engraver's wheel, outpost of an engraving that expands and saturates one side of the vessel, following the cleft formed by the artist's tool, leaking out the bottom as a ragged shadow. Snub nosed edges of this engraving intrude only slightly into the perfect calm and clarity of the opposite hemisphere where, in the words of Peter Aldridge, "the work is experiencing a different form of life by the play of light." The transparent half of Eve bounces light at us while the engraved half, all pearl and texture, glows from within.
Spiral Bowl is aptly described in a sentence written by Steuben's third president, Thomas Buechner: "It holds forever still the motion that made it." Just as the sea shell has grown from the juices of the ocean, Spiral Bowl has grown from the molten glass of Steuben--with nurturing from Tagliapietra. Valery again: "perfection in art...is only a sense of desiring or finding in a human work the sureness of execution...revealed to us by the humblest of shells."
A major contribution of Steuben's second president, Arthur Houghton, was the elevation of Steuben glass to the level of gold or platinum, endowing it with magical properties, and thereby giving his glassmakers and designers the material from which to produce perfect objects. Of course, the danger that magicians and glassmakers share is that their magic will conjure a spectacular illusion, without substance, and therefore rejected by a skeptical audience. Not so with Eve or Spiral Bowl; these are not illusions, they are perfect objects. Tagliapietra creates with sincerity and without irony; rather than mocking perfection, he embraces it and asks only: how can I match my artistry to the beauty of this material?
William Warmus, guest curator of Steuben at SOFA Chicago 1998, is a writer and critic.
Ithaca, New York