Published: August 14, 2012
For centuries, glassmakers have sought to exploit the diverse potentials of their material, especially the interplay of solid surface and the light it captures internally to showcase visual effects, notably color. More recent practitioners have elevated glass from functional objects to a form of high art.
The breakthrough came 50 years ago at workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) led by Harvey Littleton, who collaborated with others on techniques to bring glass out of the factory and into artists’ studios, stimulated artists to launch the American Studio Glass Movement and rejuvenated glass artistry everywhere.
To mark this milestone, a number of museums, led by the TMA, are presenting celebratory exhibitions. In Toledo, “Color Ignited: Glass 1962′012,” on view through September 9, showcases works by 1962 Toledo Workshops participants and major artists working in the medium. Focusing on the role of color in glass artistic expression, the 80 objects include works by Littleton, Dominic Labino, Marvin Lipofsky, Dale Chihuly, Dan Dailey, Franz Dreisbach, Dan Flavin, Klaus Moje, Ginny Ruffner, Judith Schaechter and Paul Seide.
Jutta-Annette Page, TMA’s curator of decorative arts, and Peter Morrin, director emeritus of the Speed Art Museum, curated the exhibition. “We wanted to tell the story of the last 50 years of glass through blue-chip artists with a focus clearly on how the movement developed,” says Page. “We wanted to capture the enthusiasm they had at the beginning †these people really had a lot of fun.”
The Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass has initiated more than 100 commemorative glass exhibitions, including displays at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art (through September 29) and Huntington (W.Va.) Museum of Art (through November 18). Columbus Museum’s director of curatorial administration Dominique H. Vasseur observes, “From Harvey Littleton’s first glass demonstrations in 1962, the studio glass movement has transformed the way artists use glass as an expressive medium, as well as the public’s perception of this colorful and amazing material.”
The first stirrings of the movement came in the 1950s when studio ceramicists and other craftspeople gained popularity and importance in the United States, and many artists, inspired by the trailblazing, experimental work of California potter Peter Voulkos, began blurring lines between functional objects and fine art.
Littleton (b 1922), was the major catalyst for artists interested in studio glass work. A legendary figure in the field, he has been around glass all his life, having grown up in Corning, N.Y., where his father was director of research at Corning Glass Works.
Littleton studied sculpture at Cranbrook Academy of Art and received a degree in industrial design from the University of Michigan. After service in World War II, Littleton returned to Cranbrook, studying ceramics with Maija Crotell, who “insisted that you be an artist first in everything.” He developed a successful career as a ceramicist, and, in 1951 began a quarter century of teaching at the University of Wisconsin. A trip to Italy in the 1950s, where he observed glass souvenir makers working with small furnaces, revived his interest in creating studio glass.
In 1962, TMA director Otto Wittman invited Littleton to lead a workshop exploring studio glass possibilities. Using what was previously a garage on the museum grounds, Littleton and his colleagues, aided by expertise from the local glass industry, jump-started the movement.
Initial attempts to use a prototype “studio” furnace to melt glass failed until local glass technician Labino and glassblower Harvey Leafgreen came to the rescue, providing valuable advice that made the experiment a success. Labino, vice president and director of research at John Manville Fiber Glass, guided the furnace construction and provided glass marbles that could be melted as a suitable batch. Leafgreen, a retired glassblower from Libbey Glass, demonstrated how to blow glass to the seven workshop participants. The first workshop was so successful that another was held in June 1962. The American Studio Glass Movement was born.
The development of a small furnace built for glassworking made it possible for Littleton to forge ahead. His glass creations, of enduring aesthetic quality and appeal, demonstrate his philosophy that glass artists must commit all of their talents to the task. Littleton’s glass objects have ranged from functional to sculptural.
Early on, he recognized the impact of postwar American art on the field. He said the fact that “the ferment and explosion of the arts that occurred after World War II, beginning with Abstract Expressionism and leading into Pop Art, Op Art, and Minimal Art were a release for me.” Littleton added that “glass was wide open in the 60s. There were practically no signposts for us. We were playing with the material.”
A 1970 glass object in the Huntington show, “Opportunity Trap,” with its graceful, repetitive blue loops, demonstrates Littleton’s early mastery of studio glass. As Chris Hatten, library director at the Huntington, observes, this piece “exhibits a kinship to Modern painting and sculpture, especially the works of Morris Louis&nd Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. The purity of color, the grace and simplicity of form place Littleton’s work firmly in the artistic currents of the period.” A black and white version of this piece is in the Toledo exhibition.
Littleton retired from teaching in 1976 and moved to Spruce Pine, N.C., where he set up his glass studio and has produced technically demanding, beautiful works. The standout Littleton work in the Columbus exhibition is “Blue Mobile Arc,” 1989, featuring an elegantly curved multicolored arc of glass delicately balanced on a clear glass base, accompanied by a small, blue-hued, rounder piece.
Toledo is displaying some of Littleton’s largest works, including the spectacular “Blue/Ruby Spray,” from the “Crowns and Sprays Series,” with its multiple soaring arcs. Inspired by Czechoslovakian techniques and made of a colorless and colored barium potash blown glass with multiple cased overlays, it dates to 1990. Its appealing, multihued, graceful form, which projects varied color effects from different perspectives, suggests why the artist continues to inspire fellow glassworkers.
Among the few surviving objects in the TMA collection from the 1962 workshop are seven clear glass objects, made of Johns-Manville glass marbles by participants Edith Franklin and Tom McGlauchlin. Their appealing shapes with surface incidents reflect improvisational glassmaking ability, although neither artist had yet mastered glass coloration. McGlauchlin, while later heading TMA’s glass studio, transferred painter Louis’s color effects to glass by applying color rods to the inside of vases or bowls, as in Toledo’s “Dessin de Bulle” Vase, 1978.
As Page points out in her catalog essay, Labino (1910‱987), the other founding father, pursued a distinctly different technical and aesthetic course in his glass work. “While Littleton emphasized the natural stages of blown glass bubbles in sculptural forms, knocking them ‘off center’ by adding further bubbled extensions, layered trails and tooled decorations, Labino’s long career in the glass industry had conditioned him to creating technically well-made objects of more traditional shapes with intricate colorations and patterns.”
By the late 1960s, after beginning his second career as a studio glass artist in Grand Rapids, Ohio, Labino was turning out large, vivid assemblages of panels featuring diverse images and colors. “Vitrana,” his 1969 grouping of 33 cast glass panels, consists of “thick panels with complex colorations in freehand, molten ‘inlays’ of color,” in Page’s words. This roughly 7½-by-9-foot mural graces the entrance to Toledo’s new Art Glass Gallery.
Columbus’s Labino example from 1971, “Tranquility,” is a delicately shaped, pink-tinted glass object that reflects the artist’s focus on color and exact technique.
Lino Tagliapietra (b 1934), who carries on the Venetian glass blowing and shaping tradition augmented by new coloristic concepts, insists on “color and precise technique,” says Morrin, making him “in many ways Labino’s ideal successor.” The Italian maestro’s versions of “Dinosaur,” dated 2003 in Columbus and 2006 in Toledo, are “tour[s] de force,” says Morrin, bringing together “all of the extremism of new color glass&※ his shapes are eccentric, with precarious narrow bases, elongated necks and minimal spouts.”
Americans learned about color in glass by traveling to postwar Europe, where German and Italian glassmakers were creating highly colorful works, often with use of color bars, which became indispensable to glass artists from the late 1970s on. Japanese-born Yoichi Ohira, working in Italy in the late 1970s, transformed ordinary vase forms into objects of vivid decorative complexity. Ohira’s work tends to be small, with harmonious balance and nuances of shape and decorative schemes that he compares to haute couture.
An untitled Christmas ornament-shaped glass object from Ohira’s “Murrine Incise” series, 2003, is decorated in a mosaic manner, with a surface that draws much of its “aesthetic impact from variegated textures and play between opacity and transparency with ‘eyes’ that&ot” the object, observes Morrin.
Italian color techniques, travels in Africa and initial experiences as a painter have influenced the almost blindingly colorful work of an artist with the wonderful throw-back name of Toots Zynsky (b 1951). Although she has toned down her palette in recent work, in the 1990s she created vessels with colors so bright that they practically leapt out at you. Zynsky’s 1993 works “Tiber’s Eye” and especially “City Lights,” both in the Toledo show, demonstrate an extraordinary color vocabulary, applied with bravura and daring.
Of course, no glasswork celebration would be complete without the ubiquitous work of Dale Chihuly. His basket sets of the 1970s, inspired by Northwest Native American baskets in Washington state, were light tan, idiosyncratically shaped vessels that attracted lots of publicity. Since the 1980s, his soft-shaped objects, exploding with exuberant, sometimes over-the-top colors, have caught the public fancy. Several of Chihuly’s 1980s rippled vessels with eddies of color bands that create an illusion of motion are in the Toledo show, and his “Talens Red Soft Cylinder with Teal Wrap” is displayed in Columbus.
True to its title, the Toledo exhibition is crammed with other glass objects featuring captivating shapes and spectacular colors by an international cast. Standout colorists include Gio Colucci, Dailey, Moje, Ruffner, Schaechter, Seide and Robert Willson.
The sophistication and fun of the aesthetically pleasing colored glass objects on view around the country this year document how far the Studio Glass Movement has come since Harvey Littleton’s seminal workshops a half century ago. Surely TMA President, Director and Chief Executive Officer Brian P. Kennedy has it right when he posits that “the next 50 years of studio glass promise to take this art form in directions currently unimagined, pushing the boundaries of its inherent properties and continuing to engage with color in ever more creative ways.”
The 208-page Toledo catalog, with informative essays by Page, Morrin and Robert Bell, sells for $39.95, hardcover.
The Toledo Museum is at 24445 Monroe Street. For information, 419-225-800 or www.toledomuseum.org .
The Columbus Museum is at 480 East Broad Street. For information, 614-221-6801 or www.columbusmuseum.org .
The Huntington Museum is at 2033 McCoy Road. For information, www.hmoa.org or 304-529-2701.
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