Playing with Fire

The art of contemporary glass

The art of glassmaking dates back as far as Ancient Mesopotamia,  Egypt, Rome and Greece; stained glass prospered in Medieval Europe while at the same time Murano, Italy was renowned for blown glass.  In the 20th century many new methods of production  were invented and glass as a purely art form flourished.  A legendary workshop in 1962 led by American glass artist Harvey Littleton inspired individual artists  and designers to move glass creation in new directions, and since then a great variety of astonishing glass artwork has been produced.
Playing with Fire: 50 Years of Contemporary Glass at the Museum of Arts and  Design in New York City marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the American Studio Glass movement sparked by Littleton and highlights the diversity of art glass created during that period. An accompanying video helpfully explains a variety of glassmaking techniques such as glass blowing, fusing, slumping, sandblasting and dip molding.
Glass is a highly versatile medium with a variety of complex attributes. According to the show's Associate Curator Jennifer Scanlan, "As a sculptural material, glass has unique properties: its ability to hold, emit, and reflect light renders color more brilliant and animates figures and forms."  It can be clear and invisible, and is known for being precious and fragile. "Its translucency and transparency create optical effects, melding colors and distorting form." In a comprehensive selection of some 100 works, the exhibition highlights these attributes, and showcases works by renowned artists such as Dale Chihuly and others less well-known, as well as some better known for art in other mediums, such as Ettore Sottsass, Dale Turrell, Donald Lipski and Sandy Skoglund. Some pieces express the beauty of glass or explore innovative means of production while others use the medium as a way to express personal or political views.  Many reference traditional glasswork but in a totally modern way. A number of special installations are also included.
Harvey Littleton's "Four-Squared Sections," 1981, four squares with yellow and green bands, illustrates the technique of successive overlays, dipping each layer of glass in a separate color, one of the groundbreaking processes he pioneered.  Popular glass artist Dale Chihuly's blown glass "Macchia Basket," 1986, is a basket-shaped undulating form, pink flecked with blue, like reflections of light on water, with a bright green rim.  Famed designer, architect and co-founder of the Memphis group, Italian glass artist Ettore Sottsass is represented by "Sol," 1982, a fun example of the kind of more whimsical than functional pieces the group produced.
Nicholas Africano uses his wife Rebecca as a model and muse.  "Grey Figures," 2006, set on a hand-painted marble base, depict her twice.  With flesh a white opalescent color and leotards grey with realistic wrinkles, the figures are made entirely of glass.  They are clearly modern but reminiscent of classical sculptures, and possibly recall Degas' ballerina sculptures as well.  Sandy Skoglund is an artist known for making creative surrealistic sets or tableaux and then photographing them.  One of these, "Breathing Glass," 2000, an oversize cibachrome photograph of a Skoglund installation at MAD in 2000, shows standing mosiac human forms and a man and woman seeming to fly through space, interspersed with flying glass objects, two originals of which, dragonflies, are shown next to the photo.
Karen LaMonte's kiln-cast glass sculpture, "Dress 7," 2002, is a slightly larger than life size piece, which greets visitors as they enter the show.  It resembles an ancient Greek marble statue, but in glass,with no head or arms, the legs only dimly seen through the fabric.  The artist, who works in Czechoslovakia, invented this technique, which in some regards is similar to bronze casting, and which can take months to complete.  Beginning with  a live model and a dress, she goes through a sequence of elaborate steps of covering the forms or filling them with plaster, liquid rubber, hot wax and glass, even at one point employing hair spray.  The result is a modern take on ancient statues; in this case the transparency of glass allows viewers to see both the inside and outside of the piece. 
The exhibition includes video interviews of some of the artists talking about their work and its inspiration, and additional wall texts for some others.  One such text explains how Michael Aschenbrenner's "Manifest Destiny ?", 1991, came about.  His glass sculptures resembling damaged and bandaged bones, was inspired by an injury he incurred in the Vietnam War, when he broke his leg but had to walk on it for weeks before finding a hospital.  This piece emphasizes the difficulty of the healing process, both physical and emotional.  In this instance the delicate nature of glass was the perfect medium to express the fragility of the human body and of life itself. Paul Stankard described the inspiration for his "Flowers from McFadden's Field," 2008, a flame-worked glass sphere embedded with delicate 3D flowers and bees.  He said he always loved the out of doors, even as a child picking blueberries, and his work often depicts quite accurately flora from his native western Massachusetts and subsequent home in New Jersey.
Steven Easton explained his life-long interest in jewelry that began as far back as kindergarten, when he brought in his mother's star sapphire to show around, and after college a trip to  Rome which "blew his mind,' and influenced his obsession with treasures and treasure-like material ever since.  His piece, "Canal," 2006, made of kiln-cast glass, wood and gold leaf, presents two rows of cobalt-blue columns topped in gold surrounding a row of green/blue wavelike shapes.  He associates gold with treasures and the intense blue with spirituality, water and the natural world, other concepts that fascinate him.
In a special installation, Peter Bynum's large, wall-mounted "Untitled No. 202(Triptych), 2012, consists of 3 adjacent panels of 6 layers of flat sheet glass on which green, white and blue acrylic paint show underwater scenes of seaweed, all illuminated by l.e.d. lights.  To depict the lovely feathery/veinlike branches, Bynum paints the glass, and while it is wet,  puts another piece of glass on top of the initial one, then lifts it off; the paint pulls and creates the desired seaweed- like effect.
Using a cold-working technique, and employing a staff, Jon Kuhn affixes tiny pieces of optical crystal together with clear epoxy glue in his work "Orchid Spring," 1992, creating a pleasing multi-colored lights effect.  Also using cold work technique for his unusual "Vase #28/06,", 1995, Sidney Hutter uses plate glass, dye and adhesive to make a pink-topped spiral staircase that is surrounded by a clear glass vase about three feet tall.  In "Compacted Solarized Bands," 1987, Tom Patti heats up commercial plate glass and shoots compressed air into it, creating a volcano-like shape.
In a process called Filet de Verre, Toots Zynsky fuses thin glass threads onto a flat sheet of glass, then heats it in an oven over a mold and the glass "slumps," after which she shapes the piece by hand wearing special gloves.  The result, "Ravvivare,", 2004, is a large wavy bowl with subtle striations of pastel lines.
"Biggie Smalls" and "Rudy Giuliani," 1995, come from a series entitled American Faces that German artist Nils Grossein made in the 1990s.  Made up of mosaic glass pieces, in a technique that might be compared to that of painter Chuck Close, they present quite recognizable portraits of the notorious rapper and the New York City mayor.  The artist apparently required buyers to buy the works in pairs, although the choice of which two was up to the buyer.

In "Madonna and Prada: A Day in the Life of Madonna," 2012, by Joseph Cavalieri a triptych in several layers producing a 3D effect, the central panel features Paris Hilton, replete with halo, holding a giant red Prada shoe---with a large red Prada purse and another red Prada shoe in the flanking panels. The piece cleverly suggests that in current times fashion is the new religion.
Danish Steffan Dam works in hot worked glass.  His "Marine Group," 2008, is a grouping of 13 large test tubes containing delicately rendered marine specimens such as jellyfish.  Dante Marioni's blown glass "Orange Trio with Blue Outline," 2008, takes ancient vessel shapes and totally modernizes them with bright colors,  larger sizes and elegant, elongated forms. The Italian artist, Lino Taliapietra makes what he calls a "painting with glass." His "Central Park," starts with murrini, or mosaic glass, which he then softens in the oven and fuses together, creating a painterly or quiltlike view of a large sward of green grass surrounded by fanciful building forms in yellow, orange and purple. In "Senza Titolon(Untitled)," 2005,  Italian artist Laura de Santillana, shows four identical sculptures of female genitalia but contrasts them by making them in 4 different mediums: soft wax, plaster, bronze and hand-blown (red) glass, effectively emphasizing the different effects achieved with varying material. 
"Playing with Fire: 50 Years of Contemporary Glass" at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, New York City through August 25, 2013. You can access an audio tour by the curator here.



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