By William Warmus*
2012 celebrates 50 years of artists making art from glass. In 1962, the artist Harvey Littleton gathered a group of artists, craftspeople, scientists and scholars at the Toledo Museum of Art for a series of workshops that demonstrated that glass could be made into art in the artist’s studio rather than in an industrial setting: these came to be known as the founding events of studio glass.
The early workshops focused on blowing glass, although from the beginning there was also an interest among artists in all the ways glass could be used as an art medium: hot, cold, blown, cast, conceptual, abstract, realistic. Of course glass had been worked since ancient times. What gave these early workshops their defining quality was their focus on education: Littleton and others were intent upon bringing the medium of glass into university art programs, where once available, students and emerging artists could begin to make glass in their own studios. And from there, a gallery and collector base evolved beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Fifty years tells the story: a fiercely independent creative spirit emerged. Glass is now taught in hundreds of programs in the United States and perhaps thousands worldwide. There are dozens of prominent galleries exhibiting art made from glass, and leading museums display studio glass, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the De Young in San Francisco and everywhere in between.
The tastemaker Russell Lynes was a juror for both the landmark New Glass exhibition in 1979 as well as Glass 1959, which showcased primarily industrially designed glass, both at The Corning Museum of Glass. He summed up the changes that studio glass ignited: “the new glass is more romantic and flowing on the one hand, expressionist and tough on the other, freer in its design, more explosive. Its costume is blue jeans not black-tie, unmoved by the forms of etiquette and the manners of formality which pervaded the glass of 1959.”
What has also emerged during the 50 years since Toledo are a series of narratives about glass as art: aside from the focus on Littleton, there are narratives about the 1950s exploration of slumped, fused and cast glass as well as the emergent role of women in what was once an almost exclusively male domain. In part what we celebrate in 2012 is 50 years of effort on all these fronts to make this incredible magical medium available to artists everywhere. Glass has truly become the new bronze, but it is also the new paint, the new abstraction, the new architecture.
“Throughout history, people have suspected that glass is magic. How else can a material be explained that imitates other materials but cannot itself be imitated?…That is hot liquid and frozen solid, transparent and opaque, common and exalted?” – Tina Oldknow, Curator, The Corning Museum of Glass.
*William Warmus has been curating exhibitions and writing about glass since 1976, and is an AACG Advisory Board member.