by David M. Roth
Ancient glassmakers were the original light and space artists. Working with fire, sand and clay, Egyptians discovered that they could capture and manipulate light in vessels that fit in the palm of your hand. Though glass’ ability to colorize, shape, reflect, magnify and diffuse light took many different directions over the millennia, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that it began to shake the pejorative label of craft. It happened when artists learned they could create sculpture in small furnaces rather than in factories. The resulting movement, appropriately named studio glass, took the medium into the realm of fine art. Three shows at the Crocker, collectively titled Summer of Glass, trace these developments.
Little Dreams In Glass And Metal Enameling In America, 1920 to the Present opens a window onto the obscure (but fascinating) practice of painting on metal with molten glass. The Luster of Ages: Ancient Glass From The Marcy Friedman Collection offers a stunning glimpse into the
ancient, Mediterranean-centered collection of a long-time Crocker benefactor; while Glass for the New Millennium: Masterworks from the Kaplan Ostergaard Collection highlights contemporary studio glass works from around the world. It’s the largest of the three shows and clearly intended as the centerpiece of the trio.
One of the movement’s early leaders (in addition to Dale Chihuly) was Marvin Lipofsky (1938-2016), a U.C. Berkeley and CCA professor who scoured the globe to develop new techniques. The results of his collaborations with foreign artists were shown at a 2003 retrospective at the Oakland Museum of Art. Touring this show and seeing Lipofksy’s sole contribution – a shape that resembles a eel’s head wedded to a mutant jack-o-lantern laced with candied fruit– reminded me of why he and the lenders to this show, David Kaplan and Glenn Ostergaard, cast such a wide net: Glass sculptors are a far-flung lot whose methods and aesthetic sensibilities vary enormously. What we learn is that glass can convincingly mimic the look and feel of almost anything, be it solid, liquid or gas. That, in today’s climate of “de-skilled” art, feels almost revelatory. It emphasizes materiality, mutability and alchemical transformation, qualities that in contemporary art are in short supply.
While the show includes a lot of shiny, decorative, light-capturing minimalist-inflected objects, it also features many category-spanning works that, like Lipofksy’s Soviet-made form, dazzle by blending elements of representation, figuration, narration, abstraction, and in one case, even photorealism. Some of the best work in the show comes from places like Australia, Japan, New
Zealand, Denmark and Czechoslovakia, as well as from the U.S. Clearly, Kaplan’s and Ostergaard’s tastes evolved in the 15 years they spent building the collection. They started in 2001 and have amassed 300 objects. Seventy-seven are on view. The best to my eye are those that use the allusive and illusionistic properties of glass to reveal (or thoroughly conceal) the molten state out of which they come into being.
Karen LaMont’s life-sized kimono, Ojigi–Bowing, made of cast glass, is a fine example. It stands in the center of the gallery like an apparition, its semi-translucent “drapery” suspended in mid-air as if inhabited by an animate body.
Richard Marquis’ sculpture, made in the shape of a Civil War ironclad, might, at first glance, be seen as decorative were its checkerboard and striped patterns not so Op-ishly and eccentrically intertwined. Directly next to it is a two-panel “painting” that recalls a Richard Diebenkorn landscape, with slabs of green, gold and yellow ochers laid out in horizontal fault lines. It’s distinguished not by its fealty to painting, but by how the artist, Brendan Scott French, injected or etched squiggly shapes into the semi-translucent verso to suggest an imaginary universe of teeming subterranean life. That portion of the sculpture is linked to the front by an accordion form sandwiched between the layers. It’s the most complex piece in the show.
Mashiro Asaka’s Surge 9 has fewer parts, but equally arresting for how its carpet-roll shape calls to mind a frozen wave. Peering through the curl of it you may wonder, as I did, how the artist coaxed cast and cold-worked glass into the shape of ice crystals. I also wondered what forces the Danish artist Jeannet Iskandar summoned to make Oval II — a 2-foot-tall bulb of blown, cut and tack-fused glass – appear as an upright mound of folded chiffon ribbons.
Václav Cigler’s Half Egg, a Steuben-like orb of polished clear glass, induces a Robert Irwin-esque sense of spatial dislocation, stabilized, somewhat, by the inclusion, in the same vitrine, of a glass arthropod made by Matthew Szösz; that clever pairing makes it appear as if the bug hatched from Cigler’s egg. Other strong works, all abstract, come from Jan Exnar, Steve
Klein, Nicole Chesney and Claire Falkenstein, (the subject of a retrospective coming to Crocker this fall). Of these, Chesney’s The Soul of a Breath stands out. The photo above, while accurate, only hints at how light and movement affect our perception of it. Bathed in shimmering gold, grey and silver, the four panels of the piece change color anamorphically as you move from side to side. Bubbles on the surface, along with spectral amoeba shapes dusted in chalky white, evoke a living ecosystem whose vaporous quality calls to mind Turner and Rothko. Except for one thing: paint on canvas doesn't exhibit this kind of luminosity. It's something that only glass or its synthetic equivalents can do.
Little Dreams In Glass And Metal Enameling In America, 1920 to the Present shines light on a practice that ranks little more than a footnote in contemporary art. That is because much of the work, while superbly crafted, is too obviously derived from Picasso, Braque, Klee, Chagall, Mondrian, Gordon Onslow Ford, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and a great many others. Still, I found myself enjoying the show despite my inner critic telling me I shouldn’t.
The touring exhibition, which makes its next and final stop at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, was organized by the Los Angeles-based Enamel Arts Foundation and curated by its principals, Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson, who took the show’s title from a letter sent by Karl Drerup to a collector in which he refers to his art as “little dreams in glass and metal.”
One hundred twenty-one such works trace American enameling to the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement: first to the Boston school, then back to Viennese modernism and the mid-19th century French Limoges school. Most of this early work was created to embellish the work of metalsmiths. Several highly imaginative examples — trays, bowls, boxes and jewelry – are on view. In the 1920s, when small kilns became available, the focus shifted. Glass artists began to “paint.” While the original voices in this realm are few, they’re well worth seeking out. One is Fred Uhl Ball (1945-1985), an artist who died after being attacked outside his Sacramento studio. While he remains locally revered for his many works of public art, he’s well represented here by a gleaming 72 x 48-inch collage composed of enamel on copper cut into glossy, pockmarked swirls that form a kind of Art Deco carapace. Superficial similarities between it and the collages of Kurt Schwitters and the paintings of Lee Mullican may come to mind, but overall, the composition, which is untitled, feels unique. Helen Trivigno’s (1920-85) landscape, Plaque (Autumn Forest scene), appears ordinary, even mundane until you pick up on the flickering, visionary quality of it. It shines out from the leaves, made of gold and silver flakes buried in layers of translucent enamel. The show’s biggest star is June Schwarcz
(1918-2015) whose sculpture will be the subject of a career retrospective next year at the
Smithsonian, also curated by Jazzar and Nelson. She, more than anyone else in Little Dreams, demonstrates the permeable line between craft and art and the degree to which certain artists blurred or erased those boundaries. Her best-known works, two examples of which you can see here, consist of thin sheets of electroplated copper that are colored and sewn together to form dented, sagging, small-scale towers and boxes. The surfaces are wavy, and the geometric planes intersect crudely with each “face” showing a different patina. The only point of comparison I can site, and I’ll admit it’s a stretch, is the work of Ewerdt Hilgemann, a German sculptor who achieves similar imploded effects with a vacuum that literally sucks the air out of big metal boxes with a loud bang.
To put all of this into perspective, Summer of Glass takes us back to ancient times via the collection of Marcy Friedman, who, for 22 years starting in 1992, assembled a remarkable
collection, 52 examples of which are in The Luster Of Ages. She and her late husband, Mort, a real estate developer and philanthropist, acquired them during yearly trips to Jerusalem where relatives – “an ancient Syria expert” and a curator of antiquities at The Israel Museum – directed her to private dealers. Most of what she selected is Roman and dates from the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE to the 6th century CE. That, alone, makes their presence head spinning, though not nearly to the same degree as, say, Egyptian glass, which goes back more than 5,000 years. No matter. Every one of these pieces is stunning. Having been buried for thousands of years, many have acquired iridescent (silver-blue-green) patinas, the product of minerals decomposing on the surfaces. Describing their colors and optical effects given off would be akin to cataloging the world’s rainbows. These objects are, without question, the greatest treasures of the Crocker’s Summer of Glass.
They were made with one of three methods: mold blowing (blowing glass into pre-formed terracotta shapes), free-blowing and core-formed (shaping molten glass around a clay core which is removed after the glass cools). The vessels, which range in size from three or four inches to a foot tall, were used to hold oils, herbal essences, fragrances and balms, and were owned by the well-off, since glass, until the 1st Century CE, was an expensive artisanal product — unlike clay, which up to that point, had been a primary material for cups, bowls and beakers.
Initially, Friedman let beauty dictate her purchases, but as her knowledge expanded, so did her tastes. The result is a collection of vessels that are definitive examples of their respective categories. Many have unusual features: lumpy surfaces, asymmetrical curves and decorative patterns that, over time, have eroded to near oblivion, as in a deep-blue hydroskos from the 4th century BCE, incised with waveforms. Conversely, other objects align more closely with notions of classical beauty, the pair of tall, skinny piriform juglets, coated with milky, silvery
sheens from the 3rd-4th century CE being particularly strong examples. Two of the most eccentric objects are a double balsamarium with “twin zig-zag side handles” from the 4th – 6th century CE and a Date Flask from the 1st century CE, the latter shaped like its namesake and cut with wiggly, horizontal incisions intended to represent sun-dried wrinkles. A core-formed alabastron vessel (2nd to 1st century BCE) with a yellow-and-lapis lazuli ziggurat pattern and a pair of vessels shaped like spinning tops also command attention. The latter, identified as Eastern Mediterranean, carry repeated U-shaped forms stacked in columns, suggestive of characters from the Cyrillic alphabet.
The creators of these objects probably weren’t trying to make art for the ages, but with help from nature and time they succeeded. A thousand years from now, if there’s anyone still looking at actual objects (as opposed to electronic simulations), they’ll probably be looking at collections like this.
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“Little Dreams In Glass And Metal Enameling In America, 1920 to the Present” through September 11; “Glass for the New Millennium: Masterworks from the Kaplan Ostergaard Collection” through October 2; and “The Luster of Ages: Ancient Glass From The Marcy Friedman Collection” @ Crocker Art Museum through October 16, 2016.