Glass, Once a Craft, Rates as an Art Form

Speed Museum in Louisville highlights last 30 years

SCULPTURE in glass is all about light. Transparent or translucent, glass art incorporates light as part of form itself. As it plays over and through the surface, revealing interior secrets or intensity of color possible in no other medium, light transforms glass and its final effect on the eye.

When the light changes, the sculpture changes. More than that, in many works light takes on symbolic or metaphorical meaning, which adds a whole other dimension to the work. This is all crystal clear at a stunning exhibition, "The Art of Contemporary Glass," at the J.B. Speed Museum here.

The exhibition celebrates the revolution in glassmaking over the last 30 years. Many of the greatest international artists are represented here, and the idiosyncratic selection, made by donors Adele and Leonard Leight, is consistently excellent. The museum distinguishes among seven categories, dividing some 80 glass pieces into representational and narrative forms; organic shapes; symbolic forms and metaphors; architectural works; small works; geometries; and updated traditional forms. In evidence is a p ronounced move away from glass's utilitarian past to personal artistic statements.

Those forms that are still utilitarian - an exquisite bowl from Dale Chihuly's "Indian Basket" series, for example - move into the realm of high art in their refinement of detail, color, and originality of form. Chihuly is a seminal figure in American glass, well known for his expressive pieces. Just as many Abstract Expressionist paintings are about the painting process, gesture, color, and emotion, "Glowing Orange Venetian with Coils" revels in the glassmaking process - how it is blown, coiled, and twi sted with heat.

American Jay Musler is clearly enamored of the German Expressionists in his eery expressionist "Architectural Landscape Bowl," which is brilliant red-orange except for an uneven black rim, which resembles the skyline of a nightmare city. Diana Hobson's pate-de-verre (glass paste) vase is so fine and so thin, it resembles spun sugar.

So much of the work that eschews the practical altogether is riveting. Hank Murta Adams's severe bust of a woman, "Ethel," is cast glass - made by fusing powdered glass in a one or two-piece mold - with enameled copper wires for hair and decoration. It is a bold, disturbing piece. The translucence of the glass defies its apparent weight and the stern attitude of the figure. Ugly, almost grim, "Ethel's" character shines through her. Murta's blown-glass transparent "Elsie" owes much to Modernism, with its skewed and simplified features. Psychological penetrations are implied by the transparency of the piece - we see right into her.

One of the most exquisite sculptures in the entire show is a sand-cast glass form, patinated with copper, by American Howard Ben Tre. "Type IV" is a triangle form crowned with another inverted triangle. Mysterious, simple, elegant, the piece looks like an oriental bronze at first - then, on closer inspection, like some translucent stone. Only when the light is behind it do we see the special quality of the glass, which appears to glow from within.

"This is a truly new art form," says Peter Morrin, curator of the show and director of the Speed Museum, "because what we have here are literally objects that could not have been made 30 years ago. In 1966, the Toledo Art Museum did a breakthrough workshop on blown glass. Before that, if you wanted to be a glass artist you worked in a factory setting like the Steuben Works. But actually making things yourself only began then at the Toledo workshop. All these objects called upon possibilities that simply hadn't existed before. For blowing glass, you need three ovens - an oven in which to melt the glass, an oven in which to work the glass, and you need an oven in which to anneal the glass [cool it down]. So, in one instance, a cast-glass piece needed to be cooled down over a period of a month. A computer was used.... So glass artists readily use advanced technology, and at the same time they are working at something very, very ancient."

Indeed, man-made glass has been around for 4,000 years. Glass is formed by melting together sand, ashes, and lime - the same ingredients used since antiquity. The greatest advance in glass history was the invention of glassblowing about 50 B.C. Short puffs of air are blown into a long pipe at the end of which a chunk of molten glass can be formed into a variety of shapes. The great American advance came in the 1820s when glass was manufactured by machine for mass production. A hundred years ago, art glas s came into the vocabulary with the works of Tiffany and Steuben. And now there are computerized temperature controls.

O glass has moved out of the realm of high craft and into high art. "Metamorphosis," by Maria Lugossy of Hungary, is polished, laminated, and sandblasted glass in two parts. Like a pyramid broken down the middle, this piece reminds me of movie special effects - water frozen in motion, in an ancient shape, out of which something new comes into being. But it is also about geological time.

Czech artists frequently employ optical glass in their sculptures. Bretislav Novak builds his "Observatory" with cut-and-polished cast optical glass. Magnifying and reflecting what surrounds it, the piece speaks to self-reflection and observation.

Another series of fabulous pieces belongs to Czech artist Frantisek Vizner. These hand-cut, cast-glass works require back lighting to reveal their pure-form secrets. One is a red cylinder, another is a deep green rectangular shape. They tantalize the eye with their weight and with their distended teardrop forms.

Perhaps less appealing are those pieces that, however difficult to produce, still seem more craft than art. And yet, all of them draw the eye because the material itself is so appealing. Here is a way into contemporary art for even the most skeptical viewer, Morrin points out. This work requires great craftsmanship, and the materials are so beautiful, that it draws instant respect even to outlandish forms like a group of three slightly twisted tall shapes that form a lyrical shape in the air (Harvey Litt leton's "Untitled" from "The Implied Movement Series").

"I have a strong sense of a metaphysical quest in a lot of these sculptures," Morrin says as we gaze at "Allegory" by Antoine Leperlier of France. The pate-de-verre piece incorporates a quote from the French poet Mallarme into a sphere with a reflective device inside and what look like spider webs. The viewer's own image is caught in it. It is startling, evocative, beautiful, and a little dark too.

* The exhibition ends May 9.

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