Glass sculpture depends on light almost more than any other medium for its meaning as well as its form. Light transforms glass, moving through it as well as around it. Whether Dale Chihuly's flamboyant, nature-inspired forms dazzle the emotions or Thomas Patti's cerebral, science-inspired glass meditations engage the mind, luminous color is the basis of the glass sculpture experience.
So when a smart, modest show featuring 13 glass artists (chosen out of 1,000 across the US) travels, it brings good news wherever it goes. "American Glass: Masters of the Art," at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul through Oct. 31, brings together a gorgeous variety of glass styles.
Glass sculpture is a relatively new phenomenon in the US - only in the last 30 years have American artists studied ancient glassmaking traditions. It is an expensive art form, requiring furnaces in which to melt the glass, annealers to cool it (and fuel to run them both), pricey tools, and studio space. Because glass is heavy, the artist must be strong and often requires the help of other artists and artisans to blow and form the glass.
Chihuly, one of only four Americans ever to have a one-man show at the Louvre, is at the pinnacle of the profession. Yet most of the blowing and forming of his sculptures is done by others in his studio following his designs and under his supervision.
The exhibition includes several of Chihuly's "Venetian Series." Based on Art Deco designs, some of the forms are exaggerated and certain elements magnified, giving each piece its own flight of fancy. All these objects could be functional - to hold flowers, for example - in deference to the ancient craft of glassmaking for household use. And yet they transcend function, too.
Dan Dailey's work includes vessels that beg to be left alone on display. Like Chihuly, he is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. But he has designed usable art for Steuben Glass and the Herman Miller Company. Where Chihuly leans toward plant and sea life for inspiration, Dailey tends toward an abstraction of the human form. His blown forms in this show are decorated with applied glass. Some are sand-blasted as well to achieve a unique, often humorous look.
Many of Michael Glancy's vases stand on platforms - plates of glass scored by rivulets of metal. He sometimes "jackets" his sculptured glass with metal - copper, gold, and silver. They look at once ancient and modern, rich enough to decorate a palace, yet at home in a modern museum.
Thermon Statom's fascinating glass and mixed-media assemblages explore architectural forms, building small interiors that comment on contemporary chaos and human need for order. Paul Joseph Stankard's small glass cubes contain "botanical" wonders - glass forms resembling real flora and fauna, the roots of which take on human form.
These artists and others in the show represent a true palette in contemporary glass. Most hark back to ancient techniques in order to express modern thoughts. But light and color still stand revealed in glass.
*'American Glass: Masters of the Art' travels to Hollywood, Fla., Dec. 4-Feb. 13; Macon, Ga., March 4-May 14; and Coral Gables, Fla., Sept. 13-Nov. 12.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society