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Glass imaginings

[Photo: Museum of Fine Arts]
Ginny Ruffner, History of Surrealism, 1991, glass.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003

The studio art on exhibit at St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts takes glass beyond the utilitarian to a form of artistic expression that was born in the United States.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Studio glass is what photography was 50 years ago, a new kid on the art block. Viewed by some as more craft than art, the medium's popularity and commercial success haven't helped.

Dale Chihuly, the best-known studio glass artist in the world, has become the go-to guy when big, splashy (and expensive) art is called for in a Las Vegas hotel or an office tower lobby. Does that make studio glass a lower form of art? No, and probably in less than 20 years, the issue will have become a nonissue.

"Steuben and Beyond: Contemporary Glass Sculpture from the Penny and Elton Yasuna Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts consists of 23 works and does not provide a definitive qualification for studio glass' place in the pantheon of fine art. But it is represented by many big names in the medium and shows the range of possibilities, technically and aesthetically, and the advances made in the movement during its short history.

The studio glass movement began in the early 1960s. Harvey Littleton, a professor of ceramics whose father was director of research at Corning Glass Works, is credited as its founder, though really, the movement is simply a return to an older tradition. Glass blowing is thousands of years old, and for most of that time, it was the province of individuals or small groups of artisans.

That changed during the Industrial Revolution, when glass production moved to factories and became more utilitarian. Even the finest manufacturers used teams to produce their products. An artist was usually involved only at the beginning, for design, or at the end, for the final embellishments.

Everything was produced in large foundries, where technicians worked with extremely high firing temperatures impossible to duplicate in a small artisanal workshop. Littleton's experiments with materials having lower melting points demonstrated that glass could be fired in lower-temperature furnaces, even studio kilns, and worked by individual artists. The movement was born.

The work chosen from the Yasunas' extensive collection makes the point right away that studio glass, or art glass as it's sometimes called, is nonfunctional and best judged by thinking of it as sculpture.

In these artists' hands, glass is painted, acid-etched, twisted into curvy forms or molded into abstract constructions, given trompe l'oeil treatments that make it look like wood and bone, ceramics and metal, always exploited for its plasticity when melted and its adaptability to surface treatment when cooled.
Harvey Littleton, Blue Moon Arc, 1985, glass.

Blue Moon Arc, 1985, by Littleton, is in his signature style of clear glass with colored cores bent into a spare, abstract form, in this case like a question mark with a displaced point.

The untitled vessel by Dale Chihuly dated 1986 is beautiful but innocuous compared with the exuberant, multipiece sculptures he creates today. It is certainly not the equal of Marvin Lipofsky's visceral vessel, but each demonstrates the remarkable gradations and subtleties of color that can be achieved.

Nothing is subtle about Irwin and Bob, a 1987 work by Ricky Bernstein that museumgoers will remember from the museum's summer contemporary art show. The pop art mise en scene has fun with the image of tacky Floridians and even more fun with its fool-the-eye sheets of colored glass molded like puzzle parts, layered to form a dimensional "painting."

The Yasunas commissioned one of the wittiest works, Ginny Ruffner's History of Surrealism, 1991, which borrows iconic images from Dali, Magritte, de Chirico and Max Ernst, and is a homage to the Yasunas' surrealist collection. (They also collect American paintings.) Its painted surfaces have great charm, but the work subverts the fundamental premise of studio glass -- to create new ways of dealing with space, light, form and color -- without delivering enough mastery as a figurative work of storytelling.
William Morris, Suspended Artifact, 1996, glass with steel.

Compare it with another figurative work, the exquisite Suspended Artifact (1996) by William Morris, one of the most accomplished glass artists working today. Appearing to be an assemblage of found artifacts made of wood, bone and metal, its treatment of opaque, painted glass is mimicry, to be sure, but without gimmick.

Most of the pieces hew to the purely abstract; some lean toward the conceptual. Mark Peiser and Michael Pavlik balance the severity and rigid purity of clear glass forms with nuanced colors that seem to flow through them. David Huchthausen is more interested in mass. His great block of polished black glass is like a cubist sculpture inserted with smaller bands and blocks of white, reflecting light as sculptures in bronze might rather than absorbing it and refracting it, as Peiser's and Pavlik's works do.

The title of the show refers to Steuben, a company that manufactures functional, mass-produced glass, as well as decorative objects, usually in multiple editions, and has had an aesthetic stranglehold on our conception of glass sculpture for decades. But in creating those decorative pieces, which can be viewed in another gallery at the museum, Steuben deserves credit.

It has been a sort of go-between for the truly original art we're seeing now and the vases, bowls and wine glasses produced by other large manufacturers that may pretend to be art but are only high-level housewares. Steuben should also be credited with much research and development, upon which contemporary glass artists have drawn.

Three Steuben artists, feeling constrained by the company, left it for a while to produce original work. Examples by Peter Aldridge, David Dowler and Eric Hilton are on view. Especially in Hilton's Silence Into Music, the influence of the Steuben culture is obvious.

This is a show that scratches the surface of studio glass and is a harbinger, let's hope, of more area shows that will acquaint viewers with the creativity it has unleashed in artists. The United States can claim to have originated few art movements -- abstract expressionism is one -- but studio glass, though embraced now internationally, began with and was nurtured by Americans. We should be proud.


"Steuben and Beyond: Contemporary Glass Sculpture from the Penny and Elton Yasuna Collection" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, through March 23. Also showing is "Drawn Toward the Avant-Garde: 19th and 20th Century French Drawings from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen." Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults; discounts available. (727) 896-2667.

Paul Perrot, a prominent authority on glass art, will present a history of glass on at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts. Free with admission.

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