Glass Art: An Historical Perspective
By Chandra Holsten
The studio glass art movement had it’s inception in the spring of 1962 in a garage in the Midwest. There, Harvey Littleton, professor of ceramics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and Dominick Labino, director of research at Johnson-Manville Fiber Glass Corp., devised a small glass-melting furnace. This furnace, small enough to be used in an artist’s studio, revolutionized the art of glassmaking in this country by eliminating the need for artists to work only in glass factories.
This seminal event, along with a lecture presented in the spring of that year by Littleton and Labino at the Toledo Museum of Art and a series of workshops presented there by Littleton, served to launch the studio movement. Suddenly, glass was liberated from the corporate/profit- driven world, and transformed into a more personal, artistic interpretation by the artist’s imagination.
Two of Littleton’s early students in glass at U.W. were Dale Chihuly and Marvin Lipofsky, who went on to create glass programs of their own: Chihuly at Rhode Island School of Design and Lipofsky at the California College of Arts and Crafts and the University of California, Berkeley. Later, Christopher Ries studied under Littleton at the University of Wisconsin to earn his Master of Fine Arts degree and was instrumental in building a hot glass shop at Ohio State.
During this period, funded by Fullbright Scholarships, Chihuly and other artists went to Europe to learn more about traditional glass techniques. Some of their European mentors, at the behest of Chihuly and other former students, came to work, live and exhibit their work in America, learning a kind of freedom of expression and spontaneity unheard of at the time of their apprenticeships in the European glass factories. The most famous of these artists is Italian glass maestro, Lino Tagliapietra.
In the summer of 1971, Chihuly, having returned to Seattle from Venice, followed by a summer of teaching at the Haystack School of Crafts in Maine, visualized a similar arts center for the Northwest devoted entirely to glass. A two thousand dollar grant from the Union of Independent Colleges of Art and the donation of a forty-acre tree farm outside of Stanwood Washington were the inception of the Pilchuck Glass School.
Soon artists from all over the country
arrived. Living on the land in tents and station wagons
at the beginning; building cabins and tree houses as
they laboriously constructed furnaces and ovens; blowing
glass, sharing their dreams. Since that time, glass
artists and students from around the world have been
drawn there to study, teach and share their excitement
for this medium.
Though there was considerable interest in this emerging art form, there was also a certain bias. Glass, after all, had been considered a material for the making of functional objects, such as windows and goblets. And there was not a venue beyond arts and crafts fairs for the sale of glass as art.
This attitude prevailed, despite Littleton’s early vision of “glass as a modern material for sculpture of the highest rank”. But as artists such as Tom Patti began placing their work in museums, The Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a different view of the medium and its possibilities began to emerge.
In the 1970’s three galleries were created which were devoted to glass art: Habatat Gallery in Detroit, Heller Gallery in New York and Holsten Galleries in Stockbridge, Massachussetts. and Palm Beach, Florida. These galleries, supporting the vision of Littleton and his followers, began exhibiting the work of Littleton, Chihuly, Patti and later, Ries and William Morris, as well as other now famous artists.
Advertising the medium in magazines such as Art in America, Art News and American Craft, these pioneer galleries began educating collectors, instilling a love of the many possibilities inherent in the material. Glass: blown, cut, fused, slumped and cast; from quiet, pristine, pure sculpture to the colorful molten flow of hot glass, began appearing in major exhibitions around the country and ultimately around the world.
Since that time, Chihuly, whose work is now included in over 200 museum collections, and who has had extraordinary installations worldwide, has been the subject of several PBS Specials and videos: Chihuly Over Venice, Chihuly In The Light of Jerusalem, Chihuly at the V.& A.; thus, making the artist’s name into a household word and creating a consciousness of glass which has never before existed.
Now, in a space of less than thirty years, a once obscure art form has become an accepted, in fact celebrated, medium of art which not only enlivens the senses and educates the eye to the possibilities of light, color, reflection and transparency, but affords the viewer a look inside, a metaphor for one of the foremost functions of any work of art.
Chandra Holsten was the co-founder of Holsten Galleries in 1978 and is currently a novelist and Director of Davis and Cline Gallery in Ashland, Oregon.
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