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Studio Glass in Focus

A look back at a craft phenomenon
Deserted Throne

Robert Coby Guest Curator, Cleveland Institute of Art class of 2011, glass artist

In a workshop held at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1962, Dominick Labino and Harvey Littleton experimented with building a small furnace and melting a test batch of glass with the goal of creating blown glass art. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that event, which effectively inaugurated the studio glass movement in America.

Before Labino and Littleton figured out how to build the furnace, the only people working with hot glass labored in large-scale industrial settings, creating mostly functional glassware as part of a production team. The achievement of Labino and Littleton enabled individual artists to melt glass in a smaller studio setting and begin to harness hot glass as a medium for art. In the years following the workshop, others began to build and develop furnaces based on Labino and Littleton’s design, and glass programs began appearing in schools around the country, started by people such as Marvin Lipofsky, Fritz Driesbach, and Dale Chihuly. These early studio glass pioneers taught and influenced one another as well as their students in new and expanding glass programs.


Deserted Throne 1990. Stanislav Libenský (Czech, 1921–2002) and Jaroslava Brychtová (Czech, b. 1924). Cast glass. Gift of Helen Kangesser  2010.17


The first works by these artists were very experimental, as they figured out the potential of the material and procured the equipment used to work with it. Labino and Littleton kept their forms simple, layering veils of color and stretching the glass into various shapes. With not much knowledge of historic techniques to draw upon, they discovered the processes largely on their own. “Technique is cheap,” Littleton famously said.

Much of the work from that period focused on discovery and working with the properties of the glass itself—its fluidity, boldness, and inherent glossy beauty in both clear and colorful surfaces. As knowledge of glass and its manipulation grew, forms and colors began to reach new levels. Dale Chihuly, one of the most prominent glassblowers of the movement, took things further. In his early basket forms, he rolled up patterns of thin glass strings that referenced the patterning in Native American baskets. But it was his groundbreaking “Seaforms” and subsequent “Macchia” series that brought him fame. Using a bright yet diverse color palette, Chihuly began to blow his forms larger and thinner. He worked with the physical nature of glass, letting it sag and droop into organic forms, which referenced those found in the sea.

Chihuly is also credited for bringing Italian glassblowing techniques to America. Awarded a chance to study in Murano, where artisans had been blowing glass for centuries, Chihuly brought back new knowledge of his own. He also encouraged glassblowers, most notably maestro Lino Tagliapietra, to come to the United States to teach traditional, guarded Italian glassblowing techniques to Americans.


Standing Stone

Standing Stone 1989. William Morris (American, b. 1957). Mold blown glass. Gift of Francine and Benson Pilloff 2005.185


While it was possible for Labino and Littleton to make their own glass from the beginning of the design through the completion of a piece if the scale was modest, it soon became clear that help was needed to create larger and more complex forms. The idea of community—and the commonplace practice of working in teams—set studio glassmaking apart from the processes of most other fine art making. Chihuly was quick to institute teamwork in his own studio. With the help of glassblowers William Morris, Flora Mace, Joey Kirkpatrick, and others, Chihuly was able to turn his designs into actual objects even as his ideas and forms grew larger and more complex.

Morris became a gaffer, or head glassblower, for Chihuly once injuries rendered Chihuly unable to blow his own forms. Morris also used skills learned while training under Chihuly to make work of his own. His early work showed the definite influence of his mentor: large, asymmetrical vessel forms with bright colors and the usual glossy surface. Then Morris began to push the limits of what glassblowers could do. Rather than following the traditional direction of the Italians, Morris began inventing his own elegant sculptural techniques. He sculpted likenesses of artifacts and human forms in glass, inventing various color and surface techniques that stripped the material of its inherent, expected beauty. Rather than bright, shiny, and colorful, Morris’s glass tended to be more muted, its gloss eaten away by chemicals to make the work look ancient and decayed. He sculpted glass to mimic other materials such as pottery, metal, leather, and bone. Conceptually, his glass emphasized more than just the material itself. It referenced the primitive and archetypal ancestry of our relationship with nature throughout history. Perhaps more than anyone before him, Morris pushed the accepted boundaries of composition toward a new direction in glassmaking.


Fossil Series: Salurian Candidate II

Fossil Series: Salurian Candidate II  2004. Brent Kee Young (American, b. 1946). Blown glass with lampworked parts. Collection of the artist


The sharing of information and techniques in the glass world is now standard practice and helped the studio glass movement spread beyond the United States to many countries in Europe, where artists had also been blowing glass in a factory setting, as well as to other countries such as Japan, where glass art was not previously a part of the culture. Beyond glassblowing, flame working and various casting and kiln-based techniques also began to be used to make works of art. In the Czech Republic, for example, the most common form of glass working is casting. Masters there have included the husband-and-wife team of Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, who cast glass into large solid monochrome sculptures, playing with texture and the density of color as the glass goes from thicker to thinner sections within their forms. They were also educators, and their influence has defined the Czech style of glass casting.

Glass is an extremely versatile and almost limitless material, and the relaying and transcending of knowledge in the glass community is what keeps the movement alive. Techniques are passed along and developed through generations of glassworkers partly by the teams who work together to create unique glass art. Whether they choose to refine or expand on traditional and existing techniques, or to invent new processes of their own, artists working with glass continue to influence and push each other across boundaries.  


Cleveland Art, September/October 2012