New Views of Glass in Pittsburgh and Toledo

Post by Andrea Kirsh

CMA glass Barbini Biennale Vase
Alfredo Barbini, Biennale Vase. 1962. Glass, 10 x 8 1/2 x 4 1/2″; (25.4 x 21.6 x 11.4 cm).
© Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY / Art Resource

To break up the drive to the new Akron Art Museum we stopped in Pittsburgh, where we found the city’s arts institutions celebrating glass. Pittsburgh has a long history of glass production, mostly for industrial use, but at least one institution is trying to encourage art glass production.

CMA glass Ruffner Vistosi chandelier
Ruffner Vistosi chandelier at the Carnegie Museum of Art

I thought I had a pretty good background in twentieth-century Venetian art glass, but “Viva Vietro! Glass Alive! Venice and America” at the Carnegie Museum of Art (through Sept. 16) showed me how much I’d missed. The 125 pieces were installed in the first two rooms where the museum holds its triennial International exhibitions, and stood up to their enormous scale (note: the next International opens May 3, 2008 and continues through January 11, 2009). It was beautifully installed and maintained. A young man was cleaning fingerprints off the plexi display cases during the entire time we were there; when I made a comment about the endlessness of the job he cheerfully said that one could only appreciate the glass in clean cases.

CMA glass Willson 'Mirage Myth'
Mirage Myth, by Robert Wilson, Carnegie Museum of Art

The exhibition traced the century-long interchange between Venetian and American art glass; initially the Americans went to Venice to learn technique and to collaborate with Italy’s unparalleled craftsmen, but more recently the U.S. has attracted Italians who come to teach and also to learn from our flourishing art glass scene. It emphasized the collaborative nature of the art, sidestepping questions of artists vs. craftsmen. Work included forms inspired by vases, dishes and various vessels, lamps, chandeliers, a chess set and overtly sculptural pieces. If I could have taken one home it would be Alfredo Barbini’s very ’60s, asymmetrical vase in a form that could only be realized in glass.

I hadn’t realized that after WWII Americans were major purchasers of Italian glass, inspired no doubt, by the major touring exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1950. “Viva Vietro!” made significant use of the Carnegie’s growing glass collection, with the rest of the work largely from American museums from Boston to San Diego.

CMA glass Scarpa
Carlo Scarpa, glass at the Carnegie

Vennini, one of the oldest factories, was the first to invite major artists to contribute designs, including the architect Carlo Scarpa and designer Gio Ponti. Vennini and other factories also worked with a succession of Americans, some providing designs while others worked the glass as well. They included Robert Wilson, Mark Tobey, Paul Jenkins and others. Some of these collaborations were particularly successful, my favorites being those with Scarpa, Ponti, James Carpenter (a glass artist turned designer of architectural glass) and artist Claire Falkenstein, while others (Jan Arp and Max Ernst) produced disappointingly-slight results.

The exhibition ended with two installations by the American artist who has done the most conceptually-sophisticated work in glass, Josiah McElheny. His work manages to showcase his technical abilities at the same time that it questions notions of connoisseurship, collecting and historical research . The marvelous “From an Historical Anecdote about Fashion” attributed the shape of a vitrine full of McIlheny’s “Venetian” glassworks to Dior’s New Look. The connection was formally plausible and the magazine layouts which documented the influence were in perfect, period style. Could I believe it? As Zerlina says in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, “Vorrei et non vorrei.”

“Allure of Japanese Glass”

We rushed over to the Pittsburgh Glass Center, a five-year-old non-profit studio and gallery. The glass artist who founded it hopes to attract a critical mass of glass-makers to the area, and the organization already seems to have sparked considerable gentrification in a marginal neighborhood. The small gallery showcased 17 Japanese artists of tremendous technical range and ability whose work has never been seen in the U.S.. While the Italian/American glass at the Carnegie was raucously polychrome, the Japanese work was marked by chromatic restraint. It spanned the range from conceptual sculpture to precious, palm-sized boxes. My favorite was Hikaru Shimada’s series of 13 head-shaped vases, each with a different hair-do above identical, doll-like faces; they incorporated the popular-art imagery of much work by younger Japanese artists (which incorporate the style of ‘otaku,’ a fascination with popular culture), but managed to marry traditional Japanese elegance to that juvenile-pop taste.

A Building as light as a bubble

Since we made it as far as Akron, we decided to go to Toledo which has a famous collection of glass, from ancient to contemporary. The Toledo Museum of Art was founded in 1901 by Edward Drummond Libbey, of Libbey Glass and in 2006 they opened an astonishing Glass Pavillion to house the collection as well as a glass-making studio, and various back-room museum functions. The building is even more astonishing than the collection. Designed by the Japanese firm of SANAA, Ltd., who have been commissioned to design the New Museum in New York, to open later this year (note that Toledo scooped New York), it is an architectural and visual wonder.

The entire periphery of the building is glass, with no supporting vertical members. Specially-constructed glass walls, mostly eight feet wide and 13 feet high, are slotted into a grooved channel in the floor and held by a similar channel at the top. The corners are made of curved panels of glass. The building is supported by steel walls and posts in its interior, many of which are hidden in the walls, with the wiring and HVAC ducts in the floors. One rarely sees architecture with total integration of structural, mechanical and visual systems and as much attention given to the details as to the whole.

It is definitely worth the trip to Toledo; architecture buffs will also want to see Frank Gehry’s Center for Visual Arts at the University of Toledo (90-91), which we didn’t leave time for. A more ambitious tour of notable modern and contemporary architecture in Ohio would include work by Venturi in Oberlin, Zaha Hadid in Cincinnatti, Gehry and Pei in Cleveland and Saarinen and Eisenman in Colombus.

Lest you think that the Toledo Museum of Art is only notable for its glass, it has an extraordinary collection of European and American art, interspersed with first-rate furniture and decorative arts. The collection is particularly strong in Baroque and nineteenth-century painting, including wonderful examples by Piero di Cosimo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Ribera, Claude, Fragonard, David, Courbet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Cole, Homer… to mention nothing of their modern collection. All this in a city of 300,000 people; don’t underestimate the power of local pride, civic vision and passion for the arts.

–Andrea Kirsh is an art historian based in Philadelphia. You can read her Philadelphia Introductions and other commentary at InLiquid.