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Sep 07
Jul 01

Studio to Contemporary Glass: 1960s to Today

Tue / September 7, 2021 Fri / July 1, 2022
All Day / Brunnier Art Museum, Scheman Building, Iowa State University

Studio glass in the United States is a relatively young artistic medium. Prior to the 1960s, glass could only be made in industrial or manufactory settings. The idea of an artist having a furnace and the skills to work with molten glass in their personal studios was impossible. Harvey K. Littleton, a ceramics professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and son of a Corning Glass Works physicist, believed it was possible to develop glass into an artistic medium akin to the burgeoning studio pottery movement he was witnessing at the time. After a visit to Europe in 1957 where he saw glass made on a smaller scale and while trying to blow glass himself in traditional Venetian glass houses on the island of Murano, he was convinced he could make studio glass a successful option for artists in America.

In 1962, Littleton led two experimental glassblowing workshops with a small group of invited graduate students at the Toledo Museum of Art. He also included his friend Dominick Labino, an accomplished engineer and inventor who had worked at multiple glass manufactories and at the time specifically with fiberglass. Labino also experimented with building his own glass furnaces and blowing glass himself. It was Labino who helped solve initial issues at the workshop by modifying the furnace and suggesting the use of specific fiberglass marbles rather than the glass batch they were attempting to use. The workshop was a success, glass could be blown outside of an industrial setting, and the exuberance and excitement gave great momentum to the development of American studio glass.

Littleton went on to begin the glass program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, which included three students all represented in this exhibition – Dale Chihuly, Marvin Lipofsky, and Fritz Driesbach. Littleton’s students were encouraged to work freely with glass in a way never thought possible and he pushed those students to begin programs at other American colleges and universities. Shortly thereafter, the ability to work with glass in a studio environment was being taught, disseminated, and spread to artists and students across the country. Many of those students became recognized artists and passed along their knowledge to the next generation of gaffers. These new studio glass artists, just as Littleton had, began to look to the glassmakers in Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Scandinavia. From those international artists they learned skills and techniques that had been passed down through generations, along with gaining exposure to glass artists taking traditional techniques to revolutionize contemporary glass.

Today, glass is a recognized artistic medium, one that continues to be highly experimental and innovative. Working with glass is unique; the inherent malleability of glass gives rise to great ingenuity, but it also takes understanding of the properties of the material. This allows for great collaboration in glass as artists work together to create objects and art, to learn how to work properly and safely with glass, and to develop wholly new ways of working with this unique material. In just 60 years, glass has revolutionized the world of art and it continues to create excitement each time an artist steps up to the furnace for the first time.

On exhibition is a selection of studio glass and artistic glass from the University Museums’ permanent collection, charting the early glass artists in America, to examples made in European manufactories, and works of art being created by some of the best-known glass artists today.