The "Sparkling Star" begins a lump of light. You could imagine God pulling such a fistful of fire, hurling it into the universe and declaring, "Be the sun." From this nucleus rays of light radiate irresistably.
Three "Wooly Eggs," transparent egg shapes, are each a different size. Actually only two are wooly with spun light wafted around as though by the high winds. Perhaps the wind blew away all the wool in the third one.
The "Cylinder in Spheric Space" is round, faintly green with tiny worlds of bubbles that seem to float around the inner core.
The "Sommeliers" are transparent bowls, floating atop tall thin stems. They are only wisps, the barest minimum needed to hold wine.
The "Reflective Object" is a pyramid formed of light, refracting and magnifying the passing rays.
All these objects are glass -- or crystallized light. They lead you to believe that glass exists primarily as a way to capture light. Each object changes, mutates, emulates the chameleon, depending on the light and the colors around it.
The Renwick Gallery (17th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue NW) has just opened a show called "New Glass, a Worldwide Survey": 271 individual objects or sets of objects by 196 artists, craftsmen-designers from 28 countries.
The show continues through Aug. 24 and then moves on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, California Palace of the Legion of Honor; and then to England, France and Japan.
"New Glass" is the most ambitious glass show mounted since the landmark exhibition in 1959 first set the material on its way to the great revival. Both originated, appropriately, at the Corning (N.Y.) Museum of Glass.
Michael Monroe, Renwick curator, has designed an intelligent installation, using shades of grey and an occasional emphasis panel of purple to show off the glass. He also has had the good taste, unlike some of the other displays of the glass, to give each piece some breathing room.
The 20 years between have seen an enormous burst of creation in glass, a profound change in what we think of as the uses of glass, and a great difference in who makes glass and how it is made.
In 1959 the international contemporary glass exhibit was organized by Paul Perrot, now Smithsonian assistant secretary for museum programs, then director of the Corning Museum. The other day, Perrot came to the Renwick while the show was still being set up to take a close look at the new exhibit and to talk about what has happened to glass in the last decades.
"We went through 1,800 actual objects, looking at shelf after shelf. From these we selected 292," Perrot said. The current show was selected from 6,000 slides.
"It was a very different show. Today's exhibit has almost nothing that suggests mass production. It is all the triumph of the individual. The individuals have mastered the technology and become self-sufficient or they have made the industrial mode to respond to their needs. When we did the 1959 show most of the glass was utilitarian, though much was decorative. Now the major pieces are abstract -- form as foil for fantasy.
"The glassblowers today are much freer. Now they are concerned with independent exploration, even to the funky forms. Twenty years ago, the craftsmen were trying to do more complicated things with simple techniques. Now the fluidity of glass has been mastered. In no other material is there such continuous control.
"In this show even many of the few utilitarian pieces by mass manufacturers actually handmade pieces -- these Pilgram Glass Corporation pieces, for instance. The company is a small one where large quantities are made by hand. They are simple, almost laboratory glass in form. The Riedel 'Sommelier' wine glasses are the same way, mass handmade."
The show has great diversity: some pure light forms, some funky pieces better made in ceramics, a few classically simple useful objects. The common bond seems to be individuality -- each artist pursuing his own rainbow.
The show's jurors are equally diverse: Franca Santi Gualteri, editor of the Italian design magazine Abitare; Russell Lynes, a writer on taste; Werner Schmalenback, director of the Museum for Modern Kunst, Dusseldorf, West Germany; Paul J. Smith, director of the American Craft Museum in New York.
The show's catalogue lists the initials of the juror who chose each object. Some were selected by just one juror. Smith alone selected some of the funky pieces, such as Jamie L. Conover's "Ricky Cow Catchers." On the other hand, Russell Lyne, who you'd think would know better, was the only one to choose the aptly named "Overboiled Dream" by M. Eisch, colorless glass blown in clay mold, enameled and silvered. All four liked the colorless optical-quality glass cast and polished by Karl R. Berg.And everyone chose the spectacular "Crystal Glass Sculpture," colorless glass, blown, cut and assembled by P. Hlava of Czechoslovakia.
"Look at this one ["Cylinder in Spheric Space"]," said Perrott. "You can see the Czechs are not inhibited by bubbles or striations, they exploit them and they gain light. This green tinge to the glass adds richness."
A few of the objects are machine made, or an automatic blowing machine. Among these are the "Pear" and "Apple," almost anatomical shapes, made of colorless glass made by Anchor Hocking. The majority of the pieces are handblown.
To me, the most interesting of the pieces are those that exploit the materials' unique quality of translucence: Emilija Marodic's colorless blown glass; Herbert Babcock's "Image Bowl, Passage," copper-red tinted glass, blown with colored bits applied hot and worked with tools; Baccarat's twisted vases made of blown colorless glass, cut and polished colorless glass arranged to form Prisms of light; Michael Esson's magnificent and scary skull of optical glass cast, cut, cemented to enclose lampwork eye with a helogram, recalling the great Mexican glass skull, to name a few.
Most disappointing is the dearth of utilitarian works. Though many are Worst of all, only 10 percent of the show is art to use.
Austria, with a long history of glassmaking (though much of Austria's glass was actually made in Czechloslovakia before World War I), has only three entries, all traditional utilitarian objects. Most of the Austrian glass is based on the great avant-garde designs from the middle of the 19th century. Glorious, ultimate design to enhance the wine, yes -- but certainly not innovative.
In justice I must admit that Riedel's wine glasses, which I have owned since they cost $3 a piece (they now are $21 unless they've gone up more), can hardly be improved upon. Can it be that Vienna invented the ultimate wine glass and nothing more is left to do?
The Pilgrim Glass' galaxy salad set, colorless blown glass, designed by Edward P. Kaedling and Edward F. Whiting, are lovely objects that would work for their keep for flowers or fruit as well. Modestly, only three from Corning's Steuben glass division are included: a bowl by Paul Schulze, two hearts and a bowl by James Carpenter. Rosenthal's wine glass, a colorless blown glass bowl, has a yellow-green tinted stem and base, hand applied. (Some of the American innovations with colored wine glasses seem to me to obscure what you're drinking to the point of peril.)
William Warmus points out in the catalogue that many novel techniques are used: Tom Patti's laminated sheets of plate glass, softened and blown; Gunnar Cyren's Graal technique of cuttting a pattern in the glass, then heating it and casing it with colorless glass to make a soft-focus image; and surface abrasions using sandblasting and multiple etching.
Perrot cited the experiments of Maurice Marinot in the '20s and '30s in France as the beginning of the studio glassworker. Until then glass had largely been a production line project, with the craftsmen working to the drawings of the designers. The new glass workers make their own designs, changing them as they work the material: "Letting their subconscious take over," as Perrot puts it.
The real breakthrough came in 1962 when Harvey Littleton, Tom McGlauchlin and others began a series of glass workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art. They worked with a formula for low-melting-temperature glass contributed by Dominick Labino, vice president and director of research of Johns-Manville, an inventor of glass techniques and processes.
Littleton went on to establish classes at the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 1951-1977. "Educating a lot of little Littletons as we say, though he always tried to teach them to do their own designing," Perrot said.
From there, the art and craft of glass blowing spread rapidly in the United States, principally through the classes given at American universities, each run by a master artist/craftsmen: Dale Chihuly at the Rhode Island School of Design, Joel Myers at Illinois State University, Henry Halem at Kent State University, Jon Clark at Tyler School of Art. The Toledo Museum classes, set up by Fritz Dreisbach, and craft schools including the Penland Schools of Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine and Pilchuck Glass Center in Washington are among the better known.
Almost all of these "old masters" of the American studio glass movement are among the 86 American glass-makers included in the show. These pioneers and their students established the American leadership in the glass-as-art renaissance. Czechloslovakia, with a long history of glass, has the second largest number of entries, 24.
The Czech work, as you might expect from those indominable people who manage to keep their creative fervor under all sorts of situations, is outstanding. Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brytova's "Cylinder in Spheric Space," already cited, is particularly notable.
Russell Lynes, writing in the catalogue with his usual wit and authority, explained the differences in our perception over these two decades."Unnecessary ornament was then regarded as very nearly immoral, straight lines were more godly than curved ones . . . purity was preferable to playfulness."
Since then, Lynes points out, a burst of artistic freedom has been caused by: the counterculture upheavals of the '60s, which helped produce the crafts movement; the great influence of federal funding for the arts -- the National Endowment for the Arts made a grant toward this show, for example; the acceptance of nonrepresentational art; the rise of the belief of both artists and audience, as he puts it, that "If I don't like it, I ought to try it"; and the increase in leisure time and affluence.
For years people have argued the difference between art and craft. Surely 90 percent of the objects in the show are sculpture, no less art for being made of glass instead of bronze, marble or found objects. Glass is a more august medium certainly than stuffed goats or urinals. But some of the utilitarian objects in the show are also worthy candidates for the accolade of art. An object is no less art because it holds water or wine. It doesn't have to be useless to be beautiful.
It seems to me that it is a compliment rather than an insult to call the makers artists/craftsmen -- to imply they are more than designers who work only with pencil and paper. Artists/craftsmen are those who have the luxury of spontaneous inspiration during creation.
Where will it all go? What will the new glass of the year 2000 look like, supposing we haven't all been blown to rays of light by then? You can no more predict the glass of the millenium than you can tell where a ray of light will strike.