In the galleries of the Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, New York, the history of a material emerges in pendants and beads, perfume flasks, and small storage jars with feather-like trailed designs. These palm-sized objects, some of the earliest glassmaking that arose in Mesopotamia and Egypt, were produced by rolling and pressing warm glass into molds and around clay cores. From here, one moves into a full flowering of technique that comes to include blowing, fusing, casting, cutting, grinding, and enameling, evermore dazzling feats of control and design. Delicate conical Roman goblets are studded with deep blue raisin-like blobs. The “cameo” cutting on the surface of an Islamic vessel from the first millennium is impossibly fine, its background a papery translucency jousted against by stylized antelopes and birds in light green relief. There is more: filigreed confections of 16th-century Venetians; zebra-striped Persian kohl tubes; squat, prunted drinking cups of German forest glass, so called for the inclusion of wood ash in its composition.

        From the very beginning, it seems glass has been used to impersonate something else—lapis lazuli, carnelian, even the rock crystal from which it came. In the midst of this variability, glass’s essence emerges as fundamentally protean, its basis in the recycling of sand, of ground-up quartz, into a substance that can be molded, cut, and otherwise fashioned to resemble almost anything else. In art nouveau, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Frederick Carder reproduce as deliberate effect the “accidental” iridescences of ancient glass. The names they give to these chemically derived sheens—Tiffany’s Favrile or Carder’s Aurene—capture their imitative, synthetic linkages across time and material. It seems that throughout its history, glassmaking swings in tension between its original simulacral imperatives, its vast capacity, its basic “formlessness,” and, on the other hand, its ability to meet precise stretches of artistic imagination. Yet for the most part, the beauty of glass objects has been bound to its serviceability, answering the call for decoration and ornament. 

         Only in the modern and contemporary galleries at the Corning does one come upon the advent of glass as a liberated sculptural medium in a complex web of inherited form and technique. This is not stuff you can drink from. Toots Zynsky’s “thread vessels” resemble huge trumpet blossoms and mollusk shells, each composed of thousands of multicolored glass fibers built into a kind of textile. Red Pyramid, by Czech artists Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova—Brancusis of glasswork—glows like a sharp-edged modernist totem, its mold-cast shape and ground surfaces putting one in mind of fiberglass hulls and knapped flints, while remaining thoroughly unrecognizable. The play of light through beveled material speaks of an encounter with something resistant. How can a material appear solid and fluid at the same time? How can color become so deeply implicated within a form, a “product” of the manipulation of shape and surface? In such a work, light becomes as much a compositional element as the molecules of silica.

 

 

II.

Among the Corning’s postmodern pieces, Harvey K. Littleton’s stand out for their precision and concentration, for their chromatic richness, and for the relative simplicity of their combined elements. Visually, theoretically, they embody a conjoining of the “hot” and “cold” properties of glass, its dueling personalities. They don’t quite look like anything else—nothing in nature, nothing in art—not quite. Ruby Conical Intersection with Amber Sphere (p. 154) is the dramatic result of two forms heated to different temperatures and jammed together in a process so precarious that the artist was unable to repeat the technique more than a handful of times. It may be as “experimental” as an artwork can get, visceral, counter-intuitively delightful and unwieldy in its honey-thick internal layers, its distorted point of ruddy intrusion.

         Littleton grew up in Corning, the son of a director of research at the massive Corning Glass Works who spearheaded the development of the tempered bakeware known as Pyrex. Littleton worked in the Corning plant as a college student, and after moving on to become a ceramicist, found his way back to glass circuitously, seeking to make its production possible on a small scale. His breakthrough came in the early 1960’s with the development of studio-size furnaces and annealing ovens capable of yielding and controlling the extreme temperatures necessary to explore glass’s sculptural potential. Littleton’s methods and do-it-yourself ethos helped initiate the Studio Glass Movement and gave a new generation of artists access to skills and techniques that had previously been restricted to industrial settings. 

        It is hard to look at Littleton’s art without seeing an inherent connection to highly developed industrial and commercial glass. His earliest pieces employ crude experimental “batches” (individual chemical recipes for glass), as well as easily available sheet glass, factory blanks, and “cullet,” recyclable ingots and bars that are cut and sanded, re-melted, slumped, and “exploded.” His subsequent work shows a progressive refinement of transparency, surface, and “form statement,” as he once put it. From early biomorphic blown and warped shapes to segmented, polished chunks of crystalline borosilicate glass, what seems to unite the phases of Littleton’s work—and to link it with contemporary movements in painting and sculpture—is a desire to push both medium and process in new and unlikely directions. “What we wanted to do,” he said in an interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, “was to investigate the material, like the painters were investigating paint, and not with the thought of making anything.” 

         In Gold and Green Implied Movement(p. 155), one finds the artist striving to override the function-meeting history of his medium, to free the glassworker from the age-old exigencies of “craft.” Its six free-standing forms rise and twist from their dollop-like bases, elongated stalks veering and bending, slightly flared and flattened at the tips—like waving sea plants? Seussian woodwinds? Lyrical and strange, the piece’s complex layers of cased color, its sheer attenuations, may have more to do with those aspects of glass craft that preoccupy the industrial chemist, the high-level, highwire manufacturers of float glass and Pyrex. Or they may simply be expressions, acts, of a mind that feels vibrantly in terms of observed physical properties—that just wants to see what glass can do. Littleton once said, “It is the change from the flowing viscous liquid that sticks and burns to the hard cold glass that breaks and cuts which is endlessly fascinating to the artist.” 

         Littleton’s glass pursues light to a site past articulation. In Red/Amber Sliced Descending Form (p. 156), dark red, orange, and magenta streaks, or “overlays,” are encased in a compact backward-rearing arch, a section of which has been cut away to reveal the interior bands in cross-section. The refractive properties of the material are exploited in the way of paperweights and prisms, requiring the same “double vision” that looks both through and into. Moving around the piece, you follow the paths of the ribbons of color inside, some taking weird netlike forms through the flashing and switching of all the optical geometries. There is something almost anatomical in its composition. Something to do with classical form, stolen from colossal architecture, truncated and reduced to the size of a kitchen appliance, then set in virtual motion with an internal gemlike circuitry. Like watching stars and waterspouts, or a gold-encrusted reliquary, one feels the deep remoteness, the kept heat of something older than thought.

 

 

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