Volume 43, Issue 8 - August 2008


What Isn’t Art? Glass Art and the Art of Glass
b y D e z F a r n a d y

We live in a world where Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling frescoes and Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can paintings are both identified with the same word: “art.” Cristo’s Running Fence, miles of white sheets strung out along the countryside, and Picasso’s ceramic plates, a few line scribbled on them and signed by the “artist,” are prized as great works of art. So I ask you: what is not art?

Turning to the most reliable source for defining words, Webster’s Dictionary, I find that even Mr. Webster is confused. He takes nearly a quarter of a page to cop out and tell you that art is darn near anything you want it to be. Well, that’s just perfect for me. Let me tell you what I consider glass art, not art glass, to be.

My brief and un-researched history lesson starts with glass beads in ancient Egypt, or maybe it was China. Anyway it was somewhere out there a long time ago and it was glass, it was decorative and therefore it was probably art.

A couple of centuries after the beads, art glass next appears in Renaissance Venice where they started making fancy glass goblets on the island of Murano, just across the Grand Canal. They still make them today for tourists, in all colors of the rainbow with fancy frills and gilt trim at equally fancy prices.

The epitome of art glass today is the work of Dale Chihuly and his thousands of aids and assistants. While Chihuly makes things out of glass, his work is more sculpture than glass because the overall impact is really the sculptural forms and not the glass he uses as his medium.

My idea of glass art has to do with the use of glass in an architectural form or context. While starting with the rose windows of thousand-year-old Gothic cathedrals, glass art really arrives with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Tower in Racine, Wis. In the late 1930s, Wright designed a tower with virtually all glass walls and roof. He brought light into the interior office space without the occupants having to see stuff not worth seeing on the outside. His use of glass may very well still be unique.

In the late 1940s Philip Johnson did just the opposite by putting his Glass House in the middle of his 47-acres in New Canaan, Conn. (see September 2007 USGlass, page 86). There the outside is part of the house. The clear glass virtually disappears as you see through to the surrounding landscape.

The glass art of Philip Johnson comes close to home for all of us because he also designed the millionsquare-foot glass complex called One PPG Place, sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace, and known as the corporate home of PPG. Johnson’s 101 California Tower in San Francisco with miles of green bent glass, is another great example, one on which I even had the good fortune to do some work.

I.M. Pei’s 72-foot tall glass pyramid, some 20,000 square feet of glass over the entrance lobby of the Louvre Museum in Paris, lights up at night like a golden diamond. His German Historic Museum in Berlin with intersecting panes of radiused glass has a sculptural impact difficult to match. Pei’s collection of glass buildings makes him one of the great glass artists of the last hundred years.

So, if you are like me and think that Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, Picasso and a lot of more contemporary artists look a little like they are trying to pull a fast-one over their aficionados, and the glass artists at the local art fairs seem to be trying a little too hard for fame and fortune, just walk around your own city and check out what architects have created with the product that puts the food on your table. You may come up with your own definition of what art is.

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