Dr. Gerry King

The Hollywood film, ‘U-571’ tells the tale of the capture of an enigma encryption machine in the disabled WW11 U-Boat of that number which was brazenly boarded by the US navy. (1) The sophisticated decoding machine and attendant codebooks were of great value to the Allies wishing to pre-empt Nazi war tactics. As might be imagined the quest, almost lost, is saved at the last possible minute by our hero who faces all but insurmountable odds. History, of course, is written by the victors not only in books but also [with scant regard for fact] in films and television. The enigma machine and its books were indeed taken from a disabled U-Boat, but by the British before the US entered the war. British naval officer, David Balme, at the age of 19, led the actual boarding party. He later declared the film a great work and acknowledged that it would not have been funded if the story had not been Americanised. (2)

Posted 10 May 2013

Share this:

–Essay by Dr. Gerry King

…until the fat lady sings
Where are we, how did we get
here, where are we going?
The birth, life and death of
contemporary glass.

Dr Gerry King, 2013

The Hollywood film, ‘U-571’ tells the tale of the capture of an enigma encryption machine in the disabled WW11 U-Boat of that number which was brazenly boarded by the US navy. (1) The sophisticated decoding machine and attendant codebooks were of great value to the Allies wishing to pre-empt Nazi war tactics. As might be imagined the quest, almost lost, is saved at the last possible minute by our hero who faces all but insurmountable odds. History, of course, is written by the victors not only in books but also [with scant regard for fact] in films and television. The enigma machine and its books were indeed taken from a disabled U-Boat, but by the British before the US entered the war. British naval officer, David Balme, at the age of 19, led the actual boarding party. He later declared the film a great work and acknowledged that it would not have been funded if the story had not been Americanised. (2)

Germany lost the war. Britain won the war but lost its empire. The US won the war and resuscitated an empire, not just of land but, more cleverly, also an empire of the mind. The heady days of Western military expansion, founded upon 19th Century colonisation could not be easily resumed after 1945. Indonesia resisted the return of the Dutch. Vietnam resisted the return of the French. India returned to its quest for liberation from Britain. A nation wishing to have influence beyond its shores needed more subtle means. Oppression was no longer the most effective tool. Trade, investment, partnership, largess, image building, replaced the rifle and cannon. Image was everything. To engage in the new era of colonization one must cause the colonized to feel that the new order was glamorous and desirable. In the post World War 11 period, as it had during that war, the entertainment industry contributed to colonization of the mind. Hollywood exported the image of ‘the American way’, made it appear better than the traditional values of the recipient peoples and cast the blond-haired, blue-eyed American as the hero. Hollywood stands not alone, but it is a prime example and itself a tool of colonization, instrumental in the decline of the film industries of other nations.

‘Hollywoodification’, [or more properly, the fictionalisation of history] is applied to films beyond those about war, though conflict and a wind-swept handsome hero resolving the near impossible in the last few frames is a proven formula for box office success. The examples are boundless. Bending the facts is practiced on an industrial scale. History is sacrificed on the altar of entertainment. Perhaps the most recent notable example is the film "Argo”, an ‘edge of the seat’ account of the flight from Iran by US Embassy staff in 1979 after their compound was overrun by militant supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Canadian Ambassador who in reality sheltered some of the escapees has observed that many acts of bravery by Canadians and their government have been remodelled as those of the CIA. (3) Does any of this matter? As individual entertainments, perhaps not. As a cumulative historical bias, perhaps it does. Hollywood demands succinct, tidily ended tales undisturbed by conflicting loyalties and accommodating of the persuasions of the bulk of its viewers. In that, it is in good company for simple tales abound in historic accounts.

Simple tales are popular. They attract adherents unwilling or unable to deal with complex interwoven relationships. Simple tales make good books, films, lectures, etc. They are easily digested, allowing the receiver to absorb the message and move on to the next concern. Dramatic pronouncements enhance the status of the author, theorist, public speaker and academic. Parliamentarians, particularly those in opposition depend upon the brief ’sound-bite’ as a means of avoiding the complexities of any policy. Similarly, academic careers are not readily built on multifarious, obfuscated or fastidiously nuanced pronouncements. [Those rather like the previous sentence.] Simple tales, not unlike tidied history, attract adherents.

There is an enviably simple story that accords the advent of contemporary glass to one man, one place and one time. Contrary to popularised opinion, Harvey Littleton’s workshop at the Toledo Museum in Ohio during March 1962 wasn’t the birth of contemporary glass. It was indeed the midwife, but only one of many initiatives that knitted together to found that which we have today. As is the case with many such simple tales it falls well short of reality. In his 1971 book, ‘Glassblowing A Search for Form’, Littleton acknowledges the work of Jean Sala a Spaniard living in France whom he met in 1957. Sala began glassblowing in the 1920s in his father’s studio. He closed his own glass studio in 1950 and at their meeting gave Littleton some blowing tools. Sala became one of the first glassblowers to establish an urban studio, quasi-independent from factories. Littleton also acknowledges the established contemporary glass artist, Erwin Eisch of Germany, [they met in August 1962]. (4)

Littleton doesn’t claim to be the father of contemporary glass. [Though I was once told that he never denied it when others labelled him as such.] He acknowledges those who came before and wrote, “Meeting Eisch confirmed my belief that glass could be a medium for direct expression by an individual.” Eisch had produced many works of contemporary glass from 1952. An artist of considerable breadth, for his works in glass Eisch worked originally with the staff at his family’s glass factory and later with assistants from his own furnace. He predated the generally accepted birth of contemporary glass by a decade. On seeing a room full of Eisch’s work Littleton remembers that it was like “being hit over the head with a hammer.” Years later, Littleton recalled, “I saw [Eisch’s] work and I realized that he was doing what I wanted to do—play with the glass, make forms that had no other reason for being than that he wanted to make them”.

The acceptance of the very early participants of contemporary glass might at times challenge the definition of the field. Certainly there have been continual profound changes in ways of working and in turn the understanding of what constitutes contemporary glass. Jean Sala originally worked as a limited production glassblower who developed into one concerned with making individual works with artistic integrity. This is not incompatible with the broad definition of an artist/glassblower from a post 1962 studio background. That is, one who uses the blowing of production works so as to refine skill and meet basic expenses but also as a means of being able to also make expressive works. Contemporary glass has never been static; its practice continues to evolve and thus stretch its definition. In the 1970’s many artist-glassblowers worked individually. When it was realized how limiting that was they reverted to the factory practice of having assistants. Coldworking was, to generalize, a means to finish blown or kiln formed works, whereas it has now developed into an independent field. [That generalization overlooks people such as Eric Hilton who was teaching cold working as an individual practice at Alfred University, New York State in the early 1970s.]

Oft overlooked in the ’birth of contemporary glass’ tale is Andre Billeci, potentially a competitor with Littleton in that he also worked in a university. Bellici, a ceramic artist and drawing lecturer at Alfred University, New York State, operated a glass furnace during the summer of 1962. Two retired Steuben glass blowers helped him learn to blow glass in Alfred. In the autumn of 1963 he taught an independent study course in glass blowing. In 1966 glass blowing became a regular undergraduate course. (5) Now the largest contemporary glass programme in the US decades of graduates have benefited from his initiatives.

Even the Littleton story is not as simple as the myth would pretend. Littleton engaged in glass making well before the 1960s. He cites the account of making a pâté-de-verre torso while employed in the mould making department of Corning Glass Works in 1942.
My questioning of the birth of contemporary glass is not to deny the significance of Littleton or the Toledo workshops. Of course Littleton had a profound impact upon the development of contemporary glass. Similarly, the US had a profound impact upon the internationalisation of contemporary glass. Cross fertilization between Littleton, European and other US pioneers of contemporary glass is documented, many early practitioners recalling the assistance they received from Littleton. His energy and generosity underpinned many aspects of the growth of contemporary glass. But the reality is inevitably more complex than the headline version. Eisch and Sala were not the only early glass designer/makers influential upon Littleton’s venture into artist-glassblowing. Americans Michael and Francis Higgins, with whom he met in 1954 and maintained a relationship particularly through the American Crafts Council and the Midwest Designers/Craftsmen association, had been slumping and fusing sheet glass in their studio since 1948. [Frances had been working in this way earlier.] (6)

Nor was North America and Europe the only cradle of this birth. In Japan the Iwata family commenced contemporary glass in 1947. The master Toshichi Iwata had owned the glass studio from 1931 making utilitarian works but established himself as an artist or craftsman glass blower from the late 1940’s. (7) The tradition is continued by his granddaughter, Ruri Iwata. Kyohei Fujita’s first group exhibition in which he exhibited glass was in 1957. (8) His first solo exhibition of glass was in 1964. (9) After two years of experimentation he started working with glass with the Iwata family in 1947. Fujita originally handled the glass himself but became primarily a designer, having his work fabricated by masters.

Though the growth and internationalisation of the field is indeed significantly attributable to the foundation of Littleton and fellow travellers, many of the early ‘heroes’ of contemporary glass were not directly and some not even indirectly impacted by the growth of the field in US universities. However, the powerful force of US tertiary education is properly attributed with being the most celebrated contribution to that which is glass making in pursuit of contemporary art.

Is the reconstruction of history, including that of wars and art, having a significant impact upon anything? The ‘Hollywood’ view may well suffice for entertainment but if one’s aim is to understand the ramifications of any act it is prudent to be sure that it is actual, rather than a fictionalised or editorialised version. The Littleton / Toledo workshops story is important, but only one hue in a complex rainbow of individual efforts and interactions. Its mythological status as the commencement of contemporary glass blinkers our collective vision.

If contemporary glass didn’t commence in Toledo in 1962 when was it born? There are too many diverse events in various countries to give here an ultimate answer for its birth or even a detailed definition of contemporary glass for it is swayed by the inclusion or exclusion of specific participants. In Australia Douglass Annand, who completed commissioned glass works in the 1960’s and 1970’s may be seen as a precursor or a participant, depending upon one’s use of the term, ‘contemporary glass’. Similarly, Leonard French, renown for his 1967 glass ceiling in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria practised what is now considered a more recent development; that of exhibition orientated artists working with architects. (10)

Language is fluid, words have changed meaning in various times and/or contexts.
The term, ”freeblown glass movement” was used by participants in the 1960’s Toledo glass workshops to indicate that they were without the shackles of the production blower, dictated to by tradition and commercial imperatives. Similarly, ‘studio glass’, ‘art glass’, glass art’, ‘contemporary glass’ have been used to describe some or all of facets of that which is the endeavour of the designer-maker, working with one or more of the hot / cold / warm categories of glass making. [Though ‘art glass’ is more commonly used to refer to factory works.]

‘Contemporary glass’, as I intend the term, is inclusive of the works made by the artist or craftsperson who is a designer-maker, one who primarily conceives of, determines the visual aspects and fabricates the work. This aligns with 1960’s ideal of the crafts being revitalised by the concentration upon the characteristics of the material and finesse of technique. More recently my use of the term has been expanded to incorporate the glass designer from a ‘studio glass’ background who has progressed to works of a scale that require assistants and/or industrial manufacturing technology. Demarcation between such an individual and a designer of a glasswork who is from another background is open to conjecture. If, for example an architect without previous experience in glass making designed a glass panel for a building that is similar in all respects to one designed by a glass artist should it be accepted as contemporary glass? If not, how many works does the architect have to design before s/he is a glass artist? If the work were art, would the architect then be a glass artist or an artist working in glass? All such considerations could be put aside if we define a work as being contemporary glass based upon its attributes and ignore the maker. This might then challenge the notion that there has ever been a category of artists properly described as ‘glass artist’ rather than merely ‘artist’. Further difficulties arise when the work is made with intent different from that commonly known as ’glass art’. If the work is, for example a religious object made by a person without knowledge of contemporary glass is it properly described as such even though it may have all the properties commonly attributable to contemporary glass and made in the era associated with contemporary glass? Should the decision be based upon the finished work, the process or the intention? Further, if it is subsequently acquired by a contemporary glass collection does it then change from being a religious work to an example of contemporary glass? The questions are more easily put than answered.

An anomaly of contemporary glass, especially when labelled ‘art glass’ or’ glass art’ is the not infrequent absence of art. Many a work is more properly described as decoration or high-end production. While the maker may identify as an artist, have graduated from an art school, wholesaled the work to an art gallery which retailed it to be a client known as an art collector, unless it meets the criteria that defines art then it is something else. Unfortunately art is as slippery as a live fish when one is seeking a universal definition, but it can be distinguished by the presence of content. That is, the intended and discernable idea the artist imbues in the work. A blown, cast, kiln formed or carved vessel that is but that, is not art. It is a vessel. This is not to devalue the works that aren’t art. They may be admirable craft or design works of which the maker ought be justifiably proud. Rather than ‘content’ popular semantics of our time refer to ‘narrative’ as being the demarcation of a work that is properly declared art and is more than an example of skill, no matter how profound the inherent level of skill.

Like Hydra of Greek mythology the introduction of contemporary glass in Australia the multi-headed. Seminal influences included; the exhibitions and visiting artist initiatives of the Australia Council, a few Australians who had returned after studying glass in England or North America, the formation of the JamFactory and the welling interest in kiln working by some of the ‘stained glass’ practitioners who fostered the development of all aspects of contemporary glass. Though largely derived from the US, where the notion that art could be made with glass predominated, somewhat ironically, the first wave of Australian contemporary glass was more often than not without any attribute that might align it with art. Galleries, critics and clients didn’t dispute the usage of the term ‘art’ but many works were not more than spirited manipulation of the new wonder, ‘do-it-yourself’ glass. It was a time of exploration and acquisition of skill with allusions of art making.

Bottles, with extremely stretched necks, the aperture so small that the surface tension of water didn’t allow it to enter, epitomised this era. The early master of this technique, Denis O ‘Connor made bottles with necks so tall and fine as to be far removed from the shape of a regular bottle. He had the ignoble occurrence, in one of the first catalogues, of the photograph of his work being printed upside-down. Magnificent examples of early contemporary glass though they are, his glassblowing had not yet entered art but had exited craft.

The understanding of contemporary glass, more commonly known as studio glass in the 1960’s and 1970’s was for many participants and fellow travellers, confined to glassblowing. The inclusion of kiln working soon followed while cold working trailed behind. In Australia, the promulgation of kiln working is first attributable to Maureen Cahill who had returned from studying in England in 1977 and introduced glass studies to the Sydney College of the Arts in 1978. (11) Some thought kiln working an oddity at the time as glassblowing was seen as elemental to contemporary glass. Not as exciting and requiring little machismo it was second best for many years. The extent to which that has changed is as remarkable as the growth of contemporary glass in its totality.

Contemporary glass was the enfant terrible of the late 1900’s visual arts. If not quite an immaculate conception, it was an unexpected gestation, a premature delivery and a rambunctious childhood. The near conjuring that is glassblowing and the spectacle of the light capturing quality of the works rekindled debate on the craft / art question. Glass was seen as a threat to university ceramics courses, poaching students and waylaying potential ceramics clients. In probability it did both.

There is a certain romanticisation to contemporary glass. It has become more than the sum of its parts. It has bred its heroes, underwritten commercial galleries, infiltrated public collections, adorned great buildings, afforded teaching careers, pervaded the printed page, established websites, become a significant part of Facebook, Linkedin and YouTube and spawned artists’ associations. All this achieved in both a short time and around the world. It is though subject to many interpretations ranging from street market fare to public museum collections.

‘Contemporary glass’, ‘studio glass’, ‘art glass’, ‘glass art’ are used interchangeably. Without clarifying our lexicon can we master the difficulties of a changing and challenging future, for contemporary glass is as threatened as it has yet been? The term, ‘art’ is not traditionally a prefix to a technique or medium to denote the acceptance of that entity to the realm of art. ‘Art painting’ or ‘art sculpture’ are unnecessary terms as these activities are acknowledged as art. Why then ‘art glass’ and ‘glass art’? Is glass to be considered in the same context as ‘graffiti art’?

Indeed the addition of ‘art’ as a prefix or suffix may well exemplify that contemporary glass is not art. There is a possibility that the very success of contemporary glass has impeded its ready inclusion in the upper echelons of the art clique. The early growth of glass collections in public institutions, the founding of glass orientated private galleries and the fostering of university glass courses, commonly in ceramics departments, has caused a particular individuality, a cleaving from the most exalted art milieu. There has been some advantage in this
separate existence but the ’what might have been’ question persists. What could contemporary glass have become if it had grown without the warmth of its own bed?

But now the challenge, is it all coming to an end, are we heading into oblivion? Some say that contemporary glass is facing its demise, that all the creative mountains have been climbed, all the great works are now made and the ranks of the masters thinning. This of course assumes that the original champions of contemporary glass are not being replaced by more recent participants who have or will equal their level of achievement.

There is evidence aplenty of recent erosion, some galleries have closed or redirected the business model and some tertiary courses have or are scheduled to close. Many artists have had reduced sales, some retreating by making works of lower sale price. Exhibition artists have changed to seeking commissions or increasing their engagement in unrelated sources of income. The Global Financial Crisis has taken its toll, recovery not yet cloudless on the horizon. Is this the end?

The history of the arts has long been littered with faded passions, all but forgotten schools of thought, ‘isms’, astounding insights no longer admired, revolution, reactionary alarm and once honoured but now disregarded artists. Might contemporary glass one day become a dimly remembered profligate speck on the clock-face of art history? The Glass Secessionists would have it that contemporary glass is well into the process of being ‘grand-parented’ by secessionist glass. In brief, their use of terminology attributes ‘contemporary glass’ to works meritorious in the level of skill exhibited whereas ‘secessionist glass’ has narrative. ‘Narrative’ is interpreted as a work having an intellectual content that can be interpreted by the viewer, the work being idea based rather than skill based. Somewhat jingoistically, this is also explained by categorising contemporary glass as being 20th Century glass and secessionist glass as championing the new wave of 21st Century thinking in exhibition orientated glass. The topic is problematic as the Glass Secessionists stance is not consistent. They are on the stage but are yet to finalize the script.

To accept the notion that there is an entity properly called Glass Secessionism we must first identify that there is something from which to secede. ‘Secession’ is more normally applied to parts of nations seeking to separate from the whole. Perhaps the most terrible recent event is the secessionist attempt of the ‘Republic of Biafra’ to separate from Nigeria between 1967 and 1970 in which a million civilians died from hunger and warfare.

Not all secessionist endeavours are as traumatic. Australia has been subject to various secession movements in central Queensland in the 1860’s and 1890’s, North Queensland 1870’s and more latterly in northern New South Wales, northern central New South Wales and Mt Gambier, southeast South Australia. Western Australia passed a referendum to secede from Australia in 1933 with a two-thirds majority, though not being ratified by the British Parliament it failed. The ‘Principality of Hutt River’ claims to have seceded from Australia in 1970. [Although that status is not recognized by Australia or any other country, with the possible exception of Macau and some other micro-nations]. The standing of the claim is uncertain until now. Apparently, a definitive answer cannot be obtained from the Australian Taxation Office.

The term ‘secession’ can also be used to refer to a group separating from an organization, but from what have the Glass Secessionists seceded? A reasonable comparison might be that of the Vienna Secession of 1897. Also known as the Union of Austrian Artists it was formed by a group who resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists. It included painters, sculptors, and architects. Gustav Klimt was the first president, its magazine was entitled, ‘Ver Sacrum’.

The Glass Secessionists, informally lead by US artist, Tim Tate is of a more modern age, it has not rejected galleries, education models, publications, collections nor competitions initially and presently engaged with contemporary glass. Communication is electronic, membership not registered and definitions left to whoever may be the speaker at the time. Those who wish to make such judgements, often without qualification or explanation, attribute works as being glass secessionism. The assertion that glass secessionism, if that is understood to be glass art works with intellectual content, is a recent phenomenon more readily refuted than proven.

Tate states, “… 90% of glass over the last 40 years has been technique driven, focusing mostly on vessels. There are of course notable exceptions, such as Therman Statum.” (12) Statum, certainly, but there are many others, including Littleton, Eisch, Labino and Lynggaard who, from the early days of contemporary glass worked sculpturally as well as with vessels. There are many more from around the world who have used narrative as the basis of their glass works for decades. In Australian Warren Langley was one who worked sculpturally from as early as 1978. His ‘Druid Site’ series was exhibited in the early 1980’s. A difficulty not yet overcome by the secessionists is that of finding an argument that supports the cause. They lie in the land of ‘I don’t know what art is but recognize it when I see it’. But it is early days. The theory and practice may yet fuse.

Scott Benefield, former President of GAS, on viewing an exhibition celebrating Sybren Valkema in the Netherlands wrote, “What I came to realize by looking at this exhibit—which also includes early work by Littleton, Labino, Lipofsky and others—was that the truly revolutionary achievement of the studio glass movement lay not in objects or technology or even an aesthetic manifesto but was, rather, conceptual in nature.“ (13) Though it is not Benefield’s intent, one might then consider that if many of the early works of contemporary glass portray the ’movement’ as being conceptual in nature then in probability some of those works are not skill based but rather aligned with the narrative classification of the Glass Secessionists. Of course there was a distinct absence of skill initially and artists reveled in making works that might horrify a factory glassblower. That very lack of skill could possibly mask the intention to make a work more traditional in concept than in resolution. However, it is not difficult to find works from the early days of studio glass that are more concept based than skill based. The ‘freeform’ glassblowing soon lost its capacity to satisfy as the limitations of working with minimal skill soon inhibited the possibility of advancing the conceptual underpinning of the works. It ought be acknowledged that secessionist works often exhibit exceptional levels of skill, the distinction being that the skill is seen as subservient to the intent of the work.

Meagan Bottari, in her 2011 Ausglass conference paper ‘You're a tradie, get over it.’ laments the absence of new masters of the stature of Lino Tagliapietra and Dante Marione “coming up through the ranks”. She admires Marione’s assertion the he doesn’t make art but rather is a craftsperson and assumes the Tiagliapetro would express the same sentiment. Her subsequent statement reveals the contradictory positions assigned advanced skill in deliberation of the merit of contemporary glass works. She asserts that the pinnacle of success in studio glass currently appears to be the ability to produce a technically perfect object with the credibility otherwise assigned to an elegantly designed mass-produced commodity. In rejection of that she campaigns for a redirection towards works that are visionary in essence. (14) As the skill level of contemporary glass artists has risen, often with the direct intention of enabling the maker to more fully work expressively without the handicap of being unable to produce that which is conceived, have some fallen into an abyss of their own making and others been unfairly condemned?

Benefield also observes that there is a prevalence today to make works with exceptional skill, often supplied by a master who is engaged for the purpose. (15) Ironically this marks a return to the factory method. The paradox is that contemporary glass has more than one face, it has for decades encompassed works of conspicuous skill but little or no artistic merit simultaneously with works of a lesser or less obvious skill but of high artistic merit. This presents a fundamental difficulty for the Glass Secessionists, for that from which they seek to secede is contradictory within its own parameters. It may well have leapfrogged them. Their difficulty is that in seeking to be different from something which has long embraced profound difference, they may well be joining one side rather than seceding from the whole.

The foregoing may infer that I am unsympathetic to the notion and practice of Glass Secessionists. Yet that is not so. I applaud their efforts at directing attention to works that are narrative based. Such works are potentially more challenging and hence of less immediate appeal to viewers when exhibited alongside decorative works. In these difficult times adventurous works need all the support that can be mustered. The World Financial Crisis may well have influenced a certain conservatism amongst buyers of contemporary glass that has directed sales towards works that sit more comfortably with the curtains.

The terms ‘post-impressionism’ and ‘post-modernism’ are appreciably established and enable communication. But the new term, ‘post-glass’ may be but a marketing ploy, a means to make works dependant upon glass appear as something of which they are not. Could it be a term without meaning?

In this context ‘post’ means ‘after’. Post glass then is after contemporary glass. There are two problems with the term. If it is used to mean an artist who once worked with glass now has a new preoccupation why would that not be simply that s/he is now doing something else? What are the requirements of an art practice to be ‘post glass’ and how is it distinguished from ‘after glass’? Does it matter if the term is other than sensible if the artist and the viewer are content? But that may not be the intended usage. A more nuanced interpretation is that post glass is a form of working that is not contemporary glass but has shown a departure such as post impressionism or post modernism are distinctly different from impressionism and modernism respectively. Much of post glass involves video and/or performance components. In that regard it is distinctly different from contemporary glass. But ought the video based works be considered video and the performance-based works considered performance? Many of the works have the characteristics of 1970’s performance art. Exemplified by the ’how is this glass’ exhibition at Heller Gallery, New York in 2010 post glass seeks to hew a unique niche but to date is limited to variations and combinations of existing practise. More than a few of the works are admirable. The need now is for clarification of the purpose and practise and further resolution of the way in which the works can meet the dictates of the theory. But if they can’t, then the need is to reimagine the theory until it meets the reality of the works.

The word ‘gay’ is variously intended to mean happy, homosexual or unfashionable. In that light it is difficult to argue that a word is restrained to its original meaning. Guerrilla Glass, not to be mistaken with gorilla glass, [the new high strength glass by Corning], calls for an even greater indulgence in the reuse of language than does its co-conspirator, post glass. The intended alignment with the original use of ‘guerrilla’ is muddied by an imperfect interpretation of the reality of the guerrilla fighter. Regardless, the attempt is to imply that guerrilla glass moves unseen by the uninitiated as a guerrilla fighter in camouflage clothing may secretly travel through the undergrowth or in the community, unidentifiable by the opposing forces. (13) As I understand it, the parallel is drawn that a guerrilla glass artist, circulating in contemporary glass might initiate change from within. (16). Given that contemporary glass has long been subject to change from within the task seems to present as much difficulty in clarifying its distinction as that experienced by the Glass Secessionists.

Some glass works are contemporary in that they sit within the parameters of the construct, contemporary glass. The construct is not so easily defined as the considerable number of variations of glass use, both in intent and technology necessitates discrimination between remarkably similar works. Works of contemporary glass are imbued with the qualities of art and/or craft that are acknowledged as being germane to a subset of makers. They are loosely bound by an ethos of using glass in an individualistic manner distinct from, at one extreme, industrial mass-production and at the other, the designer removed from involvement in the fabrication or the artist utilizing either glass or a glassmaker as an adjunct to a total work. Another use of ‘contemporary’ is that works are made in the present. This is insufficient description for there is a judgement of quality in assigning a work as being contemporary glass as one might distinguish between two painted works deeming one art and the other decoration. Glass, like paint is a material sometimes used by artists, sometimes by craftspeople, sometimes by tradespeople. A glasswork is not art by virtue of being contemporary. But that is not distinctive of glass. Many paintings, though intended as art, also fall short of that category.
While the separatists call for a leap towards a new concept of art made with glass some within the fold note that a step back to its origins might save contemporary glass from its drift to skill based works executed, much in the manner of factories, by master practitioners working with designers. If contemporary glass is nearing exhaustion, beyond art or about to be superseded by post-glass then perhaps we should close the classes, reimagine the galleries, disband Ausglass, all fold our tents and tiptoe away. There are two incompatible notions pertaining to the demise of contemporary glass alluded to by the adherents to secessionist glass, post glass and guerrilla glass. The first proposal being that Contemporary glass is to be put to the stake by revolutionaries. The alternative is that contemporary glass is sedately drawing its last breath and on the cusp of being lowered into a solemn grave, attended by the aforementioned enthusiasts of the new. These are hard arguments to prove. They are particularly so to an audience attending a contemporary glass conference that has a ‘members’ exhibition’ with 102 exhibitors adjacent to a contemporary glass museum.

Contemporary glass has suffered many a blow; excluded by some from the hearth of art, broadened until it challenges its definition, threatened by a reduction in sales and profitability, diluted by a return to the previous ways of making by masters following designs envisaged by others and dismissed or attacked by ‘new wavers’ looking to break the mould, create new terminologies and relegate it to history. Yet students still enrol, graduates find a niche, old hands persevere and entrepreneurs continue to invest their chattels, time and energies. It is to be found in all the expected places, but also some less well known. It is alive and well in The Philippines, Ireland, India, Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, South Africa, Argentina, Iceland, China, Jordan, Cyprus, Malaysia and doubtlessly many other countries.

Contemporary glass is neither dead nor dying. It gives every impression of being with us at least until the fat lady sings.

(1) von Tunzelmann A, The Guardian, website, February 26th, 2009

(2) BBC News, June 2nd, website, 2000

(3) Austen I, The New York Times, website, February 22nd, 2013

(5) Edwards, S D, email correspondence with the author, 3 March 2013

(6) Lynggaard F, A Search for Form, Van Nostrand Reinhold, London, 1971, pp 149

7) Fujita K, the story of studio glass, ed, Lynggaard F, Rhodos, Copenhagen, 1998, pp 107

8) Fujita K, the story of studio glass, ed, Lynggaard F, Rhodos, Copenhagen, 1998, pp 107

(9) Kawakita M, Glass Dreams, Fujita K, Kyoto Shoin, Kyoto, 1986, pp 7

(10) King G, the story of studio glass, Ed, Lynggaard F, Rhodos, Copenhagen, 1998, pp116

(11) King G, the story of studio glass, Ed, Lynggaard F, Rhodos, Copenhagen, 1998, pp117

(12) Tate T, Art interview, Online Magazine, Issue 009

(13) Benefield S, The World According to Sybren Valkema,

(14) Bottari M, text supplied to the author, ‘You’re a tradie, get over it’, conference paper, Ausglass, 2011

(15) Benefield S, email correspondence with the author, 26 March 2013

(16) Srinivasan A, email correspondence with the author, 4 June 2012

Australian Gerry King has worked in contemporary glass from the early 1970s when undertaking postgraduate studies in the US.
Originally a glassblower he now works with many techniques for exhibition and commission pieces. His work is represented in some 20 public collections worldwide. He is also in demand internationally as an author, consultant and visiting lecturer. www.gerryking

Copyright © 2013-2019  Glass is more!        Copyright, privacy, disclaimer