Glass Act: There's More to Glass Art Than Dale Chihuly

Glass as fine art is now so commonly seen in museums, galleries, and private collections that it's easy to forget how, a century or so ago, most glass was mass-produced and utilitarian in nature. You didn't display a piece of glass as a work of art so much as drink from it, or serve from it, or use it as a container to hold other things.

All that changed 50 years ago, as this marvelously succinct retrospective at the Boca Museum demonstrates. Using a little more than 60 individual pieces, guest curator Linda Boone traces the history of the Contemporary Glass Movement, originally known as Studio Glass, from its humble beginnings to the present. The exhibition is one of 130 museum shows nationwide that observe this landmark anniversary, in this case by bringing together works from the museum's own collection, from private collectors, and from Habatat Galleries, the first leading commercial gallery to specialize in glass art.

In 1962 a ceramics teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison named Harvey Littleton pioneered the Contemporary Glass Movement by launching a series of workshops, sponsored by the Toledo Museum of Art, to explore the possibilities of glass as an art form. Glass was already in his blood, so to speak — Littleton had traveled to Europe in the late '50s to research traditions of glassmaking, and his father worked at the legendary Corning Glass Works in New York.

Less than a decade later, in 1971, the Glass Art Society was formed to promote glass art. That same year, a Littleton student by the name of Dale Chihuly cofounded the Pilchuck Glass School on the site of a former tree farm in Stanwood, Washington.

Today, for better or for worse, Chihuly is the face of glass art in America. His style is so instantly recognizable that I know people who cringe whenever they see one of his trademark wavy forms — his name, for them, has become synonymous with glass art that verges on parodying itself. Still, there's no denying Chihuly's influence in making glass the respectable form of art that it has become.

Chihuly by no means dominates "Glass Act," which includes only three of his works. Instead, the show presents a quick survey of other artists exploring the potential of the medium. There are artists whose work seems to draw primarily on the traditions of ceramics, and artists whose work is more sculptural. Some of the artists start with familiar forms such as vessels and vases and even paperweights and then subvert them, sometimes radically.

I was heartened to see works by artists even a glass novice such as myself would recognize. Dan Dailey, Howard Ben Tré, Paul Stankard, and the irresistibly named Toots Zynsky are all represented here by excellent examples of their output. William Morris, who worked with Chihuly in the late 1970s and early '80s before striking out on his own, has a trio of remarkable pieces that challenge our ideas of what glass art should look like.

But the artist who walks off with the show, for me, is Jon Kuhn, who along the way has moved away from blowing glass to creating constructions involving thousands of fragments of colored glass that are layered, laminated, cut, ground, and polished. Kuhn proves, again and again, that glass art, like so much art, is all about the interplay of the medium with light. He's the best of the best in this uniformly fine exhibition.

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Michael Mills