20th and 21st Century Design Art Behind the Scenes Collection Curatorial

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the American Studio Glass Movement

American Studio Glass installation. Photo by the author.

The year 2012 is considered the 50th anniversary of the American Studio Glass movement. The anniversary is being celebrated with exhibitions and events across the country, organized in large part by the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass.

The Milwaukee Art Museum has a terrific collection of studio glass, and we were thrilled to be part of the celebration. Along one wall of the newly-designed Kohl’s Art Generation Studio is a new installation that celebrates using glass as a medium of creative impulse.

The glass sparkles, tells an important art history story, and I hope that its visual beauty inspires young artists as they create their own artwork nearby.

What is the American Studio Glass movement, and what is this anniversary?

Harvey K. Littleton (American, b. 1922), Lemon/Red Crown, 1989. Blown and drawn glass, cut and polished, 15 3/4 x 28 1/4 x 31 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Peter and Grace Friend, Mr. and Mrs. Wayne J. Roper, Laurence and Judy Eiseman, Dr. and Mrs. Jurgen Herrmann, Dr. and Mrs. Leander Jennings, Nita Soref, Marilyn and Orren Bradley, Mr. and Mrs. Frank J. Pelisek, Dr. and Mrs. Robert Mann, Burton C. and Charlotte Zucker, James Brachman, Mr. and Mrs. John F. Monroe, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Wiiken, Elmer L. Winter, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart Goldfarb, Mr. Ben W. Heineman, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Hyman, Janey and Douglas MacNeil, and Friends. Photo by Efraim Lev-er. © Harvey K. Littleton.

Fifty years ago, in 1962, Wisconsin artist Harvey K. Littleton (American, b. 1922) and glass scientist Dominick Labino (American, 1910–1987) introduced glass as a medium for artistic expression in two workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.

This was groundbreaking.

Littleton and Labino developed small furnaces and a glass formula with a low melting point, making it possible for individual artists to work with glass outside of an industrial setting. In 1963 Littleton taught the first glass-blowing class in an American college at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This combination of events kick-started the American Studio Glass movement and introduced a generation of trained artists to glass as a medium for individual, creative expression. In other words, glass moved out of the factory and into artists’ studios.

The Museum’s installation features glass by both Littleton (like the Lemon/Red Crown above) and Labino that shows how they created glass not for a functional purpose, but purely for beauty and expression in color, form, and optics.

Fritz Dreisbach (American, b. 1941), Maternal, 1979. Blown glass, with multicolor inclusions, 11 1/2 x 5 x 4 3/4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Sheldon M. Barnett Family M1991.2. Photo by Efraim Lev-er.

The installation includes artwork by glass artists Dale Chihuly, Tom McGlauchlin, Fritz Dreisbach (at left), and Howard Ben Tré. These mostly abstract forms display the technical virtuosity of their makers and the optical beauty of glass. We see wild color, trapped air bubbles, and creative shapes that are simply beautiful, with no mind toward utility.

To give a contrast to the creative advancement in the American Studio Glass movement, the installation also includes glass objects that are primarily functional rather than creative (even if they are decorative and beautiful). A pressed glass covered dish, lamp, and a gorgeous “lily pad” pitcher show the practical applications of glass, a medium that has been embraced for 3,500 years for its transparency and delicate appearance. Glass windows let sunlight enter a room. Glass lampshades protect a flame while letting the light shine through. Glass containers keep liquids safe without affecting taste.

While there is no substitution for viewing this artwork in person, the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass has shared some wonderful videos of artists making and speaking about their glass work, including Pioneers of Studio Glass, a video produced by AACG to commemorate the 50th anniversary of contemporary studio glass in the United States. And then, of course, you can see the fires and kilns and molten glass that we are unable to experience in Museum galleries!

For the benefit of our Blog readers, during the installation of the glass I snapped a few pictures that show details of the artwork and the care of our art conservation and technician team.

Here, the Museum’s objects conservator Terri White polishes the silver elements on a stunning Christopher Dresser designed “Crow’s Foot” Claret Jug (designed 1878):

American Studio Glass installation. Photo by the author.

Before objects were installed in the case, everything was removed from its storage box and laid out on a padded table. Everything was then inspected for condition. Below, a variety of the glass artworks await a quick cleaning by Terri White. You can also see in this image an object file folder that contains information and reference pictures about how the more complicated artwork (like nesting Chihuly glass) should be properly installed:

Museum staff working on American Studio Glass installation. Photo by the author.

Below the Museum’s exhibition designer John Irion and I work together to situate the objects so that they look good from both sides of the case:

American Studio Glass installation. Photo by the author.

Art technician John Dreckmann carefully arranges all the arching parts of Harvey Littleton’s Lemon/Red Crown (1989). The Museum has a paper template that maps out how the pieces are oriented:

American Studio Glass installation. Photo by the author.

After all the objects are carefully situated in the case, conservator Terri White applies small bits of “Museum Wax” to keep everything anchored in place:

American Studio Glass installation. Photo by the author.

The finished installation can be viewed from the long corridor that connects Gallery #15 (American Modernism) to the Gallery #23 (Contemporary Art):

American Studio Glass installation. Photo by the author.

Thanks to graphic designer Sierra Kortoff and design intern Nate Pyper for devising great little labels that include images of all the objects!

Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility included interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

2 replies on “Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the American Studio Glass Movement”

Thanks for this post, Mel–I can’t see a glass installation without wondering about the details of how it comes together. And I love that the families making art in the Kohl’s Art Generation Studio have these beautiful, fragile pieces in their midst!

Thanks Donele!

I agree that it is such a fun opportunity, as we’ve done with several of the Kohl’s Art Generation projects, to have Museum Collection material right on hand for inspiration.

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