Glassworks: Two European Shows Renew an Ancient Medium


Is glass the new plastic? Or, perhaps better phrased: Is the ancient, magical medium of glassworks challenging artists anew? Two European exhibitions suggest that glass is back big-time and, while still in touch with tradition, reflecting contemporary concepts of art-making.

Glas(s), Gerrit Rietveld Academy Amsterdam 1969-2009 is being held at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands, and Glasstress , which features an international group of artists from the past 80 years, is on view at the Istituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti in Venice, Italy. Taken together, these two shows represent an amazing overview of some of the best modern and contemporary artists manipulating the medium.

Glas(s) celebrates the rich, 40-year history of the glass department of Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academy. Present and former teachers and students, including Mieke Groot, Katrin Maurer, Richard Meitner, Richard Price, Caroline Prisse, and Sybren Valkema, exhibit experimental works, which push the boundaries of the medium, in the beautiful period rooms of the Gemeentemuseum, designed by arts-and-crafts-style architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage in the 1930s.

Groot blows sensuous, ball-shaped forms that are beautifully colored and erotically textured. Maurer mocks industrial glass products with her stacked cast-glass assemblages. Meitner pastiches Delft ceramics and celebrates the Dutch public’s love of fish in his freeform and blown-glass works. Price constructs odd babies and boats with glass and gold leaf. Prisse mixes glass with porcelain, rubber, and metal to make imaginary plant life. Meanwhile, the founder of the Rietveld Academy’s glass workshop, Sybren Valkema, is represented by abstract forms and vases, and his son Durk Valkema, who studied at the academy and later co-founded the Vrij Glas Foundation in Zaandam, shows a surreal, glass city, which fits nicely on a tabletop.

Shifting to Venice, the Glasstress exhibition takes over the magnificent Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti — filling the grand old rooms and garden with a marvelous mix of glass works. Organized by Venetian art impresario Adriano Berengo, who has a renowned glass studio in Murano, the exhibition includes pieces by 35 international artists — ranging from Josef Albers‘ 1923 leaded-glass abstraction to Fred Wilson‘s 2009 Iago’s Mirror, an interpretation of a decorative mirror in black and white glass.

The Nouveaux-Realist artist Arman is represented by a 1962 accumulation of light bulbs in a Plexiglas and wood case. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg shows a pair of clear, blown-glass tires that comically look like the real thing. Barbara Bloom engraved glassware with fragments of love letters from Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colette. Jan Fabre offers a group of Bic-pen-blue glass pigeons. Jean Michel Othoniel turns a stunning, giant string of red glass beads into a freestanding abstract sculpture. Hye Rim Lee creates an animated film, in which mythical crystal figurines cavort with sex toys, simulating an urban skyline. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Dan Graham shows off one of his reflective glass pavilions, which has the viewer uncertain as to whether he is coming or going.

Put in the hands of talented artists, there is no limit to what can be achieved in any medium. Given the fact that glass is both common and precious, its renewed creative use should only continue to enchant viewers for ages to come.

Glas(s) is on view through November 1 and Glasstress runs through November 22.

Richard Meitner, Violation of the Base, 1984. Blown glass, enamel, wood, and paint. Collection Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris. Photo Ron Zijlstra

Katrin Maurer, Kyoto, 2005. Kiln cast glass. Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. Photo Ron Zijlstra

Mieke Groot, Untitled, 2002. Blown glass, cut, polished, and enamelled. Collection Alter Hof Herding Glass Museum / Ernsting Collection, Coesfeld Lette. Photo Ron Zijlstra

Caroline Prisse, The Green Machine, 2007. Glass, rubber, and porcelain. Collection IVG Institutional Funds GmbH. Photo Ron Zijlstra

Durk Valkema, Glass City, 1976. Partially mould-blown glass, glued, and gold leaf. Collection National Glass Museum, Leerdam. Photo Ron Zijlstra

Arman Accumulation of light bulbs, 1962 Accumulation of glass light bulbs in a case (Plexiglas and wood) Courtesy: Private collection, Bassano

Barbara Bloom Flaubert Letters II, 1987-2008 Glassware engraved with fragments of letters from Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colette and from Barbara Bloom to Gustave Flaubert Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan Photo: Barbara Bloom

Jean Michel Othoniel Ricochet Rouge, 2009 Glass and aluminium 110x110x110 cm Courtesy: Galerie Karsten Greve AG, St. Moritz

Dan Graham Sagitarian Girls, 2008 Two-way mirror, steel Courtesy: Francesca Minini, Milan Photo: Francesco Allegretto

Josef Albers Kaiserlich (Imperial), ca. 1923 Assemblage (glass and lead) Courtesy: Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, Bottrop

Hye Rim Lee Crystal City Spun, 2008 3D animation projection with surround sound Courtesy: the artist and Kukje Gallery, Seoul

Jan Fabre Colombes qui chient et rats qui volent, 2008 Glass and Bic-ink Courtesy the artist

Robert Rauschenberg Untitled (Glass Tires), 1997 Blown glass and silver plated brass Courtesy Estate of Robert Rauschenberg, New York