Glass is not a material readily associated with sculpture. Tainted for generations by an association with the decorative, the alluring properties of glass have to some extent been a curse; regarded as too aesthetically pleasing, too frivolous and beautiful to be able to create anything of substance. Alongside its aesthetic qualities, the alchemical and secretive production processes involved in working with glass render it an especially troublesome proposition for sculptors.
Glass is a mysterious and wonderful thing. Less a material than a state of matter, the heat of the furnace transforms grains of silica into molten lava, which can be stretched, flattened, moulded, blown or cast. When cooled from its molten state, glass takes on the qualities most readily associated with it, becoming transparent, reflective, fragile and ephemeral. As a material glass can be both entirely utilitarian – creating window panes, vessels and lenses – and richly expressive, becoming a vehicle for the most visionary experimentation and technical sophistication.
The capacity of glass to take on different surface textures, colours and change its shape and physical state with such abandon means that it is exceptionally difficult to categorise. Unlike stone or wood, there is no essential ‘truth’ to glass as a material. Even things we think we know about glass can turn out to be deceptions: it isn’t always transparent; it isn’t always fragile; it doesn’t always reflect light; it doesn’t remain a liquid forever. Thus, when sculptors turn to glass, they are able to make it perform the most extraordinary feats, sometimes using its common properties, sometimes subverting them, and often while making profound underlying comments on issues of identity and human frailty.
Erwin Eisch, Tele Komm Komm 027-418 1998, free-blown hot glass Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams Bruce Mclean, Head 2013, mould blown glass © Bruce McLean. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022. Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams Hew Locke, Mummy's Little Soldier 2013, hand-blown Murano glass with metal chains and bottles. Fabricated at Berengo Glass Studios, Venice in collaboration with Venice Projects, London College of Fashion and the Wallace Collection © Hew Locke. All rights reserved, DACS. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates The De La Torre Brothers, El Monarca 2014, hot sculpted and waterjet cut glass with plastics Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams Nicholas Pope, Now Lost in Space 2015, blown and sculpted glass Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams Emma Woffenden, Creature 2015-18, blown glass and plaster Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: Angela Moore Mona Hatoum, Cells 2014, zinc plated steel and glass © Mona Hatoum. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Courtesy the artist and White Cube. Photo: Joerg Lohse / Alexander and Bonin, New York Petr Stanicky, Mirror-Mondeo Bite 2014, car window with blown and mirrored glass Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams Claire Falkenstein, Untitled c.1965, copper and glass © The Falkenstein Foundation. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Erwin Eisch, Tele Komm Komm 027-418 1998, free-blown hot glass
Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams
Bruce Mclean, Head 2013, mould blown glass
© Bruce McLean. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022. Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams
Hew Locke, Mummy's Little Soldier 2013, hand-blown Murano glass with metal chains and bottles. Fabricated at Berengo Glass Studios, Venice in collaboration with Venice Projects, London College of Fashion and the Wallace Collection
© Hew Locke. All rights reserved, DACS. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates
The De La Torre Brothers, El Monarca 2014, hot sculpted and waterjet cut glass with plastics
Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams
Nicholas Pope, Now Lost in Space 2015, blown and sculpted glass
Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams
Emma Woffenden, Creature 2015-18, blown glass and plaster
Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: Angela Moore
Mona Hatoum, Cells 2014, zinc plated steel and glass
© Mona Hatoum. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Courtesy the artist and White Cube. Photo: Joerg Lohse / Alexander and Bonin, New York
Petr Stanicky, Mirror-Mondeo Bite 2014, car window with blown and mirrored glass
Courtesy National Glass Centre. Photo: David Williams
Claire Falkenstein, Untitled c.1965, copper and glass
© The Falkenstein Foundation. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Glass and Sculpture
Although the history of glass as a material dates back thousands of years, the use of glass for making sculpture really took off in the 1950s, when the Venetian artist Giuseppe Santomaso began working with the master glassmaker Archimede Seguso in 1951. In 1953 the master glassmaker and largely unacknowledged hero of modern art Egidio Costantini founded the Centro Studio Pittori Arte del Vetro, which became an important centre for artists who wanted to work with master glassmakers. Costantini welcomed artists including Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Lucio Fontana and Alexander Calder, effectively becoming the first ‘fabricator’ in modern art.
The furnaces of Italy were a source of enormous fascination and inspiration for many artists. During the 1950s collaborations began to emerge from the major centres of European glassmaking in Venice and Murano and also Bohemia, home of the renowned Blaschka brothers, where the Czech studio glass movement became hugely influential. Other major studios to work in collaboration with artists include: Berengo Studios on Murano, which continues the work begun by Costantini, along with Ajeto Studio, Czech Republic; Corning Museum of Glass, Urban Glass and Steuben Glass Works in New York; Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle and Centre International du Verre et Arts Plastiques in Marseilles. In the UK, the National Glass Centre, Sunderland continues a tradition of glassmaking that dates back to Roman times.
Working with Glass
Glass is a difficult and sometimes dangerous material to work with and it takes years to master. Although a number of sculptors specialise in working with glass, more often than not artists turn to the skills and expertise of professionals in order to realise sculpture in glass. Many of the sculptures in the exhibition have been produced by skilled glassmakers in a creative and collaborative partnership with the artists who have developed them. Often glassmakers have their own artistic practice, which they continue separately from their work as fabricators. Like all art fabricators, their role is to provide the technical expertise to realise an artwork, to advise and to offer solutions, while the ideas and the creative processes that generate the sculpture belong with the artist. The line between fine art and craft – or the sculptural and the decorative – is often thin and blurred, but it becomes especially difficult to define in relation to glass. Defining what is art and what is a craft can be difficult, and one of the things that is so compelling about glass sculpture is the way in which it combines the two.
Glass exists in many states, from the resolute solidity of cast and moulded glass to the lava-like liquidity of molten glass. The three states of matter – solid, gas and liquid – roughly correspond to particular techniques and processes, which artists have capitalised on to produce these extraordinary sculptures. The exhibition shows that glass is an infinitely variable material, used in imaginative and sometimes subversive ways by a diverse range of artists.
Despite persistent myths that glass remains in a liquid state when cooled, glass is in fact classified as an ‘amorphous solid’. One of the great peculiarities of glass is that its atoms do not have time to organise themselves into the ordered structures of a true solid as they cool: it behaves as a solid without having the corresponding atomic structure. The examples in this gallery exploit this to some extent, using techniques such as casting, moulding and lamp-working to produce sculptures that, in many cases, are imposing in their solidity and weightiness. Glass might be thought of as fragile and ephemeral, but Alena Matějka’s Magic Carpets 2004 are weighty and dense and certainly could not take to the air as their title suggests.
Both Matějka’s Magic Carpets and Bruce McLean’s Head 2013 revisit objects from the past through the casting process. Other artists depict objects that should definitely not be made of glass, such as Erwin Eisch’s telephone, Silvia Levenson’s delicate glass dress, or Elliot Walker’s solid pool of wine. Luke Jerram’s magnified glass microbes highlight the fragility of human life rather than the fragility of glass. In contrast, Joseph Kosuth uses that most mundane of glass objects – a window pane – to question our ideas of meaning and value. These sculptures ingeniously undermine our assumptions about the fragility of glass as a material by using solid objects that contradict those assumptions.
Any two metre square sheet of glass to lean against any wall 1965
Metal plaque and glass
This artwork, Kosuth’s first conceptual work, exemplifies much of the artist’s thinking. The use of glass of variable sizes rejects the notion of content and form and therefore the consideration of ‘aesthetic choice’. The artwork lacks colour; its shape and size are arbitrary. The choice of the title thus draws attention to the impact a title has on the perception of an artwork. The label Any two meter square sheet of glass to lean against any wall 1965 is an answer to both ‘what’ and ‘how’, showing that the material qualities of the work are secondary to the question it poses about the relation between framing, language and perception.
“As my practice as an artist has made clear for some decades, the materials of my work have only value as part of the production of its meaning. I chose glass, firstly, for its diminished esthetic qualities (clearness and lack of a priori value as an art material) and, secondly, it’s availability to be ordered in standardized shapes and sizes, thus reducing the importance given to traditional formal artistic choice. The viewer seeing this exhibition needs to understand that this work is not intended by me as being either ‘sculpture’ or, for that matter, even ‘Modern’. (Thus, the necessity of this posted statement.) When I did this work, in 1965, I was looking for a way to question, in my work, the modernist presumptions of the time. These presumptions consisted of seeing the practice of art as primarily divided between painting and sculpture, and being basically concerned with forms and colors in the service of self-expression. My concerns were, however, located elsewhere: how is meaning produced in and by a work of art. To this end, I needed to diminish the importance of the expected experience of the materials themselves and make visible as much as possible those devices, often linguistic, we routinely naturalize and ignore as part of the viewing process. And, to that end, I agreed to permit my work to be seen within an exhibition context, misframed by the title that it has. My hope is to enable the questions that my work poses, and to make such questions part of this exhibition.”
Ev71 Hand, Foot & Mouth
From Glass Microbiology series, 2004-present
It is hard to reconcile the intricate beauty of Jerram’s sculptures with the horrific diseases that they represent. Rendered in glass at such a magnified scale, the complex detail of the microbes is surprising and delicate, but rather than the fragility of glass, these objects are a reminder of the fragility of human life. The global impact of diseases such as HIV or malaria is terrifying to contemplate, but Jerram’s sculptures are equally a testament to the huge advances in science and medicine that allow them to be identified and treated.
The hot sculpting and cold carving processes used in this sculpture produce the effect of a distinct outline, the rough edges appearing as though the objects have been drawn rather than sculpted. Walker’s work investigates the relationship between two and three dimensions, between still-life painting and sculpture, exploring art historical references ranging from Northern Renaissance oil painting to Pop Art and Cubism. The importance of light is a key concern in both painting and glassmaking. Here, Walker demonstrates how reflections and shadows can be manipulated by different techniques to create contrasting surface effects.
Magic Carpets 2004
Matějka’s magic carpets are an example of how our expectations of glass – that it is fragile or transparent, for example – can be easily confounded. Matějka produced a series of magic carpets; at a record-breaking three hundred kilograms, the largest carpet is the heaviest piece of kiln-formed cast glass ever made. The delicate patterns are derived from historic sites, including gothic castles, cemeteries and cathedrals across Scotland and the north of England, which are encoded onto the sculptures like an ancient language. The magic carpets travel across space and time, connecting ancient and modern forms of art.
Cast glass child's dress
Levenson was born in Argentina and is now based in Italy. Her glass sculptures invariably contain a pointed social commentary. In this instance, the cast glass child’s dress is symbolic of the fragility of childhood and the impossibility of protecting children from the world around them. The sculpture relates to a larger project, where multiple glass casts of children’s clothing refer to the enforced adoption of Argentinian children whose parents were killed during the military dictatorship. The idea that childhood – like a glass dress – can be so easily shattered is a powerful one.
Tele Komm Komm 027-418 1998
Free-blown hot glass
Now in his nineties, Eisch is one of the most prominent glassmakers of the twentieth-century; a hugely important figure who introduced pioneering studio glassmaking techniques to the US and transformed late-twentiethcentury glassmaking. Trained in fine art, Eisch brought sculptural concerns to the fore in his glassmaking, creating glass works that were cast directly from his idiosyncratic, expressionistic sculptures. With their painterly surfaces and imperfect forms, Eisch’s sculptures reflect his artistic philosophy of a humanistic, intuitive approach to art.
Mould blown glass
Despite describing himself exclusively as a sculptor, McLean works across many different media, from prints to performance and painting to pottery. This sculpture is cast from an artwork he originally made in 1958. Seeking to emulate the work of modernist sculptors, including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore, McLean made the stone carving as a fourteen year old boy, and kept it in his garden in the intervening decades. Some fifty five years later, in a characteristically experimental move, a mould was made from this early work and McLean cast the head in glass, reconfiguring the sculpture not just materially but also temporally.
Gas plays a crucial role in glassmaking, most notably in the technique of glassblowing which requires air to be blown into a molten blob of glass in order to inflate it. The glass is then shaped while molten and hardens as it cools. Blown glass has been produced for centuries and is a highly skilled technique requiring years of practice to master. The glassmakers of Murano and Venice are especially proficient and have developed a distinctive aesthetic, which many sculptors have used or subverted in their work. The sculptures in this gallery made by the De La Torre Brothers and Hew Locke both take a disruptive approach to the decorative properties of blown glass. Similarly, Mona Hatoum’s use of glass creates a conflict between unsettling subject matter and aesthetically appealing material. Blown glass can also produce surprising or disturbing shapes, such as Nicholas Pope’s exuberant, tentacled orb and Emma Woffenden’s Creature 2015-18, whose alien form is surreal and disconcerting. Blown glass exists in a state of constant tension: the more it inflates, the more precarious it becomes, an aspect of glassmaking compellingly captured in Maria Bang Espersen’s film Breathing 2015.
Mummy’s Little Soldier reflects upon race and identity, informed by the representations of so-called ‘blackamoors’ that Locke encountered around Venice while making the sculpture. Blackamoor was a term used historically to describe black people of African descent and the figure of the enslaved blackamoor appeared repeatedly throughout the decorative arts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Locke’s sculpture is also a reference to the child soldiers caught up and exploited in conflicts around the world, who are often told that the amulets and potions they are given will make them invincible. Soldiers are a recurring theme in Locke’s work, as he dismantles and reconfigures the visual symbols of the imperial past and present. The fragility of glass reflects the fragility of real-life child soldiers, an association that renders the decorative properties of Murano glass as subversively grotesque.
Film, 7 minutes
The role of air in the production of blown glass is the subject of Maria Bang Espersen’s film Breathing. In most cases, molten glass is shaped by the act of a person using a blowing iron, which directs breath from their lungs into the glass to inflate it. In this case, Espersen pumped compressed air into the glass, using the immense force to create gigantic balloons of glass that slowly and agonisingly expand to precariously enormous sizes. Eventually of course, if you keep blowing, all balloons burst – these were no exception.
El Monarca 2014
Hot sculpted and waterjet cut glass with plastics
The decorative properties of blown glass are subverted to great effect by the De La Torre Brothers, whose baroque figure El Monarca is part of their ongoing exploration of their bicultural identities and the complexities of the immigrant experience for Mexican Americans. The De La Torre Brothers have made glass a central material in their work, which draws on a variety of cultural sources including: religious iconography, Mexican vernacular crafts, pre-Columbian art and contemporary pop culture. The layering of cultural references, materials and decorative elements creates an aesthetic of excess, but one which is delivered with irreverent humour and wit.
Now Lost in Space 2015
Blown and sculpted glass
Pope’s sculpture is based on a drawing, which then became this three-dimensional object made of blown glass, which has recently been reincarnated as a handwoven Turkish carpet. The gravity-defying form exists in a state of endless becoming, in which it is constantly on the verge of turning into something else. Working across disparate materials, and frequently referring back to drawings and notes from the past, Pope’s exuberant, colourful sculpture is part of his wider mission to convey complex personal and emotional histories through abstract form and experimental processes.
Blown glass and plaster
Woffenden’s work is often based on the figure, but not as we know it. Unsettling forms doing mysterious things challenge our perception of the figurative and the relationship between the human body and psyche. Although this sculpture contains many recognisable elements, its overall appearance is rendered unfamiliar and strange. The construction of the head – with its protruding tongue – is reminiscent of aliens from science fiction films, but the inclusion of obvious genitalia adds a primal and somewhat predatory element to the sculpture that is all too human.
Zinc plated steel and glass
Like many of Hatoum’s sculptures and installations, this work refers implicitly to the body and is loaded with uncomfortable associations. The blown glass shapes have a visceral appearance, the amorphous red glass evoking blood cells or organs. Despite their unsettling or even abject connotations, these become deeply aesthetically pleasing when rendered in blown glass. The ‘cells’ of the title can be interpreted in many different ways: as well as the red glass blood cells, the locked steel cages containing them suggest prison cells. Although the steel structure refers to the clean lines and grid-like structures of minimalism, Hatoum disrupts this by explicitly associating it with the idea of confinement or punishment.
Nothing can be made from glass without the intermediate stage of heating grains of silica to produce liquid glass, the red-hot molten lava from which all glass objects emerge. In this state, glass can be pulled, stretched, dripped and poured, and the capacity of glass to form drops, blobs and bubbles lends itself beautifully to abstraction. Petr Stanicky’s stretched glass sculpture Mirror-Mondeo Bite 2014 is formed using precisely these properties of liquid glass, which is malleable enough to be pulled to a length of nearly two metres. Claire Falkenstein’s sculptures depend on the juxtaposition of solid welded metal with the liquid forms of melted glass, while Alexandra Engelfriet’s film Glassporen (Glass Traces) 2015 uses the heat of the molten glass in its liquid form to create an extraordinary experiment. All of these sculptures exist in an in-between state, having cooled to a state of solid matter while retaining the fluidity of their liquid form.
Mirror-Mondeo Bite 2014
Car window with blown and mirrored glass
Stanicky’s sculpture combines the prosaic, familiar form of a car window with the fantastical form of stretched, molten mirror glass. The liquid mirror droplet is ‘attacking’ the pane of glass, biting through it as the two forms collide. The sculpture is one part of a triptych, which explores the ways in which we see the world through glass: looking through car windows and seeing the world reflected in mirrors are part of our everyday visual experience. Stanicky transforms the everyday act of looking into a surreal encounter, as we watch ourselves eating our own reflection.
Untitled c. 1965
Untitled c. 1968
Untitled c. 1968
Copper and glass
Falkenstein was a hugely innovative artist who experimented with a range of materials. Best known for her mid-century work in welded metal, Falkenstein developed a new way of working with glass and metal which fused the two together without melting the metal structures around which she based her work. The technique was most famously seen in Falkenstein’s New Gates of Heaven which she created in 1961 for Peggy Guggenheim’s home in Venice, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Falkenstein preferred the term ‘structures’ to describe her sculptures, a reference to her interest in the topological relationship between matter and space, which in this case is complicated by the addition of the melted glass to the nest-like form of the metal.
Glassporen (Glass Traces) 2015
Film, 12 minutes 21 seconds
Engelfriet’s film is the product of an extraordinary experiment. After creating a large bed of cold, damp clay, Engelfriet poured liquid glass heated to 600 degrees centigrade onto the raw clay. The result is mesmerising; the molten glass creates glowing rivers through the clay, forming fragile bubbles that explode as they cool. The final ‘traces’ of the glass are brittle shards embedded into the dried clay, with the film presenting the only remaining evidence that the experiment ever took place.