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Art Review: Block glass collection dazzles at Carnegie

Works show wide array of glass art techniques

Friday, April 05, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Like dewy nascent rainbows, the glass sculpture peppered throughout luminous white galleries in the Carnegie Museum of Art beckon the visitor to give chase.

Maxine and William Block at home with some of the nearly two hundred pieces of glass sculpture they've collected over the last two decades. Sixty-two of the works go on exhibition tomorrow in "Contemporary Directions: Glass from the Maxine and William Block Collection" at the Carnegie Museum of Art. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

From the stained glass drama of Chartres Cathedral windows to the poor man's gemstones of polished beach shards, glass has intoxicating beauty and a magical essence that comes from the way light interacts with it.

These characteristics, plus the variety and high quality of works in "Contemporary Directions: Glass from the Maxine and William Block Collection," make for an exhibition experience that's pure pleasure.

The 62 artworks, selected from a collection three times that size, were made between 1988 and 2002, when the studio glass movement came of age.

Liberated by technological developments that made it feasible to work outside of factory environments, individual artists began to push glass beyond functional and decorative roles in the early 1960s. Paralleling the art world's deflation of boundaries between what was considered "high" and "low" art, the medium received new acceptance outside of traditional craft circles.

While some works in the exhibition reference the history of glass, new twists have been added. For example, Dante Marioni enlarges classical forms and contemporizes them with his own vibrant palette, as in the technically breathtaking "Chartreuse and Black Pair" of 1992, a tall ribbed pitcher and low footed bowl.

Kathleen Mulcahy -- the only Pittsburgh artist -- also enlarges scale in "Ravishing," one of her "Persuasion Series" of oversized perfume bottles, and adds another dimension by suggesting a re-examination of what it means to be feminine while simultaneously commenting on the allure of the glass, itself blatantly gorgeous.

One of the things that characterizes the collection is its breadth. Sarah Nichols, co-curator of the exhibition and curator of decorative art at the Carnegie, says the Block collection is "amazing for the variety of techniques. They never set out to build a comprehensive collection, but they certainly set out to build a broad collection."

At the same time, she adds, "They've bought very well. Not just any piece. They really have an eye."

An inclusive collection

'Contemporary Directions:
Glass from the
Maxine & William Block
'William Morris:
Man Adorned'

WHERE: Carnegie Museum of Art.

WHEN: Free public opening is form 8 to 11 p.m. tomorrow. The exhibitions run through July 7.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays until 9 p.m. Thursdays.

ADMISSION: $7.50; $4.50 seniors, students, children; members free.

PRESS RELEASE: www.cmoa.org/media/press

OTHER: See events listing for other shows and programs. Full color catalog of the collection is $29.95.

INFORMATION: 412-622-3131 or www.carnegiemuseum.org.


So there are tranquil abstract works, such as Zoltan Bohus' laminated, cut and polished "Pole Light," that project the contemplative spirituality of a Mark Rothko painting. Or the pool of quiet color that forms Frantisek Vizner's "Bowl," and speaks to formal concerns.

And there are whimsical flameworked pieces like Milon Townsend's fanciful "Red Dragon" and Ginny Ruffner's oxymoron "Flaming Snowman." Or the more sophisticated humor of Richard Marquis' splendid and irreverent combinations.

There's even a sinister component, in the dark sensuality of Leah Wingfield's cast and painted "Muchachos (Friends) from the 'Tango' Series," underscored by the atypical inclusion of a third party in this piece, a menage a trois on the dance floor. Citing the words of writer Angela Rippon, Wingfield explains her inspiration: "The tango is rather like love in the afternoon. Naughty, but nice. ... The closest thing you'll find to the vertical expression of a horizontal desire."

But there's also a slender painted "Madonna" by Liubov Savelyeva that could comfortably sit on a church's side altar.

Cuban-born Jose Chardiet's cast, sandblasted and painted "Senorita" blends figural and still life, while Marvin Lipofsky's undulating "RIT Group #1" seems free form but is carefully crafted. (Both artists will speak at the Carnegie Sunday.)

There's variety in the artists' backgrounds too, including African-American Therman Statom whose evocative installation was seen over a decade ago at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and several Europeans. About one third are women. The eldest (Pavel Hlava) was born in 1924, and the youngest (Giles Bettison) in 1966.

One dramatic example of the way these artists play glass and light off each other is Sidney Hutter's "Jerry Vision Vase #7," which appears to fill with blazing liquid color as the viewer bends, then rises, before the piece.

Other works reveal themselves only as one looks deeply into them, or down upon them as with Carnegie Institute of Technology graduate Carol Cohen's smart "Chartreuse Slingbacks with Baby Bows and an Apple."

Most of the prominent names in contemporary art glass are represented, such as Dale Chihuly -- the best-known American artist working in glass today -- with three pieces, including the earliest work in the exhibition, an "Early Persian" of 1988, and the nearly 4-foot high "Red Spotted Ikebana with Chartreuse Stems." The painterly markings of Klaus Moje against a matte black background, an exquisite filigree-decorated long-necked bottle by Lino Tagliapietra, Maria Lugossy's sundered "Struggle," the fused threads of Toots Zynsky and Cappy Thompson's reverse-painted vessel suggest the dynamic diversity.

"Suspended Artifact" of 1993 by William Morris -- a major artist whose works now command six figures and whom Nichols calls brilliant and thought-provoking -- is an important piece comprising forms that resemble a shield, arrow and clubs that are attached to a steel stand.

(Complementing the Block exhibition is "William Morris: Man Adorned," 11 compelling works from a series in which Morris explores body decorating as practiced in aboriginal cultures.)

The sculpture is set above smooth beds of white silica sand, a component of the overall design by architect Paul Rosenblatt that adds to the lustrous glow in the space and references the alchemic transformation of sand, lime and soda into glass through the medium of fire.

To Toledo next

In the fall, the exhibition will travel to the Toledo Museum of Art where co-curator Davira Taragin is director of the Center for Glass and the museum's first curator of modern and contemporary glass.

The exhibition venues are especially fitting since they are in the cities where the Blocks have lived for more than 50 years. William Block is chairman emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is also a board member of Block Communications, the parent company of the Post-Gazette and also of The Blade newspaper in Toledo, where Maxine and William Block purchased their first glass works in 1988.

Each artwork in the show has been given or promised to one of the two museums, a gesture acknowledged as a "generous gift" by museum directors Richard Armstrong, of the Carnegie and Roger Berkowitz, of the Toledo, in the exhibition catalog, considering the mean market value of like works is estimated in the $40,000-$60,000 range.

Like the Carnegie, Toledo Museum of Art was founded by an industrialist, Edward Drummond Libbey of Libbey Glass, who wanted to build an encyclopedic collection that would serve as inspiration to his workers, Taragin explains.

Technological advances made in Toledo between 1880 and 1920 revolutionized glass manufacturing and it became the "Glass Capital of the World." When the seminal workshops that launched the studio glass movement in the United States were conducted at the museum in 1962 "it was a natural," Taragin says.

While the Toledo museum's glass collection comprises more than 8,000 pieces, it's been Taragin's focus to develop the contemporary section, and she's particularly pleased with the "extremely well-chosen" artworks the museum will receive "for posterity to enjoy."

Taragin's voice lightens when she speaks of her involvement with the Blocks and the "incredible dialogue" she's having with these "two collectors who know the artists and know the work.

"This is a collection of the '90s that shows the sophistication of the studio glass movement at the turn of the century -- how it's developed, where it is at this particular moment," she says.

"[The museum] believes very strongly in integrating all of the arts -- the glass with painting and sculpture. Our painting and sculpture is strong, so our contemporary glass has to talk back -- to stand up." And that's what the work in this exhibition does, Taragin says with admiration.

Both curators are adamant that the art/craft debate is passe. "Now you just treat it for what it is," Nichols says -- expression that takes into account the formal and conceptual concerns of its time. "The glass world is part of the art world in general; you see the same things happening."

Glass was one of the earliest industries in the Pittsburgh area, and The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center is the repository of this region's historic glass.

The Carnegie began collecting contemporary glass in 1981, Nichols says, noting that was early among museums. But they've only been able to supplement the collection occasionally, "so we're thrilled to get [the Blocks' gifts]. This puts us on the map as having a significant collection of contemporary glass. It changes our status dramatically."

Nichols' exhibition is groundbreaking at the Carnegie because it's the first time glass has been shown as art in the Heinz Galleries, paralleling the experience with ceramics when she initiated the successful show of Michael Lucero's work in 1998.

Glass patrons

The Blocks are modest about the importance of their collection and their role in supporting contemporary glass art. But because they're such enthusiasts, they've been willing to lend their names to getting the word out about this art form that has so smitten them.

Nichols says that the Blocks have been "very keen to encourage the movement, to support glass artists" in a way that surpasses average collecting.

"I don't know whether they think of themselves as patrons or not, but they are because they've done way more than simply being collectors. I think [being a] patron is a very good thing -- a positive thing. It implies a certain activeness, whereas collecting can be a passive thing.

"They've encouraged the institutions, lending the works and giving to us and Toledo. They have purchased from local artists and they have bought from local commercial galleries." Nichols also notes the Blocks' "critical role in the development of the [newly opened] Pittsburgh Glass Center," which she sees as having the potential to draw more glass artists to Pittsburgh in the way that Pilchuck Glass School and Chihuly did to make Seattle a center for glass.

Reflecting upon the exhibition, and all of the local glass activity of the past year, William Block says his hope is that "the whole thing will result in more collectors in Pittsburgh."

Glass in the region couldn't ask for better boosters.

Free with museum admission unless noted

Sunday, 1 p.m. -- Artists Jose Chardiet and Marvin Lipofsky give a slide-illustrated lecture in the MOA Theater.

May 11, 12:30-2:30 p.m., theater; 2:30-3:30 p.m., galleries -- Meet exhibiting artists, including Toots Zynsky, Dante Marioni, Dan Dailey and Linda MacNeil.

June 2, 1 p.m. -- Artist William Morris and critic and educator James Yood will discuss "Man Adorned."

June 13, 10:30 a.m. -- Lunch & Learn with exhibition co-curator Sarah Nichols; fee, registration required.

June 15, 1-3 p.m. -- Panel: "Glass as a Medium for Contemporary Artists," with Kathleen Mulcahy; Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass at The Corning (N.Y.) Museum of Glass, and exhibition co-curator Davira Taragin of the Toledo Museum of Art, moderated by Nichols.

"Looking into Glass," artists examine techniques and processes. Fee (series $68, $54 members; individual sessions $15, $12 members; register at 412-622-3288) includes slide-illustrated lecture, gallery discussion and reception. Begins Thursday with Frantisek Janak of the Czech Republic. Talks at 7 p.m. except Milton Townsend at 1 p.m. April 21; also Robin Stanaway May 2, Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett June 6, and Venetians Cesare Toffolo and Davide Salvadore June 13. Many of the artists are giving workshops at the Pittsburgh Glass Center.


Morgan Contemporary Glass Gallery, Shadyside, is having pun with "Chip Off the Old Block: A Survey of Work by Artists in the Block Collection," opening from 5:30 to 9 tonight. The exhibition continues through June 12, with a lecture and book signing by artist/author Milton Townsend, whose flameworked dragon appears in the Carnegie show, at 1:30 p.m. April 20. Twelve other artists complete the display. For information, call 412-441-5200.

Concept Art Gallery, Regent Square, is showing "Glass by John de Wit, Steven Eisenhauer, Richard Marquis and Stephen Rolfe Powell." Included are two works from Marquis' "teapot trophies" series represented in the Block Collection; Eisenhauer is an instructor at the new Pittsburgh Glass Center. The exhibition runs through Sunday and reopens April 16 (10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today and tomorrow,Fri./Sat. and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.) For information, call 412-242-9200.

Pittsburgh Glass Center, Friendship, hosts "Hot Jams" -- open houses with glassblowing and flameworking demonstrations -- from 6 to 9 p.m. April 12, May 10 and June 7. An exhibition reception will be held for visiting artist Robin Stanaway from 6 to 8 p.m. May 17 and she'll lecture at 1 p.m. May 18. Events are free. For information on demonstrations or classes, call 412-365-2145 or visit www.pittsburghglasscenter.org.

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