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The World Beyond Studio Glass
In the early 2000s, glass artist Tim Tate started noticing changes in his colleagues’ work. While the work of the 20th century, when studio glass emerged, typically emphasized technique, Tate was seeing more focus on concept. And while studio glass revered the vessel, the new work took many forms and frequently combined glass with other mediums.
For years, Tate chatted about the shift he was seeing with friends in the glass world. Then, at SOFA Chicago in 2010, he found himself sitting next to critic and studio glass scholar William Warmus on a bus tour of collectors’ homes. The two struck up a conversation about the evolving state of glass, and the term “glass secessionism” was born to describe the new work. With Warmus as his co-moderator, Tate launched a Facebook page in January 2011 to document the trends he had observed. Today the Glass Secessionism Facebook group has more than 1,000 members – many delighted by post-studio glass, others wary of it.
Tate and Warmus are both ardent advocates for glass secessionism. “We are moving away from the technique-dominated culture of studio glass,” Tate wrote in an online statement of principles this past summer. “We believe that great art should be driven primarily by artistic vision, and technique should facilitate the vision.”
We asked Tate to elaborate on the origins of the glass secessionism movement and what it means for artists.
You’ve said, “To succeed in the 21st century, we have to secede from 20th-century-founded studio glass.” Why is secession necessary?
The idea of glass secessionism was modeled after Alfred Stieglitz [1864 – 1946] and the photo secessionists. In his day, Stieglitz believed that photography was mired in Victorian formalism, and that the only way to advance the field was to say, “I step away from that; this is a new thing that is happening, and this is the direction photography needs to go.” We modeled glass secessionism after that from the beginning. It was never meant as disrespect for the founding principles of studio glass; it’s an amicable but necessary departure.
Why did you see photo secessionism as a good model?
Both photography and studio glass were born of science and industry, and had similar paths of evolution as a result. And in many ways, my view of late 20th-century studio glass mirrored Stieglitz’ deeply critical view of the rampant conventionality, conformity, and institutionalization of the photography field in the early 20th century. Stieglitz wanted to secede from “artwork that had gone stale through the copying of Victorian, conventional styles,” according to scholar Jay Bochner, “but more importantly from the dictatorship of the entrenched institutions, galleries, art schools, and professional art organizations that enforced or at very least sanctioned copying or imitation.” In my perhaps isolated view, this seemed to describe what I saw happening in studio glass.
As was true for Stieglitz, you had personal experiences as an artist that made you want to secede from mainline studio glass. Tell us about those.
In the early 2000s, I would knock on the doors of fine art galleries and museums to show them my work. They all said similar things: The work is great, but it’s glass. The Hirshhorn Museum even had a curator with a no-glass policy. The fine art galleries and museums would continually send me to the glass galleries, who would say, “You can have the most spectacular work of glass ever made, but if you don’t have a reputation, my collectors won’t buy it.” Only the glass superstars were showing in the glass galleries. I was caught in a difficult place, as were many 21st-century glass sculptors: Many fine art galleries were not showing glass; many glass galleries were not showing emerging glass sculptors.
You’ve said that, along with museums and galleries holding the line against new approaches to glass, collectors played a role.
In this country, collectors seemed to drive studio glass, which became one of the most influential movements in craft. With only a few galleries and magazines as the primary venues for glass, there were only so many artists whose work could be displayed. And when one of those artists came up with a form that some people liked, the collector consciousness wanted it. For that artist to succeed economically, he or she had to replicate that particular form, with subtle variations, over and over. The upshot was that collectors and the institutions that controlled the studio glass movement unconsciously stifled artistic exploration and creativity.
So, back to your experiences. There you were, feeling shut out as an artist. What happened next?
When I mentioned my frustration to Paul Parkman, a glass collector and founding member of many glass organizations, he said, “Well, if they are not noticing your work, do something they can’t ignore.” This became my mantra. As Bill T. Jones said, “Art is made when you push back.” The artists who originally founded studio glass in the mid-20th century pushed back in their time. Now it was my turn.
And ultimately, as I looked around, I thought: Why be so worried about a place in the glass world when there is so much going on now among people who have no involvement with studio glass, who didn’t even come from glass, who only happened to be using the material? They were doing interesting work and being noticed on an international level. It was maybe two years later that Bill Warmus and I were sitting on that bus.
But how did glass secessionist work begin to take hold, if the fine art galleries, glass galleries, and collectors weren’t open to emerging artists like you in the early 2000s?
Well, there were some collectors and galleries focused on more than historic work. While it was not a large number, it was enough to fuel the beginnings of a new movement.
But mostly I believe that glass secessionism would not have happened without the internet and social media. Today we see more art on a computer screen in an hour than we did in a month in the pages of a magazine or at a glass gallery in the 20th century. Work is being shown and shared at rates unimaginable when studio glass was founded. Rather than artists having to adapt their art forms to an existing audience, they can make work first and then find a like-minded audience. Artists can pursue ideas and get immediate feedback in ways that would have been impossible without the internet. It has opened up the field.
And it has allowed artists to evolve. In fact, today, I believe an artist has no choice but to evolve continually, much more so than was the case in the early days of studio glass. The internet has been great for widening the possibilities for glass art – not only in terms of the work produced, but also in terms of who produces it.
Is glass secessionism primarily generational – a phenomenon among Gen X and Gen Y glass artists, as opposed to boomer (and older) artists?
As a boomer-and-older person myself, I certainly hope not. I think there are a lot of people my age who are reshaping their work. And there are a lot of people who have worked in this way and then backed into glass; they were sculptors in other mediums and these days are working in glass – they just didn’t come up through the studio glass system.
I will say that younger people are driving a huge part of glass secessionism. In MFA programs, you are not going to find anybody who is exclusively making vessels. While skills are stressed, you are not going to find technique-focused work being encouraged nearly as much as it was in the past. You’re going to find that conceptual work rules the day – and mixed media, working with a variety of materials.
You’ll find very few people at the MFA level who say the words “I am a glass artist.” They are all sculptors now. Some don’t even want to be hemmed in by that term because they might do video.
Have there been changes at galleries and museums as a result of the rapidly evolving work of glass secessionism?
There was just a show of Carlo Scarpa’s glass work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the Met! And it wasn’t under decorative arts. It was a contemporary art show at the Met. You have a lot of younger curators who are coming up who don’t see glass the way their predecessors did. That is another paradigm shift: Veteran curators are retiring. Now we have Nicholas Bell, Namita Gupta Wiggers, Diane Wright, Emily Zilber, Jennifer Scanlan. We’ve got Glenn Adamson taking over the Museum of Arts and Design and about to change the very way we discuss craft.
What do you think the late Harvey Littleton, father of studio glass, would make of glass secessionism?
I think he would applaud it with all his might. He himself wanted so much more from glass. He mentioned once that he was so glad that Dale Chihuly had made the leap to fine art and hoped there would be more. He believed in many directions and voices.
What does glass secessionism mean for the glass artist?
Where there is transition, there is huge opportunity. It’s open frontier; it’s the Wild West. The days of having 40 studio glass superstars are over; now there are 400 mid-level artists. And it may be that there are never huge superstars again. That collector base and that moment in time when it crystallized is something that can’t ever be repeated. It’s just a whole different world out there.
Monica Moses is American Craft’s editor in chief.