Attack of the Blob
They don’t look like much. Modest in size and approximate in form, they tend to sit ungracefully on a flat surface, slumping to one side. And they don’t get any prettier when you pick them up. Sometimes unexpectedly heavy, because of their thick walls, they are transparent and colorless, apart from a greenish tinge reminiscent of old laboratory equipment. And then there are the wet-looking puddles and drips that cling to their surface, like stray lily pads. All in all, these objects reveal their nature very accurately. They were made by people who just barely knew what they were doing.
I am speaking, of course, of the earliest examples of hand-blown studio glass. At the famous Toledo workshop in 1962, the materials, tools, and furnaces requisite to work with hot glass finally became available to small teams of makers. During that landmark event, generation of craft artists embraced the possibilities hot glass. But at the time, and for several years thereafter, all they could do was make – there’s no other word for it – blobs. Occasionally these had a nominal function, that of a vase or a cup. But really usefulness was beside the point. These were objects entered as evidence. They proved that studio glass was possible. The question they implicitly posed was: what form might that new field take? In their uncontrolled, relatively simple forms, these glass objects did little to answer that question. But at least they made it clear that it was a question worth asking.
Typically, the early blobs of the studio movement have been valued principally as relics, remnants of a moment of emergence. Their formal traits are rarely noted, except as signs of a struggle with technique. In this essay, however, I will argue that much more can be said about them. Indeed, I believe these to be the most radical, exciting objects ever made by studio glassblowers. And I am not alone in feeling that way. After decades of increasing technical achievement, many contemporary artists working in glass are reviving what might be called a ‘blob aesthetic’. They are turning away from sophistication and spectacle, and embracing the power of the informal, the inexact. In the work of these artists, many of them just starting out in their careers, visual pleasure and technical sophistication are being exchanged for base materialism. Exactly fifty years after the inaugural hot shop experience in Toledo, the glass field seems to be coming full circle. The question is: why?
When Technique Came Cheap
In one sense, it is easy to understand the excitement of the earliest studio glass forms, even as one dismisses them as historical curiosities. Viewed retrospectively through the later achievements of the studio glass movement, they are almost humorously naïve. In the 1970s and ‘80s the field flourished artistically and commercially. As is well known, to a large extent this was due to the help that American makers received from skilled artisans from abroad, especially Italy and Scandinavia. Objects from before that time have the attraction, you could say, of a child’s drawings, which are charming and often beautiful, but innocent of the advantages of technique.
This attitude toward the early blobs as interesting but immature objects – which I take to be the common one – misses one big thing. They are not exciting only because of when they were made; they are exciting as forms in their own right. This is because they stage in such an immediate way the contest between materiality and skill. It’s a familiar point about craft, but one worth remembering: over-refinementcan deaden an object. When skill triumphs utterly over the resistance imparted by material, one can only admire the results, not feel the process that led to them. How different is an object like Harvey Littleton’s Implosion/Explosion. [Fig 1] On the face of it, the work is a disastrous failure, literally ‘blown out’ on one side and darkened around the resulting void from overheating. It is the diagram of a mistake. But it is also a vital form, rich in the memory of the kinetic and chemical energy that brought it about. (1) Though made in 1964, well after the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, it has the bomb-bursting quality of that type of painting, or for that matter of the vigorous ceramics of Peter Voulkos and his West Coast colleagues.
Littleton’s work is instructive, and would continue to be so over succeeding decades. Having labored so hard to formulate glass that could be worked, he seems to have always granted the glass itself more than a fair share in the final result. Even as he became more and more skillful, and increasingly interested in the science of optical effects, he remained entranced by the basic ‘will to form’ of the material. The most common compositional device in Littleton’s work remained the barely controlled slump. His early blobs often seem to still be molten, still in the act of being made. That total immediacy disappears by the 1970s, but his forms still droop and curve – they are the frozen gestures of hot forming. He sometimes exaggerated this, mounting softened sheets of plate glass on a metal spike in Do Not Spindle or laying glass ingots one atop the other in Pileup, heating each so that it nestles against the others in a familial embrace. His celebrated Crown works are perhaps the most explicit in staging a dialectical opposition between the cold brilliance and hot movement. [Fig 2] Made of multiply cased optical glass, they are dazzling and could be rather remote, pure demonstration pieces. But by lopping off the end of each form and positioning it at the foot of the sculpture – as if it had plopped to the ground like ripe fruit – and by using arched forms that suggest the muscle memory of their own making, he reminds us that what he is working is indeed raw matter.
Perhaps it was this respect for the expressive potential latent in the recalcitrant glass that led Littleton to famously say that “technique is cheap.” Certainly, those who were most profoundly influenced by his example were just as likely to explore the informal language of the blob as they were to try to achieve perfection. Among American makers, Marvin Lipofsky is doubtless the closest in spirit to Littleton’s approach. His series California Loops, of the late 1960s, captured the breathless excitement he must have felt when discovering the new process of blowing. [Fig 3] By covering his irregular teardrop and serpent shapes with unexpected surfaces –rayon flocking or metallic luster – he nodded toward the contemporaneous Funk movement in ceramics and sculpture (these were West Coast works and proud of it). But he also began to stage a Littleton-esque duality between movement and manipulation, chaos and control. That would stay in his work in future years, as he settled into a style of searchingly open forms, shot through with color and flaring at the edges like creatures from the deep sea. These are masterly but they are still blobs, spiritually anchored to the moment when Lipofsky first started blowing in the mid-60s under Littleton at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Even more assertive in his explorations of the uncontrolled is Erwin Eisch, the German artist who developed a close relationship with Littleton. After making a few works typical of the era in the USA, Eisch quickly moved to a body of work that bears close comparison to Lipofsky’s California Loops. Though these objects are more explicit in their bodily allusions, often sporting phallic protrusions, they have exactly the same binary logic of fast, blobby forms and delicate surfaces (in this case, iridescence). His career perhaps culminated in a series of everyday forms rendered in gold luster glass, such as Telefon, which seems ideally perched between the reference points of a Claes Oldenberg sculpture, a courtly objet de luxe, and a balloon animal. [Fig 4] A few years earlier Eisch had made a series of portrait heads showing Littleton, two of which had him spouting contradictory speech balloons: “technique is cheap”, “technique is dear.” Of course both statements are true, from a certain perspective. By holding on to the open-endedness of the blob Eisch, like Littleton and Lipofsky in the USA, managed to keep his work exciting over the span of several decades.
Thus far, I perhaps have made it seem like the glass blob is an introverted sort of an object, arising from and concerned with only the new possibilities of studio glass blowing. Actually, that is the opposite of the case. It is rather the refinement of the medium that seems to me narrow-minded. The story told in Tina Oldknow’s wonderful history of the Pilchuck glass school is emblematic in this regard. (2) In its early years, the place was something of a hippie commune, and a hotbed for cultural and artistic (as well as technical) experiment. As one might expect, there were plenty of blobs being made. Some of these were functional, and were sold on trestle tables in the manner of a country craft fair. But as the school developed, largely under the leadership of Dale Chihuly, its dedication to wild improvisation waned.Highly skilled teachers from Europe, and later the attentions of wealthy collectors, instead made Pilchuck into a finely tuned engine for the field. The experiment continued, but it was now much more controlled.
In Chihuly’s own work, one can almost feel the blob being absorbed and finally exorcised through the application of greater and greater skill. At first, he worked in a way closely comparable to Lipofsky and Eisch, adding neon to his informal objects to enliven them. In his cylindrical works of the mid-1970s, the randomness of molten glass is still present, but in the form of drawings rather than sculptural form. In the 1980s, with his amazing sea forms, he again worked in parallel to Lipofsky but in a way that sought to transcend the material limits of the glass, rather than emphasize them. In the years since, his constant search for larger and larger scale, further and further reaches of technique, and grander and grander spectacle has left the raw immediacy of his own early blobs far behind.
The same could be said for so many of Chihuly’s contemporaries. Whether it is the serene castings of Howard Ben Tre, the florid lampwork of Ginny Ruffner, or the elegantly elongated blown forms of Dante Marioni (which are designed around the principle of maximum difficulty), nearly all the great masters of studio glass from the 1980s and 1990s sought to perfect certain signature techniques. They are not a restless bunch. Certainly, the market was part of this story. Once there was a waiting list for the next version of a well-known body of work, it was always going to be tempting for artists to proceed through incremental developments– all the more so as prices escalated precipitously. But without taking anything away from this generation’s technical and aesthetic achievements, which have indeed brought pleasure to a broad public, it is clear in retrospect that these developments tended to isolate studio glass in a world of its own. The early blobs were like Rorschach blots. For one viewer, they might look like contemporary art of the 1960s and 1970s – the intense abstract paintings of the Belgian artist Wols or Jean Dubuffet, or the sculptures of Lucio Fontana, or the pours and castings of Feminist artist Lynda Benglis. For yet another, they might seem like parodies or attacks on commercial glass coming out of Europe. But the point is that they were open to these multiple interpretations, while also being absolutely direct expressions of their own making. They were multivalent, not only in terms of the future possibilities they suggested, but the intentions that informed them in the first place.
So while the horizon with mature studio glass is clearly the prioritized one in existing histories of the early blobs, it is not necessarily the most important. The aforementioned resonances with contemporary art are equally significant. I hasten to add that these early glass forms should not be validated only because they look like contemporaneous sculpture. That is a terrible mistake of past craft criticism, and not one I want to repeat here. The point of the comparison is, rather, that the expressive power of the uncontrolled gesture was felt widely in the 1960s. It was a period concern. Because of this, the comparison goes both ways. Noticing the parallel between glassmakers like Littleton and Eisch and sculptors like Fontana and Benglis might help us to remember that all of them were equally invested in materials and process, and discourage us from artificially designating some of them as craftspeople and others as artists. All of them were both these things. They simply inhabited different discursive environments. (3)
It’s also worth noting a third horizon of the blobs of the 1960s, and that is the glass of past centuries. It’s easy to assume that the Venetian-influenced works of the 1970s and later – millefiori and so forth – are the studio glass objects that draw from the medium’s history. But look again at Eisch’s early cup, which is decorated with several large “prunts.” These applied blobs are a direct reference back to German glass of the medieval and later periods, some of which shares the rudimentary facture and even the greenish tinge of the early studio work. [Fig 5] There are many other such precedents – iridescent fragments of antique glass, the lilypad bowls and ‘friggers’ (playful end-of-the-day works) of the nineteenth century, the proto-surrealist forms of Art Nouveau glassmakers. Though they are remote in date and often in culture, all of these objects are equally evocative of the fundamental contest between material and skill that defines glass making. It is no surprise that studio artists in the 1960s and since have been drawn to them.
A fourth and final comparison heads in the other direction – not back into history, but ahead to the future. Back in the 1990s, had you asked anyone in an architecture school what the most fashionable term in their field was, they would doubtless have said “the blob.” Just as the new possibilities of hot blowing had changed the glass field several decades before, new digital rendering and production technologies were making it possible for the first time to realize buildings that were thoroughly irregular in form. The resulting “blobitecture” was first theorized by Greg Lynn, who was fascinated by its non-hierarchical, potentially infinitely malleable and permeable nature. (4) But the masters of the new idiom would be Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and the somewhat lesser known Hernan Diaz Alonso, whose Los Angeles-based firm Xefirotarch often produces transparent models that could be mistaken for studio glass forms. The juxtaposition of early studio glass with the most up-to-date, technically savvy architecture is again not intended simply to validate an episode in craft history. It is rather to note a pattern: when technical possibilities expand rapidly, the very first explorations may tend to the wildly erratic. That is what seems valuable about them. New rules will eventually settle in, but whether you were in a hot shop in 1962 or a computer-enhanced modelmaking atelier in 2002, you would have been equally aware that the blob marked the inception of an unprecedented freedom.
Given the backdrop laid out above, it is perhaps no surprise that the hottest trend in recent glass has been the blob. Impatient with the glossy achievements of previous generations, emerging glass artists are purposefully ‘deskilling’ themselves, making work in an extremely direct and expressive fashion. In doing so they find common cause with many other artists at the moment who cultivate an amateur or even ‘outsider’ mentality. This is a group of makers who are liberated by the digital realm, which so far has done little to change glass blowing as a craft, but does provide seemingly endless knowledge to anyone, anytime. Getting back to basics is important for makers at this vertiginous moment. Equally, the idea of being confined to a single medium and its concerns – which is to say, defined within a medium-based field – seems less and less worthwhile.
Clearly this attitude has its downsides. As I have argued elsewhere, it is frightening to observe the speed with which the studio craft institutions built between 1945 and 2000 are being dismantled. (5) Most alarming, probably, is the closure of craft-based departments, notably those dedicated to ceramics and glass, whose kiln and furnace demands render them comparatively expensive. One can imagine a near future in which not only the studio glass field as such, but also the opportunity to study glass at an advanced art school, are mostly in the past. That is definitely a problem to reckon with. On the other hand, we should welcome the individualistic bodies of work that are arising as a result of the “post-disciplinary” climate. Studio glass has always had its rebels. Eisch, Jack Wax, the B Team – all of these figures have strained at the leash of the field. But they have still remained within it, teaching inuniversity glass programs and defining their work in conscious opposition to that of others operating in the medium. Younger makers simply don’t do this.
Let’s take the example of the Royal College of Art, in London. Over the past decade the RCA has produced a handful of really compelling makers in glass, and with one notable exception (Heike Brachlow, who conducts groundbreaking research into colored and optical glass) all of them have been blob-makers of one kind or another. There is Pernille Braun, from Denmark, who creates gorgeous and emotive work by kiln-melting agglomerations of wire and glass beads, so that they hang down in long drapes and drips. [Fig 6] There is Gaea Todd, who constructs elaborate wall compositions of lampworked clear glass, which function as circulatory systems for slowly moving fluids such as molasses. In her works the contents are doubly mimetic, both of the body and of the fluid glass material itself. Korean-born artist Min Jeong Song, like Harvey Littleton, is interested in balancing new techniques with approximate making, as in her series of printed glass forms – as the material slides into amoeboid form the patterns she has imparted the surface follow suit. Then there is Louis Thompson, who also combines glass with liquid, but in this case uses simple water. He blows at large scale, so that his forms wobble uncontrollably –a gargantuan version of what happened at Toledo five decades earlier. The combination of water and clear glass creates an effect that recalls the visual splendor of Chihuly, but wallows in materiality rather than trying to transcend it.
It’s not that the RCA is in any way unusual. Look around the glass field internationally, and you’ll see many other artists working in this way, some to fascinating effect. Japan’s two most exciting glass makers at the moment are probably Kazuo Kadonaga, who extrudes his glass into heaving unpredictable piles, and Ritsue Mishima, whose gestural forms are rendered exclusively in clear glass. Young Swedish maker Simon Klenell takes a Duchampian approach, first making a cut-glass object and then treating it as a readymade, sometimes simply melting it, sometimes stacking it up into a bricolaged tower. [Fig 7] Stine Bidstrup, also Danish, has done a series of installations entitled Sites and Sights in which banal locations – such as a New Jersey suburb – are punctuated with clear glass blobs. Bidstrup’s photos of these tactical installations show how resituating the material’s opticality can function to Surrealist effect, in a way that does recall the early scenes of a monster B-movie but also conveys a quietly critical, political implication.
I could go on with these examples, but perhaps it’s best to conclude with one final artist who emblematizes the return to the blob with unusual force. Beth Lipman is as celebrated and as skilled a glass artist as the USA has produced in recent years. Her extravagant sculptures, based loosely on historical still life paintings, have typically been executed in clear glass and sometimes have contained the suggestion of the material running away with itself, sliding off a table or across a floor. Recently she made a piece entitled Bride that extended this interest in willful materiality. [Fig 8] It is made not in glass, but rather in glue, which has been applied
using a caulk gun to a small collection of personal mementos. Though originally spherical and transparent the object soon began collapsing under its own weight, the unsolidified glue slowly flowing downwards and turning opaque. This slow-motion process sculpture is clearly related to Lipman’s ongoing concerns – it places an everyday still life into a highly theatrical context. But in The Bride, the enveloping blob comes to seem like the tomb of memory, hiding precious objects gradually from view.
Lipman’s work serves as a final reminder of the potential of blob form, and of the power of deskilling. It was made for the exhibition The Tool at Hand, originally shown at the Milwaukee Art Museum, for which curator Ethan Lasser invited a range of artists to create a work using only one tool. This tight prescription emboldened Lipman to abandon her usual equipment, material, and – importantly – skill set. It no doubt took courage for her to relinquish the mastery that has lent her work such gravitas, and instead make something quickly and intuitively, like an art student let into the shop on the first day. In doing so, Lipman was again rekindling the rush of pure possibilities that Littleton and company felt in Toledo so long ago. For that earlier generation, the blob marked the imminent unfolding of a new community. For Lipman, and makers across the world today, it seems the right form – or rather, anti-form – for an opposite moment. The focused research and evident success of studio glass must be respected, but the logic of a unified discipline feels inadequate to our own uncertain future. No doubt the aesthetics of the blob will soon give way to other concerns, as they did last time round. But for now, a sense of new possibilities just might be enough.
- Vital forms
- The history I briefly sketch here can be compared to that of fiber art, told at greater length by Elissa Auther in String Felt Thread , or to ceramics, which I discuss in Thinking Through Craft (London: Berg/V&A Publishing, 2007), ch. 1.
- Greg Lynn
- See Adamson, “Gatherings: Creating the Studio Craft Movement”