By: Micaëla van Zwoll
Contemporary glass is a type of fine art sculpture where the medium of expression used by the artist is glass. Made for sculptural enjoyment and visual pleasure, like a bronze or marble sculpture, contemporary glass differs from studio glass because of the artist’s use of concept as part of the work. Artists who work in contemporary glass have regular gallery representation and their work may be found in both private and institutional collections.
Art glass artists have a regular practice of making work, are known within their community of artists, galleries, and collectors, and continue to refine their work. Studio glass, on the other hand, is understood as glass made within a craft environment that is likely to be more functional than conceptual and is decorative, such as a vessel or architectural element.
The Beginnings of Art Glass
Glass as a medium of artistic expression is traceable to 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia (although some historians believe that glass objects originated in Egypt). The earliest known glass examples were beads, accidentally created by working with forged metals, and were used as currency between the African continent and Europe. Historically a luxury item that moved from currency to jewelry to vessels and architectural decor, today’s glass is ubiquitous; it’s found on construction sites, homes, and scientific laboratories, as well as in optics and electronics.
Art Glass Techniques
The three basic techniques for working with glass are blowing, casting, and lamp working. The oldest, most traditional technique is glassblowing. It involves heating glass in a furnace, gathering molten glass on the end of a blowpipe and blowing a bubble of glass. The result can be as simple as a bottle or a Christmas tree ornament, or as complex as a masterpiece by Lino Tagliapietra. Prominent glassblowing artists are Dale Chihuly, Marvin Lipofsky, and William Morris.
Casting glass involves pouring molten glass into a mold, and allowing it to melt in a furnace. Glass can also be placed into the mold in solid pieces that melt in the furnace, conforming to the shape of the mold (such as slumped glass). Pâte de verre, a casting method that literally means “glass paste,” employs fine glass granules applied to a mold. Molds are also used also in glassblowing, especially when making production pieces, like bottles. A few prominent glass artists who use glass casting as their primary techniques are Ann Wolff, the artist couple Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, and Klaus Moje.
The lamp work (or flame work) technique involves heating pencil thin glass canes and fusing them over an open flame using a torch, tweezers, and other small tools. The result is delicate and highly detailed, such as the works by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, who created the famous (and priceless) natural history glass collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Murano artist Lucio Bubacco is best known for using this technique among contemporary collectors.
The Pioneers of Art Glass
Harvey Littleton is credited with building the first furnace for blowing glass in a studio in 1962 (before this, glass could only be made in industrial settings). He is also credited with founding the resulting American studio glass movement. Lino Tagliapietra, although Italian, is revered by American artists and collectors for sharing centuries-old techniques for glassblowing and embellishment with glass students at Pilchuck. Venetian glass artisans quietly considered him to have sold out his Murano birthright as the skills he imparted helped found the Pilchuck Glass School, a prominent school of glass studies in Washington.
Marvin Lipofsky, Harvey Littleton’s first glass program graduate, created a community of glass artists, students, and collectors by collaborating and working with artisans all over the world. He developed the ingenious idea of traveling as an accredited academic from UC Berkeley (where he founded the first West Coast glass program), which gave him rare (and quasi diplomatic) access to remote glass factories all over the world, from the Soviet Union to the then Czech Republic to China and Finland, and beyond. He brought insatiable curiosity coupled with an open mind and made engraved blown glass sculptures considered to be masterful in their painterly use of color and concept.
What is Art Glass Worth?
The value of works by artists Harvey Littleton, Lino Tagliapietra, and Marvin Lipofsky is difficult to determine as they do not frequently come up at auction; when they do, their works are often undervalued. During his lifetime, Marvin Lipofsky shook his head in consternation by this, with collectors and dealers rationalizing it was because collectors refused to part (or trade up) with their works, or because glass is easily damaged it could not be offered for a reasonable price at auction. Nevertheless, in June 2016, a piece by Harvey Littleton sold at a Wright auction for $18,750, exceeding the pre-sale estimate of $10,000-15,000.
Lino Tagliapietra, the only living artist of the three, had the above work come up for auction at Rago Arts & Auction Center in June 2015. The work, with an estimate of $10,000-15,000, sold for $35,000.
It's clear that the future is bright for contemporary glass. Working artists paving the way for the future of the genre through experimental techniques and styles include: Oben Abright, Nicholas Africano, Kathleen Elliot, Beth Lipman, Narcisus Quagliata, Clifford Rainey, Cassandra Straubling, April Surgent, Norwood Viviano, Fred Wilson, and Toots Zynsky.
How to Begin Collecting Art Glass
As with all fine art, a new collector should look for value based on the artist’s portfolio and technical mastery. Be sure to research the artist’s exhibition history and note whether the artist’s work is included in museum or public collections, and although the secondary market for the artist is not always the best measure of value, it’s good to know what it is.
If you’re planning to start or wish to expand your collection, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do you like it? It's as simple as that. Visual pleasure should always be the first consideration when acquiring new artwork.
- Is it within your budget? If you can’t afford to buy it, will you be able to keep it safe from damage and protect yourself with insurance?
- Is it a good value? If you’re acquiring work from an artist’s studio or a gallery, it should be in perfect condition, with no scratch marks or chips anywhere on any of the surface (look underneath for marks from sliding). Bubbles and occlusions within the glass used to be a sign of poor quality, but today, if they form part of the artist’s work, they are acceptable.
At auction, make sure to ask for a condition report, and if you’re present, seek an opportunity to inspect the work in person, as estimated values should conform to the condition of the work. It’s always a good idea to do your homework and figure out what you like first by visiting galleries and museums. If you are a regular attendee at art fairs, such as Art Basel Miami and the Armory Show in New York, talk to dealers about the artists they represent and educate your eye to what is pleasant to you. Generally, the safest way to start or build an art collection is with the help of a seasoned and knowledgeable art advisor who can guide the new collector to studio visits as well as help find rare pieces.
Caring for Your Glass
Contemporary glass is easy to protect by keeping it away from direct sunlight and exposure from sudden temperature changes. Handling should be kept to a minimum, with great care when moving; never slide an object across a surface, rather, pick it up and place it carefully. On the West Coast, glass collectors are knowledgeable about museum putty and its use to adhere glass sculpture to a surface (in case of earthquakes). These basic measures, as well as fine art insurance coverage, will keep a collection safe.
On the hunt for contemporary glass? See a wide selection of works available now on Invaluable and soon up for offer in upcoming auctions.
About Micaëla van Zwoll
Micaëla van Zwoll is an expert on Contemporary Fine Glass. Principal at Micaëla Contemporary Projects, her practice includes fine art advisory and collection management services. She provides professional opinions of value (appraisals) for damage and loss, estate, and charitable donation purposes.