Glass Sculpture at Art Basel: A Summary

2009 marks the year that glass sculpture finally broke through the ceiling. At June’s Swiss Art Basel, Lelong Galerie’s showing of Angelo Filomeno’s multi-discipline work included (right) By the Side of the Last Ocean Ready for Sunset, 2008-09, an installation of blown glass, leather, crystals, wooden table and mirror.

Emboldened, the year-end art fairs held during last week’s Art Basel Miami fest included several offerings of glass sculpture for the acquisition-minded collector.

Among the sculptures shown were works by American glass sculpture titan, Marvin Lipofsky (left) Soviet Series 1989, blown and sandblasted glass, presented by San Francisco’s Micaela Gallery at SCOPE Art Show, Bullseye Gallery’s exclusive presentation of glass sculpture at Art Miami (showing April Surgent, Jessica Loughlin, and Richard Whiteley, among others), Yoichi Ohira, the Murano expatriot from Japan, showed elegant forms (represented by Barry Friedman), and lastly the cast glass work of Nicolas Africano (represented by Nancy Hoffman Gallery).

Why are we excited about finding glass sculpture in the rarefied halls of Art Basel? Primarily, because the world of the glass sculptor is strangely insular, often isolated from more commonly accepted fine art mediums such as bronze and painting. Some would attribute this to its modern association with craft; however, the excruciating labor required to master the medium, its mystique dating back to the Crusades, and most recently, pockets of artists sequestered in the Pacific Northwest and Northeastern Atlantic coasts, as well as remote areas of Denmark (Ebeltoft) and Italy (Murano) are the more likely reasons. The communal nature of mastering glass sculpture requires like-minded artists, wholly dedicated to the fragile and fickle medium of their choice, and while a lucky few have been inducted into the collections of the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art, most glass sculptors have retained unusual independence from art world trends, and have been steadfastly working at developing their art, honing their vision and preparing for their moment of fame. As a result, until recently, the glass sculptor seems to have received only a sideways glance from strict formalists who clung to the didactic that glass sculpture is a craft not a fine art - never mind that today’s contemporary glass sculptor marches in step with works by Christopher Wilmarth, Larry Bell, Josiah McIlheny, Judith Schaechter, and Bella Feldman, among others.

Sculpture continues to receive a warm embrace by the international art crowd during Art Basel week – whether in Basel or Miami - as evidenced by a proliferation of works by Anish Kapoor, the introduction of the above-named glass sculptors – Lipofsky, Surgent, Whitely, Ohira and Africano – and who will forget California artist Pae White’s Art Basel commissioned city block long installation inspired by the shanty towns of Mumbai, Rio and Shanghai?

Someone asked me if I saw a trend with the arrival of glass at Miami’s Art Basel this year. Well, one didn’t have to look far, as it seems every fair from Art Basel, Art Miami, Design Miami (The Swarovski Crystal Palace installation featuring more than 1,500 crystals on display as the leading piece of artwork), PULSE and SCOPE showed glass sculpture in some form or another. The truth is, when the tired old arguments of its medium are removed, glass, like any sculpture, when expertly used, is a beautifully captivating material that possesses a particularly unique relationship with light. 2009 is a good year to welcome glass as an accepted medium for fine contemporary artmaking. It’s a good year to have such a wealth of glass sculpture presented to the art world cognocenti.