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Harvey Littleton

by William Warmus

 

 

Essays in typescript from the archives

This essay first appeared in Glass magazine, Autumn, 1998.

A Fire in the Studio: Harvey Littleton

By William Warmus

 

Harvey Littleton is the founder of studio glass. It was a long time founding: a generation passed between conception and birth. The first object we can associate with studio glass is female: a nude torso made in 1942 by Littleton. Then the birth process was interrupted as Littleton went off to soldier in World War II and later began a career as a successful potter and educator. He was back at it again in 1958-1961, melting glass in a crude furnace he had constructed himself, carving simple shapes from small cast glass forms, blowing his first glass into objects he describes as "phallic bubbles," and using a blowpipe given him by Jean Sala in France, who because of Littleton is now seen as a precursor of studio glass but at the time was viewed as an eccentric echo of the French glass traditions of Emile Galle or Maurice Marinot. Finally, the baby dropped: near the center of America, in Ohio, in 1962, at the Toledo Museum of Art workshops (widely cited as the founding event of studio glass) led by Littleton. This time, the participants used blowpipes without historical association: honest black American iron pipe purchased from a local hardware store, suitable for gathering at one end, blowing from the other. Something new and innocent had entered the world.

But every newborn arrives with genetic baggage. "Philosophically, the earliest things were closest to Abstract Expressionism" Littleton remarks. Later, his own work became simpler, partly in reaction to baroque work that his close friend Erwin Eisch was showing. The adoption of a minimalist approach allowed Littleton to isolate and explore non-functional aspects of the glassmaker's craft: positive and negative forms, minimal cutting, and breakage. Littleton describes this as escaping the container or "sculpture in another way. "Perhaps studio glass--American style-- owes more to minimalism and its roots in constructivism and Mondrian than to abstract expressionism, rooted in Cubism and Picasso. Littleton's prominent student, Dale Chihuly, is best understood as a post-minimalist. As opposed to this, the European extensions of studio glass show marked cubist (think of Libensky-Brychtova, who have been adopted as studio artists by American artists and collectors) and Picasso (think of Eisch) influences.

Reacting to the work of Erwin Eisch was just one indicator of Littleton's need to reinvent himself with regularity: from potter (1950s) to teacher (1950s - 1970s) to founder (1960s) to independent artist (he left teaching in 1976 To devote his energies to creating a body of work in glass") to printmaker and collector who has assembled a notable collection of approximately one thousand pieces of historical and modern glass, ranging from Emile Galle to Raoul Goldoni.

The founder of studio glass hasn't made glass since 1991. He explains: "I stopped at age 70. My furnace had been on 24 hours a day for about 8 years; a tear down [for repairs] was due, and my health was bad. " Now Littleton's health problem--a bad back, one of the things he shares with his two brothers--has been repaired: he has just returned home to Spruce Pine, North Carolina after successful surgery in upstate New York. For Littleton, the possibility of making glass--perhaps of reinvention?-- lingers: in my last telephone interview, he admitted that since his back surgery he has been "a little tempted to pick up the blowpipe."

Today, studio glass, itself a surgical transplant of the furnace from the aesthetically ailing glass factory of the 1950s into the artist's studio, has never been in better health. Has it all played out as he expected? "In my wildest dreams. Still it has a ways to go. For example, there is only one Dale [Chihuly] and there is room for lots more. Dale's success is everybody's. We glory in it. " Chihuly reflects his success back onto Littleton: "Without a doubt Harvey Littleton was the force behind the studio glass movement; without him my career wouldn't exist. He pulled in talented students and visiting artists; I used the same concept when I taught at RISD. Also, Harvey was a big thinker--if he wanted a special piece of equipment, he would spend the money; he taught us to think big instead of thinking small--some of that rubbed off on me. And he encouraged us to be unique--Harvey liked that." One of the curiosities of studio glass is that it has produced both a Littleton and a Chihuly (just one of each), while most art movements are established and led by core groups sharing a related technique and style. Studio glass attracts strong individuals who mark their talents by blazing off from center rather than gravitating toward a common aesthetic or spiritual focus. As Littleton says: "The 'Technique is Cheap' debate indicated we were not so involved in technique but with the result when you turned people loose with this responsive material. Studio glass is unified by material rather than by technique." Perhaps because of this, artists working with glass are somewhat immune from the pressure to conform to a common aesthetic; the focus on material gives them freedom to explore and combine abstract expressionism, minimalism, pop art and other techniques (sometimes with elegant, sometimes with horrifying results). If there is a common aesthetic to studio glass, it is the challenge to transform the material into all known styles.

A striking feature of the founding of studio glass is that Littleton had, by the time of the publication of his book A Search For Form in 1971, cut the template for so much of what followed, beginning with technique. A large section of the book is technical, including photographs showing a glory hole and illustrating how glass is blown; but when he writes that "Glass in the molten state is able to take into solution almost any material; platinum is the major exception." it might be a metaphorical plea for the artist to go beyond technique and to think about dissolving art styles as well, and Littleton goes on to link glass as material to glass as expressive of artistic style by exploring abstract expressionism, minimalism, and the arts and crafts movement in his work.

Littleton sought to recapitulate the history of twentieth century glass, writing in 1971 that "My book is both a guide and a revivalist manifesto" and citing a link with "Tiffany and Carder and Galle [who] were trained as artists and had chosen glass, but [who] chose to work within the framework of factories that they founded, factories that were totally under their control so that they made very exciting things...." It might even be argued that Littleton sought long term to put the artist back in control of the factory, even as he sought to put the furnace into the artist's studio.‘ From this point of view, studio glass did not seek to avoid the factory, it rather sought to return artists to control of the furnace--a goal that has been achieved. But there is more. Artist Paul Stankard points out that when he started working with glass-- in a technical glass factory setting--he was "uncomfortable with the strict tolerances required for manufacturing glass apparatus. Harvey nurtured a climate that I thrived in, coming out of the factory." Littleton replaced industrial tolerances (in millimeters) with artistic tolerance.

Littleton even pioneered the evangelical attitude toward promoting the new medium that is a key to its current success. Aware that education is essential for both innovation and continuity, he established the first glass program at a university (The University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1962-3). As a potter, he wondered "why pottery never got off the ground in terms of support. They were selling work in the $5 to $10 range. So, glass needed a support network. I told my students to price their work at at least $100--look at Steuben--and that they should get at least 10 times what potters got. Glass is expensive to make and should be expensive to buy." Today, glassmakers can rely upon the support of an extensive network of museums, galleries and collectors. Harvey Littleton led the way with early successes: a one person exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1963 and, in 1965, the Museum of Modern Art recognized the importance of studio glass by acquiring work.

From our relatively comfortable late 1990s perspective, it is easy to overlook a profound aspect of Littleton's persona: he is a risk taker and adventurer who sailed two boats across the Atlantic (once in 1973 with one other person, and again in 1986, aboard his sailboat "Tamara," with two others). The founding of studio glass may today seem obvious, even conservative, but almost everything about glassmaking is risky and difficult, and in 1962 the outcome was far from assured. To a large extent, Littleton led by force of will. Marvin Lipofsky reports about the period from 1962-4: "As students we didn't know how to do anything. All we could do was emulate what Harvey was doing. We learned how to put the pipe in the glass. It was dip and blow. But what shape should you make? The first time we opened the annealer and looked at our finished pieces, there was an argument over who made what because they all looked alike. But Harvey had the inspiration that artists could use glass as an art material. His thoughts went beyond making vases. It was wide open for Harvey." It was this wide openness that Littleton sought to convey to his students. Despite a tendency to minimize the strength of his will, as when he says that he sought to put glass into the studio because "no one else was willing to take it on," Littleton was well aware that studio glass might dead end: "In glassblowing, if the necessary risk is taken, the outcome must always be in doubt. Artistic creation must occur in crisis." This is the thrill and challenge of the glassmaker's art, forcefully described by Littleton in a language tinted with sexual overtones, driven along as if hunting a wild animal :

"When the artist lifts his blowpipe, he must be prepared to intervene with all his aptitude, training, form-sense, as well as physical and mental energy. Everything he knows converges at once on this curious scene reenacted millions of times in human history: a man breathing his desire into the molten glass. Each time it recurs it is only as different as the men are different from one another; the dance with the blowpipe, the sudden grasping of tools and hissing of steam as they are applied, the form completed--these things remain the same. A man cannot educe forms from hot glass by conceiving it as a cold, finished material. He must see it hot on the end of his pipe as it emerges glowing from the furnace; he must have a sense of wonder! His perceptions are ever new; his reactions must be swift and decisive. He must immerse himself in immediate experimentation and study, for the glass will not wait."

Tom Riley, the director of Riley Hawk Gallery, brings this approach into balance when he says: "Harvey added it up very carefully. Risk yes, but not without analysis." Or as Littleton says: "it was a risk, yes, but it wasn't a risk. " Glass is like that: Strength and fragility. Risk and containment.

Littleton believes that "art is a strange business because we distill emotions into a form." and strives to make his artwork "intense, personal, direct. "A majority of the objects illustrating this essay were made by Littleton from the mid-1980s onward, a period he considers central to his career as an artist. Again, it is in character that Littleton would take a risk by creating a body of work late in life and placing significant emphasis on its importance. In a recent video, he remarks that: "Whatever title you give me, I stand or fall in the end by my work. "In the private collections I have visited that include these late sculptures, they are frequently displayed high up, generally on the top shelf, as if crowning the collection, or in some sense overseeing the artworks by other artists. Perhaps there is another reason for their position as well: in choosing to produce grouped objects that cantilever and balance precariously, Littleton has created a sense of imbalance and fragility. The sliced forms, sprays, and implied and lyrical movements cap Littleton's achievements, elegantly tying together the possibilities of glass as color field, mathematical model, expressive performance and minimal sculpture. They do so while retaining the memory of risk, of a time when the whole venture might well collapse in upon itself.

I have heard glassmakers described as the truck drivers of the artworld. Glassmaking is sweaty, gritty, dependent upon solid (but very fragile) objects made with nineteenth century industrial tools. The presence of a furnace in the artist's studio seems anachronistic at a time when fine art has become post-conceptual, pre-post-modern, disappearingly visual and mordantly intellectual. Norman Mailer might have been writing about this relationship in 1969 when describing the first launch for the moon: "Saturn V was a furnace, a chariot of fire. One could witness some incandescent entrance to the heavens. But Apollo 11 was Command Module and therefore not to be seen. It spoke out of a crackling of static, or rolled like a soup can, a commercial in a sea of television...." Harvey Littleton lit a fire in the artist's studio at a time when the artist's studio was becoming a command module for conceptual art and its academic outposts. Molten hot and computer cool never cohabit in the world of technology, but since Littleton they have had to make an accommodation in the world of art.

William Warmus

Ithaca, 6.24.98

1- Littleton isn't sure of the first use of the phrase "studio glass. " Studio and glass were used in the earliest proposals as two separate nouns, not as adjective modifying noun. Among the individuals who assisted at the birth of studio glass, the most prominent was Dominick Labino.

2- Now in the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass in Littleton's home town.

3- In 1961, Littleton detailed his experiences blowing and cutting glass in a paper delivered in Seattle before the American Craftsmen's Council. See "A Potter's Experience with Glass" in Research in the Crafts. New York: American Craftsmen's Council, 1962.

4- This and all otherwise unattributed quotes are from telephone interviews conducted by the author with the artist on May 18 and June 19, 1998.

 

5- Littleton sees the staring point for much of his work as mathematical and has said that his art is "not minimalist." See Harvey Littleton from Artseen! Videotape. Grasberg/Littleton, 1997. 8:45 run time.

6- Joan Falconer Byrd in Harvey K. Littleton: A Retrospective Exhibition. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1984. p.19

7- Telephone conversation with Dale Chihuly, 5.22.98 RISD is the Rhode Island School of Design.

8- "All I did from that time on was a function of my attempts to get at the essence of the material....the search for new materials and techniques is not only a part of the scene but may even be one of the driving forces." In Harvey Littleton, Glassblowing: A Search for Form. New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold, 1971. p.134

9- Glassblowing: A Search for Form p.16

10- Littleton, although he was aware of the Venetian contribution to glassmaking and had traveled to Murano, placed his investigations more squarely "within the framework of the revolution in the arts in America since World War II. This revolution began with the Abstract Expressionists.

11- Glassblowing: A Search for Form p.6

12- Letter from Littleton to the author, August 26, 1993.

13- Telephone conversation with Paul Stankard, 5.6.98.

14- See Marilyn Hoffman, in Christian Science Monitor, 12.28.84: "Mr. Littleton thinks of himself as "...an evangelist for the arts in general."

15- The program's first glass MFA was Marvin Lipofsky. Another student, Fritz Dreisbach, became a founder of the Glass Art Society. Tom McGlauchlin, a 1960 graduate under Littleton, attended the March 1962 Toledo workshop and later headed the glass program at Toledo. And student Sam Herman established England's first studio glass programs. Littleton, always the professor, indicates that openendedness is a defining element in American education: "Young people are the future. Our educational system exploits and glorifies differences."

16- Telephone conversation with Lipofsky, June 22, 1998

17- Glassblowing: A Search for Form , p.16

18- Glassblowing: A Search for Form, p.16

19- Telephone conversation with Tom Riley, 5.21.98.

20- All quotes this paragraph, see Harvey Littleton from Artseen! Videotape.

21- Curiously, the first Littleton I acquired as a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass arrived on the back of Littleton's pick-up truck in the Glass Center parking lot.

22- Norman Mailer: "Of a Fire on the Moon, pp.721-2 in The Time of Our Time. Random House: New York, 1998

Note: some internet browsers may not display footnote numbers correctly.

This version may differ slightly from the edited Glass magazine version [Author's Final Version 6.22.98]