Inside the glass house: First show in Museum of Glass covers wide artistic spectrum

July 5, 2002 

There are several predictors of a new museum's personality. Architecture and marketing matter. But at an art museum, it's the art that counts and the artists who are the ultimate ambassadors.

Introducing the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art this weekend are artists living and dead, international and local, famous and less so, working with glass and not.

The hot shop will be blazing for Dale Chihuly and his team - plus others, including teenagers from the Hilltop Artist-in-Residence Program. What they'll create is anybody's guess.

Artwork outdoors at the museum will be the subject of a story in Saturday's SoundLife.

Today, we offer a glimpse at the art inside the building, in the 13,000 square feet of gallery space and, in one case, splashed directly on the walls of the Grand Hall.

"THE INNER LIGHT: SCULPTURE BY STANISLAV LIBENSKY AND JAROSLAVA BRYCHTOVA"

Through Oct. 27.

If Dale Chihuly is the star of American glass art, Libensky and Brychtova are his Czech counterparts - people without whom glass would not be the same, without whom glass would not have broken into the art world.

The husband and wife who are the subjects of the Museum of Glass' first organized exhibition collaborated for nearly half a century before Libensky died Feb. 24 of cancer at 81. Generations of artists in Europe, Japan and the United States have been trained and influenced by them.

They had to fight for their art. They met in the 1950s at a glassmaking school in a centuries-old glassmaking area 60 miles from Prague.

The communist regime after World War II purged abstract artists. But the state didn't see glass as art, so the two were able to continue. They got art "through the back door," Brychtova has said.

That didn't last. They entered "The River of Life," a tribute to the struggle for Czech freedom, in the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka, Japan, and got themselves ousted from the Communist Party and forbidden to travel abroad together.

Chihuly was in Venice when he heard about this. He called on them unannounced and invited them to teach at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, which they finally did in the mid-1980s.

In the late '80s, the communists in Czechoslovakia threw Libensky out of the art academy where he taught. He never returned to full-time teaching. Formerly a smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer as an old man. Their works changed to reflect the disease and its treatments; instead of using their signature bright colors, the couple shifted to grays and browns. Some pieces were inspired by the X-rays of his body that he saw so much of in his last days.

"The Inner Light" was a 17,000-pound shipment when the works arrived from various collections, including Chihuly's and the Metropolitan Museum's in New York. It includes 36 drawings and 22 sculptures made since 1994 by Libensky and Brychtova. Several have not been seen in the United States.

Libensky painted and drew, then Brychtova interpreted his often cubistic designs into clay sculpture.

Master craftsmen made plaster molds, filled them with glass shards, then fired and slowly cooled them.

Later works have empty space inside that creates a glow - what the artists call an "inner light charge."

"The light is the most important thing," Brychtova said recently, speaking through an interpreter. Natural light is best, but in galleries she and her husband have always preferred indirect light - ideally, light whose source is unseen. That's why the track lights at the museum are aimed at the walls behind the pieces.

"SOUNDS OF THE INNER EYE: JOHN CAGE, MARK TOBEY AND MORRIS GRAVES"

Through Oct. 6.

At Seattle's Cornish College in 1938, John Cage doctored a piano, then in concert kicked the keys and pounded them with his fists as cans of gravel set in the interior spilled over loosened strings.

In the audience the painter Morris Graves cracked peanuts and stomped on the shells, staring at other audience members through a lorgnette - glasses on a stick - with dolls' eyes where the lenses should go. In Cage's third movement, Graves threw back his head, calling "Jesus in the Everywhere!"

He was thrown out. The two artists became friends.

Graves already knew Mark Tobey, a painter 20 years his senior, who had his first solo show at the Seattle Art Museum in 1935.

The Asian-influenced and well-traveled Tobey became a mentor of sorts to the dadaistic younger two (Graves was born in 1910, Cage in 1912), but the three also formed a lasting friendship and sometime rivalry that influenced the course of each artist's work.

This trio is the subject of "Sounds of the Inner Eye," a show of 25 to 30 works by each artist organized over the past 10 years by the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany.

The Museum of Glass is its only U.S. venue.

Museums usually group Tobey and Graves under the heading "Northwest mystics" - with all its myths and meanings - a title conferred by a 1953 Life magazine article.

Cage typically falls squarely in the version of art history that proceeds from dada through Marcel Duchamp and into pop art - or into music history.

This show takes a different tack. It emphasizes their overlapping interests - in Eastern philosophy, music, removing the artist's ego by experimenting with chance and responding to natural rhythms and patterns.

Most of "Sounds of the Inner Eye" - the title blends the themes of music and Graves' "Inner Eye" series - is works on paper, but ephemera, paintings and sculpture are also on view.

It is the first museum survey on the relationship between these now-dead creators who exhibited together and wrote to and about each other for years.

"The best thing people could walk away from this show with is how ... you can make connections (between artists) yourself," said Museum of Glass chief curator Neil Watson. "You can make connections that other people haven't yet thought of."

GREGORY BARSAMIAN, "DIE FALLE"

Through March 9.

The room is dark. A flickering image is generated by a large, rotating machine - like a mechanized flip-book - using the principle of a zoetrope. It tells the dreamlike story of "Die Falle," German for "The Trap" but also slang for "bed."

A human body rises from the head of a sleeping man, morphs into a round tire, then a square tire, then back to a body that jumps into a mousetrap-shaped bed.

Barsamian is a Brooklyn tech-artist whose tech is low - what he calls "Industrial Revolution-style."

He creates his works by casting sequentially formed sculptures and attaching them to a motorized armature that revolves at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, the speed of an LP record.

With that he synchronizes a strobe light to create the illusion of animation.

The subconscious optical manipulation involved is suited to the artist's roots in surrealism and dream imagery. He keeps a tape recorder by his bed to record his recollections when he wakes and often uses those as a basis for his works.

"Die Falle" was completed in 1998 and included in a traveling museum exhibition organized by Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center.

The Museum of Glass does not have a permanent collection or an acquisitions budget, but it owns "Die Falle." It bought the installation for continual exhibition and use in education, especially as part of outreach and the science-of-art curriculum, said chief curator Watson.

The museum will decide whether to collect in the next few years. Aside from "Die Falle," its only other holding is a glass sculpture by Lino Tagliapietra that will be on exhibit later this year.

GRONK, "THE GLASS KINGDOM"

Through June 2003.

With acrylic paint, watercolor and graphite, the Los Angeles artist Gronk improvised his way across two massive walls in the Grand Hall to create a swarming underground landscape.

An avid train traveler, he knows the land. He also knows something about working underground, though now he's quite established in the American art scene.

Born Glugio Gronk Nicandro in 1958, Gronk grew up in East LA, raised in poverty by his single mother. As a teenager, he co-founded Asco ("nausea" or "disgust" in Spanish), a politically charged Chicano artists collaborative. His early performances were in film, theater and as a guerrilla street artist and muralist.

Always interested in music, Gronk has created sets for Los Angeles Opera and worked with the Kronos Quartet.

"John Cage is like a godfather to me," he said.

"The Glass Kingdom" is semi-abstract and covers two walls on two separate levels of the museum, split by a wall studded with video screens to project live hot shop activity.

Gronk began with a seed-pod shape and added layers over three weeks earlier this month, playing off what he saw - a train going by outside the museum windows or engineers X-raying the museum walls in preparation for the opening.

"It's a garden growing something," Gronk said. "It's not the outside of the land, though. It's the inside of the land."

(At the last minute, Gronk also agreed to paint an ATM machine the museum planted in its lobby.)

"FROM THE GROUND UP: BUILDING THE MUSEUM OF GLASS"

Through Oct. 6.

The Museum of Glass is not fashioned strictly out of glass, concrete and steel, said on-site architect Wyn Bielaska, who works for the overall designer, Arthur Erickson.

"It's all about landscape," Bielaska said, pointing to photographs of the building's windows, glass features and rooftop pools reflecting surroundings including the Thea Foss Waterway Bridge, the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, Albers Mill - and the sky.

The museum also provides framed views of Mount Rainier and Union Station, incorporating its neighbors in a friendly way, he said.

The 75,000-square-foot building itself is a landscape. On the outside, it functions as a multi-tiered urban garden for sculptures.

The building - best seen from across the waterway - follows in the modernist "International Style" for which Erickson is known. Its steel cone is a reference to sawdust burners of old Tacoma.

Bielaska and Steve Paul, project superintendent for Baugh Construction, documented construction with photographs on display along the Dock Street corridor inside the museum.

Drawings, early design schemes, video and computer-generated models also are in the exhibition.

Designing the building meant solving a spatial problem, Bielaska said. The entire museum (except the cone), with its various needs, had to fit between an underground parking lot and the bridge.

"We were in a squishy situation," Bielaska said.

Elegant, simple, minimalist solutions are Erickson's preference, Bielaska said - "whatever looks restful to your eye."

One of Bielaska's favorite features is a low glass wall on a long ascending ramp, providing "cinematic (reflective) views that change as you go up, like a film strip."

Jen Graves: 253-597-8568
jen.graves@mail.tribnet.com

The first year

The first year of exhibitions includes "Pratt @ 25"; "How To: The Paintings of Deborah Oropallo"; "Big Idea: The Maquettes of Robert Arneson"; "Glass Eats Light: Innovations in Glass by Bertil Vallien"; "Glass of the Avant-Garde: From Vienna Secession to Bauhaus"; and "My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation."

Artists visiting to blow or cast glass in the first six months are Dale Chihuly (Saturday and Sunday), Frantisek Janak of Prague (Aug. 9-11), Deborah Oropallo of Berkeley (Sept. 20-22), Gregory Barsamian of Brooklyn, N.Y. (Oct. 18-20), and Seattle's Dante Marioni (Nov. 15-17), Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick (Dec. 13-15).

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