Three flights up in what was once Brooklyn's cavernous, ornate Strand Theater is the 17,000-square-foot loft that houses UrbanGlass, arguably America's most important open-access workshop for artists in glass. Here, amid the roar of furnaces and the hum of enormous grinding wheels, craftsmen from all over the globe turn glowing blobs of molten glass into elegant works that elevate classic glassmaking to rarefied heights. In the ten years since UrbanGlass set up shop here, glass art has become increasingly coveted by collectors who find themselves drawn to exquisite objects with an unlikely provenance.
"There has always been a distinction between fine art and glass, but we have helped to blur that distinction," says Brett Littman, UrbanGlass' former associate director, as he rattles off museum-quality projects the studio has executed for the likes of Jim Dine, Louise Bourgeois, Maya Lin, and Robert Rauschenberg. With classes, hourly studio rates, a supportive network of glassmakers, and a prestigious annual awards program, UrbanGlass has also taken a hand in shaping and encouraging emerging artists.
Kevin Huang-Cruz is one of them. Long fascinated by glass (he put himself through architecture school at Pratt Institute working in a stained-glass studio), he began taking classes at nearby UrbanGlass two years ago and decided to trade in his T-square permanently for a blowpipe. The result is stunning geometric works like his 1972 Kimono, a glistening 17 by 32-inch slab of fused glass whose interlocking yellow and blue stripes suggest both the cool, rational facade of a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper and a lustrous fabric in soft plaid.
Many of Huang-Cruz's pieces, whether vessels or works meant to hang on walls like luminous canvases, combine these qualities. For example, The Glass Basket, a jagged purple bowl that cradles light in unexpected ways, is inspired by patterns found both in the Florentine needlecraft of bargello—"The architecture of embroidery is the stitch," says Huang-Cruz—and in certain configurations of brick used in his neighborhood's Victorian townhouses.
He also cites the sense of pattern and perspective, the geometric quality and optical illusion of depth, in Piranesi's architectural etchings as an influence. "More than anything, though," he says, "my work is based on the things that people see every day—tiles and bricks, shirts and kimonos."
Artist David Jacobson, too, takes inspiration from familiar sources; his palm-sized vases suggest African baskets as seen through a kaleidoscope. As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, he studied glassmaking, but he dropped it for a career as a syndicated cartoonist. Years later, a visit to UrbanGlass sent him back to his first love.
Since then, Jacobson has created increasingly intricate works of art. To produce the swirling patterns of opaque color that have become his trademark, he uses a painstaking process called murrini, which was developed in ancient Rome. It involves bundling several bars of colored glass, fusing them under intense heat, and then pulling them to form long poles, called canes. Next, the canes are sliced into multicolored tiles (the murrini), which are then assembled into a flat mosaic, fired again, and finally rolled and blown into a vase.
To this traditional process, Jacobson adds, literally, a few wrinkles: "I select colors that have different stiffnesses to them"—colors are created with different metals, he explains, causing some to be softer than others when you work with them—"so that when I blow them out, the piece has an uneven surface texture."
"With David's work," Littman says, "there is a tactile sensation that's very important. A lot of glass is very Platonic, this ideal form with an aura of authority. You hesitate to get involved with it, because you're afraid to touch." Jacobson, however, invites viewers to handle his pieces, to feel surfaces that are as intriguing as his color schemes.
In Giles Bettison's exquisite vases, murrini patterning is used to create incredibly intricate surfaces on shapes that are themselves elegantly tapered and minimal, arresting in their simplicity. A native of Adelaide, Australia, he studied glassmaking at the highly regarded Canberra School of Art and won UrbanGlass' New Talent Award in 1999. After commuting between Australia and New York for a few years, he recently relocated to Brooklyn and set up a studio. "I love the vibrant and energetic life of New York," he says, "the speed of the ideas and the feeling of being able to achieve something."
Bettison's Vista series was begun as a response to views of the American landscape while flying over it, but it is Australia one sees in his work. He has always been moved and inspired by the outback terrain, as well as by Aboriginal paintings. "This land is precious to me," Bettison says, "so I am paying homage to it through my work while sharing the beauty I find in the landscape with others."
In creating his aerial views in glass—his patterns a reflection of the patchwork of roads and fields, his colors the green, straw, "corn-stubble" hues of the earth—he has come up with some radical new twists on murrini technique. Instead of glass bars, he uses strips of sheet glass, taking already thin layers of color and stretching them to create ultrafine striations.
Bettison's intense focus on process reminds us that the best glasswork frequently aspires to find art through daring expressions of technique. Says Tina Oldknow, modern-glass curator for The Corning Museum of Glass, "He has really put his own stamp on the technique and uses it in a unique way. He does very beautiful and detailed work." She hopes to add a Bettison to Corning's collection soon; already he has works at the American Craft Museum in New York City, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, and museums in Portugal and Australia. Adds Littman: "Giles represents what's happening at the top end of glass art today."
In his newer work, including Vista #84, Bettison's vessels have become more and more flat, edging toward the two-dimensionality of paintings. In the latest phase of his career, the artist has been using murrini to create large-scale stained-glass windows and murals—which are dreamed up, one imagines, during those endless flights from Australia to New York's leafy borough of churches, bricks, and now glass.
UrbanGlass, 647 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217; 718-625-3685; fax 718-625-3889; www.urbanglass.com. Kevin Huang-Cruz's work ($1,000-$3,000) is represented by the Forrest Scott Gallery in Millburn, New Jersey; 973-376-5030. Giles Bettison's work ($3,200-$4,800) is sold at Barry Friedman Ltd. in New York; 212-794-8950. David Jacobson's work ($275-$4,000) is sold at Dimson Homma in New York; 212-439-7950; www.dimsonhomma.com.
Mark Rozzo wrote about Herve Wahlen's sculpture in the September 2000 issue of Departures.