As you ascend the stairs to the just opened Nancy and David Wolf Gallery in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s second-floor ambulatory, you’re confronted with four stained glass windows made by the Tiffany Studio for Avondale’s Grace Protestant Episcopal Church and two tall glass vases, also by Tiffany. These functional and decorative objects make a suitable introduction to the selection of the Wolfs’ impressive collection of contemporary glass, clay, wood, leather, and fiber artworks presented here. They are rightly called fine art as this was the intent of their makers. Remember Marcel Duchamp’s definition that “art is whatever the artist says it is?” (I refuse to get lured down that rabbit hole called “Is it Art? Is it Craft?”
About 35 of the more than 250 works gifted or promised to the Museum in 2009 are currently on view in this permanent gallery; others will be rotated in and out. The Wolfs started collecting works in craft mediums early in their 45-year marriage. Rather than the prints they first collected, they found that objects in the traditional craft materials were appealing, affordable, and, more importantly to them, one-of-a-kind.
It was also an exciting time in the development of the studio craft movement. As the introductory text panel states, the pioneers “led us to the multifaceted contemporary art scene of today, which values the use of any and all media to convey power, passion, and ideas.” It continues, “These leaders challenged preconceived notions about their given media, created innovative working methods that altered or defied a medium’s inherent properties and limits, used a combination of media, collaborated with artists working in other fields, and advocated for recognition of their shared achievements.”
Unlike some collectors who name check a list of the well known in forming their collections, it wasn’t enough for the Wolfs to have a mediocre Littleton or Voulkos just to tick them off that list. They always looked for quality works – museum quality.
I suggest starting with Emily Brock’s glass model of the Wolf home’s great room their most of their collection was displayed. To create her meticulous renderings of architectural interiors, she fuses, casts, lampworks (using a torch to manipulate glass rods), and slumps (heating glass to the point just before it becomes molten and can be draped over an armature, and then annealed or cooled to retain that form) glass. Brock worked from about 20 photos that Nancy Wolf took from the center of the room to create a 360o panorama. Wolf notes, “It’s a terrific record of a moment in time (1993).” You can pick out miniaturized versions of some of the works on display.
Let me begin with one of the trailblazers: Harvey Littleton. The son of the director of research at Corning Glass Works, his lifelong dream was for artists to be able to work directly with glass, not merely make designs for artisans to execute in large factories. He realized that dream, and earned the title of the father of the Studio Glass Movement, which was birthed in a garage on the Toledo Art Museum grounds in 1962. (He should share that title with Dominick Labino, head of Research and Development at Johns-Manville, who supplied the #475 fiberglass marbles that he had developed and that could melt at the relatively low temperatures attainable in the first rudimentary furnaces.)
Littleton is represented by one of his trademark loops — Pink Loop — a taffy pull of glass encasing ribbons of pink that arcs through space, forever suspended in time.
While in the U. S., commercial factories weren’t welcoming to fine artists, that wasn’t the case in Czechoslovakia. There the husband-and-wife team of Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtovà were able to use the factory facilities to create monumental cast glass sculptures such as The Queen, which seems to glow from within.
Around 1999, the Wolfs began to expand beyond glass when they saw some extraordinary wood pieces in a private collection in New York. David Wolf was inspired to learn woodturning, a form of woodworking using a lathe. To mark a significant birthday, Nancy invited one of the leading lights in the field, David Ellsworth, to their home and her husband’s studio. Ellsworth is represented in the collection by Pot, an exquisite, just slightly egg-shaped white oak vessel. Despite its name, its small opening makes its functionality questionable. What isn’t in question is its aesthetic impact, which is akin to that of a Brancusi head.
The vessel has inspired many artists working with craft materials. Starting in the 1950s, Peter Voulkos irrevocably transformed it when he slashed, tore, and gouged clay bowls and platters, violating the forms and destroying their potential for use. He’s sometimes called a West Coast abstract expressionist because of how energetically and freely he attacked the traditional form.
The only luminary missing in this particular selection is Dale Chihuly, a Littleton student who was instrumental in creating a market for art made in glass. In the Brock model, you can see his irregular, spun-open glass forms in the 1993 frieze, Cobalt, Cerulean, Purpura, and Oxblood Persian Installation designed for the Wolfs’ great room. But museum visitors are welcomed by his cobalt blue Rio Delle Torreselle Chandelier. Now hanging above the visitor’s desk in the redesigned lobby, it finally looks like it belongs there, dominating the space as it should. The Wolfs provided some of the funds to purchase it.
With these examples in mind, I suggest you check out the works by the younger artists who also rank among the best to see how far they’ve taken the various mediums. There isn’t a clunker in the lot. The Museum has provided labels that are truly informative, discussing the aesthetics and describing the techniques used.
I was familiar with most of the artists, but the Australian duo of Tanya Carr and Graham Carr is new to me. Their leather works are a far cry from the leather crafts of my summer camp days. Referencing Aboriginal sources, the monumental 1995/2012 Untitled vessel was created by wet-forming leather over a wooden armature, then dyeing and incising it. The piece doesn’t look like leather; instead it might be cast metal, carved stone, ceramic, wood, or bone as the label suggests. Their works are incredibly labor intensive; they produce only eight or 10 pieces a year. Both of those attributes are often evoked to praise a work made from craft materials, and I usually dismiss them as poor standards by which to judge a work. Here, while they are true, they are immaterial for approaching the intricately patterned, wide-lipped vessel. What they’ve achieved might be the fulfillment of the promise of the studio craft movement.
–Karen S. Chambers