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Class Glass : Medium of Knickknacks Rises to Fine Art

July 28, 1990|ELIZABETH GLAZNER | Elizabeth Glazner is a writer based in Los Angeles

Back East they probably have a joke about Californians who live in glass houses. No doubt the punch line involves earthquakes.

And though Eileen Kremen has lived in a glass house of sorts for 17 years, she says she isn't worried. As owner of the Eileen Kremen Gallery in Fullerton, she knows that glass doesn't always live up to its fragile image.

"It's sensuous and tactile," says Kremen, fingering the edge of a sculptural piece she has just installed for her summer show. "But it's not fragile. It doesn't frighten me."

Since she began stocking glass paperweights and kaleidoscopes to show along with the painting and sculpture that characterized her gallery, Kremen's interest in glass art has grown with its supply. She beams about the current glass renaissance that has lined every available pedestal in her place with glass objects. The paperweights and kaleidoscopes have been relegated to a cabinet in the gift shop, and the paintings are gone.

"Glass art has changed in the last two decades," Kremen says. "The artists have become more experimental, courageous and diverse, and they're integrating things like wood, metal and stone into their work."

The art glass movement began in the early '60s when Harvey Littleton, an engineer working with a large commercial glass manufacturer, devised a small-scale method of producing blown glass. Littleton then had a show of the first crude vessels he produced, along with the furnace, tools and formulas he created to bring glass art into the realm of the individual artist. Suddenly, it seemed every artist was working in glass.

Studios sprang up throughout the country using Littleton's technique. Among them was Correia Art Glass, a Santa Monica studio that produces original hand-blown glass for gallerys such as Lippe/Waren Fine Crystal in Laguna Beach and Pacesetters in Costa Mesa.

Bruce Sharp of Lippe/Waren says a problem for the collector of art glass is that old dichotomy: does one buy art for art's sake, or should the art object be capable of holding a fruit salad? He admits that the most popular glass art for the consumer is functional.

So many glass artists choose lamps, goblets and vases as structures for their designs.

Artist Joan Irving of San Diego has gained some notoriety for her hip functional art glass--coffee tables, picture frames, bowls and bottles that have been cut, polished, slumped, sand blasted and then reverse-painted.

"Magical things happen with glass," says Irving. "I'm fascinated by the quality of light that reflects from it and through it. It's very, very seductive."

And as the vanity makes a comeback in home furnishings, so do the little perfume bottles that are displayed there, and Irving makes a lot of those. But this is only one way to collect glass, says Efrem Zimbalist III, chairman of Correia.

"Glass should be collected like any fine art, because you love the piece--because you respond to it. Not for its investment value," says Kremen.

Zimbalist agrees, especially since art glass is generally not regarded as a mature art form. Though its presence on the secondary market is usually represented by Lalique crystal vases, Zimbalist says glass art can fetch as much as $100,000 in the galleries.

Which would indicate that glass's status as a serious art form is indeed beginning to mature. Another indication could be the recent move of New York's premier glass dealer, the Heller Gallery, from its uptown Madison Avenue spot to Soho, the ephemeral downtown district where new art is being made and shown. You might say glass art is on the cutting edge.

Artists and collectors alike are beginning to see new potential in glass, says Zimbalist.

"The technology today is far superior to earlier glass art that is turning up at (major auction houses) Sotheby's and Christie's," he says, referring to the works of such glass heroes as Tiffany, Carter and Daum. The artist must grasp the physical properties of glass to manipulate its color and form. "Today's glass artist has to be both an aesthete and a technologist," Zimbalist adds.

Glass is basically sand heated to its melting point, then cooled, a process discovered about 3,500 years ago. Its first applications were utilitarian, but the artistic possibilities inherent in blown glass resulted in decorative touches almost immediately.

Sculptors like Toland Peter Sand use a high-tech coating on glass originally developed as lenses for heat-seeking missiles. Dichroic glass has been coated with thin metals that reflect certain wavelengths of light while allowing others to pass through, resulting in a color that is constantly changing.

Artists and collectors are realizing that the play of light and color make glass a versatile and original material for art. And today's art patron is more sophisticated, opting for the wire/corrugated steel of a Frank Gehry design rather than the overwrought stained glass of building materials past. As an architectural element, glass can sometimes stand up to earthquakes.

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