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  Letter to a Curator
 
Blenko decanter by Wayne Husted
Blenko horn vase by Winslow Anderson
Blenko vase by Wayne Husted 5942L
5933 decanter designed by Wayne Husted, represented in the collection of the Museum of American Glass, NJ 964S horn or cornucopia vase designed by Winlsow Anderson, represented in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Glass, OH 5942L u-cut vase by Wayne Husted represented in the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass (inset: actual vase from the collection)

 

History is remarkably brief, no more than shorthand for all that has passed - were it comprehensive it would take forever to record. And history does not write itself; writers do. "History is written by the victors" is a truism valuable primarily for what it implies; history is filtered by those who write it. Writers are gatekeepers not of an ivory tower but of feudal redoubts built of vanity, ego and bias. It takes a skilled swordsman to fight their way into history one duel at a time.

I have taken on as a challenge ensuring that the story of the Blenko Glass Company's first four designers is strategically written into history. This sport requires foremost the ability to track down and engage appropriate opponents. Not all ears are equal in this duel; gatekeepers, such as curators, are prize game. Successful engagement often relies on fearlessly advancing provocative ideas with a swift lunge; launching loaded sound-bites as an entré to a full and vigorous attack.

A seasoned curator naturally has their guard up and parries deftly. If one is to provoke a curator with a new point one would be well advised to have a finely honed argument replete with sharply relevant facts. Engarde!

The other week I was invited to an event at the Upper East Side home of a distinguished Tiffany glass dealer. Such a beautiful setting; no fewer than a half dozen exceptional Tiffany lamps, a 17th century Pietre Dure table to die for, and a Galle side table from a unique suite of furnishings custom made for Austrian royalty - oh and the series of Egon Schiele drawings. It was a civilized setting ideal for a loaded little bout.

Like exotic creatures in a dragon's den, two curators hovered about this gathering of collectors and dealers. A swarm of interest engulfed each of them throughout the evening. It is a mutual courtship as each party has something to offer the other. Not being one for social jockeying, though acquainted and friendly with both individuals I was not inclined to seek audience with them as it appeared to involve too much obsequious effort. However, as the evening wound down I happened to be leaving at the same time as one curator. In the entry foyer I struck up innocuous small talk and out of genuine curiosity asked what projects were currently on her plate.

 

"Oh, actually I am putting together a catalogue for an exhibition of Modern design including glass."

Barely a heartbeat passed before my pointed yet casual rejoinder: "And surely you are including designs from the Blenko Glass Company."

Silence. Her eyebrow arched.

A loaded glare was my only immediate reprise as we both took our places before I launched my feint: "Now seriously Linda [not her actual name], if I find out that you are planning a survey exhibition of Modern design and don't include Blenko I will be extremely disappointed. If I find out you dare to include Higgins and exclude Blenko I will be too outraged to ever talk to you again."

Linda parried: "Well, we are trying to focus on Studio Glass."

My riposte: "And perhaps the work of Joel Philip Myers, one of the greatest and founding figures in American Studio Glass is not good enough for you? Of course you know he began working with glass at Blenko."

Touché and redoublement: "Linda, come by my place and not only will I show you some breathtaking early work of Myers' but because I have tremendous respect for you and your Museum I want you to know that I will gladly donate an exceptional piece if it is included in the exhibition."

Linda's salute: "I think you just said the magic words."

The fact is that a dozen museum in the US, including no less than the Museum of Modern Art, have work by the Blenko Glass Company in their permanent collections. Unfortunately, very few have examples that merit inclusion - most are unimportant designs. Sadly, some museums even have some glass in their collections labeled as Blenko when it actually isn't (tragically, the closest museum to the Blenko factory has by far the most "fake" Blenko in their collection and they don't seem interested in doing anything about it).

Only three museum have Blenko in their collections that I can point to with some pride; The Corning Museum of Glass far and away has the most and the best with a dozen pieces including a portrait vase , the original 5942L u-cut vase from the "Glass 1959" exhibition and two exceptional designs that I donated; the 5833 2-part epergne in Jade and the 583 "echoes" vase (see image below). The last time I has there, the Museum of American Glass in New Jersey had a nice 5933 decanter on display (unfortunately alongside some Bischoff misidentified as Blenko). The Toledo Museum of Glass also has several very good examples of Winslow Anderson's including a horn vase and a bent-neck decanter , both hand selected by Winslow himself.

Blenko vases at the Corning Museum of Glass
Above: 5833 in Jade and 583 in Charcoal,
both by Wayne Husted, 1958.
In the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass,
donated by Damon Crain
 

So it is not without precedent that I attempted to entice 'Linda' with a donation of Blenko. In particular I was careful to emphasize that I have no interest in donating an ordinary or common piece; I want to see nothing more than an excellent, top design in their collection representing the Historic Period work of the Blenko Glass Company and the designer Joel Philip Myers. Background having now been filled in, below is a verbatim copy of my follow-up email to the curator:

 

Dear Linda,

Following up on our conversation at Sandy's last week, for background information here are links to my two most recent published articles on Blenko:
http://www.vmglasshouse.com/pressnagcblenko.htm
http://www.vmglasshouse.com/pressmodernismblenko.htm

To summarize: they are essentially the same article with a different emphasis. The NAGC's Bulletin article argues that Blenko is to Modernist mid-century glass what Tiffany was to turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau glass. The Modernism article demonstrates Blenko's deep and innovative connection with Modern art and design in America.

It is ironic that in the Modernist cannon we revere, for instance, Marcel Breuer for his application of tubular steel to create mass-producible cutting edge, High-Modernist design, yet when Blenko, courtesy of the first four designers, unabashedly did the same for art glass and had great success at it, it was brushed aside by history.

As for the Tiffany/Blenko comparison, beyond aesthetics, the perceived differences between the two can, to a large extent, be attributed to marketing: Whereas Tiffany marketed their highest-end products as exclusive luxury goods, Blenko aimed for the solidly middle-class "mass luxury" market, retailing at places like Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus. Having researched the matter, with some caveats I believe there was no significant difference in production numbers between Tiffany and Blenko. Both were hand blown and finished in the traditional way.

Blenko's business model precluded Tiffany's interest in developing a signature virtuoso technique like "paperweight" but this did not prevent Blenko from making an equally important contribution to glass; namely the "Architectural Scale" genre. Tiffany's product and marketing strategy successfully epitomized and exploited the socio-economic zeitgeist - just like Blenko. They both excelled at capturing the most relevant market segment of their time and became leaders with imitators nipping at their heels.

Blenko also boasts having fermented the career of one of the foremost Studio Glass artists this country has produced (Myers) and Blenko gave as much to Myers as Myers gave to Blenko. In the 1950's Blenko was the only company in the country, lead by a single Design Director, making wildly innovative sculptural designs of blown glass - and it could be bought in any major city at a high-end store. The only comparable contemporaneous glass company was Stueben but, though they did it well, they essentially set out to imitate Orrefors. True innovation in blown glass in America was Blenko's sole domain at mid-century.

I adore Fulvio Bianconi's work and I find it appropriate that his Siren series, circa 1950, is so highly regarded. At the core of the form's appeal is not that internally the glass is moderately technically complex, it's the incredible, charged form that builds creatively on a historical archetype. So why does no one know that in 1956, out of the same tradition, Wayne Husted at Blenko was also making an important contribution to the genre with his own mermaid vessel - though totally unaware of Bianconi's Siren - as well as other equally fanciful and figural forms?

Actually, it is easy to explain why Blenko is not recognized now; it is a very small company that has been a mess since the founder's son died in 1969. And they were never savvy, they were too proletariat (the founder was a sympathizer with the Socialist movement). They were a prefect and pragmatic product of Modernism; producing goods for the masses, profiting on quantity not on luxury. They began by making relatively inexpensive functional tableware, then, as one of the very first companies to hire a Design Director and give them free reign, came to inhabit a no-man's-land of affordable decorative glass. But they didn't capitalize on the model and their marketing efforts were never sustained. Because it crept up on them, they did not realize that by making pitchers that didn't pour, decanters that didn't decant and vases that would swallow and put to shame any flower, that they were making art that was accessible to the masses.

Blenko prepared America for Studio Glass; between 1948 and 1964, original Blenko designs were included in no fewer than 11 major museum exhibition. No hyperbole here; major museums include The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The Albright-Knox, The Corning Museum, and The Detroit Institute of the Arts. In 1955 the Corning Museum acquired directly from the factory some of the earliest, wildest sculptures Blenko made. The praise I give Blenko is not some retroactive fabrication; I am only attempting to revive an important and recognized cultural contribution that has been buried by time.

The first four designers were very well connected within the upper echelons of the art and design world. They all actively promoted themselves as artists and designers. The first designer was a protégé of Hilla Rebay the founding director of the Guggenheim who exhibited his work in some of the museum's earliest shows. The influence of the first four designers reached out in many directions both before and after their work at Blenko; they were the naïve emissaries of Studio Glass and a unique vision of art and design in America. It is long overdue that their contribution finally be officially recognized.

A few curators have already begun to include vintage Blenko designs in exhibitions, perhaps most notably in 1983 in the survey exhibition "Design Since 1945" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, curated by Kathryn Hiesinger. And you are likely already aware of Tina Oldknow's 2003 exhibition "Decades in Glass - The '50's" (two of the pieces shown were donations of mine).

Do come by and I will introduce you to some of the most impressive looking glass objects innovated in mid-century America that you have never seen.

Best,
Damon

I wish I could report that the successful first bout resulted in a final victory, but a rematch has yet to occur. I am hopeful that Linda will be game for another duel, with round two at my home, surrounded by the overwhelmingly persuasive presence of Historic Period Blenko glass.

Part II: The Update!

Now, I'm sure you have all been perched on the edge of your seats, desperately waiting for the update I promised; well you're in luck – I have exciting news! I'll cut to the chase right off the bat; the curator took two very special pieces to represent the work of Winslow Anderson and Joel Philip Myers in her museum's renowned collection.

But more importantly, the visit was fantastic and a joy! As any of you who have come to my little showroom know, I can be a bit, oh, let's say "passionate," perhaps even overwhelming. I assume guests come because they love the glass so I do not hold back on (what I think is) fascinating information. It was even moreso with the curator as I figured 'hell, this is her JOB and I know she loves it so I let ‘er rip.' To be honest I did worry that I was inundating her with too much information. I had anticipated a one hour visit, so I did my best to rapid-fire the most important points and information. The visit exceeded three hours, perhaps four, the equivalent of an intensive and thorough seminar course. Books were opened, file drawers rifled through, all surfaces were covered in fascinating research material. Oh, and there was glass, lots of glass. Closets were emptied. And through it all this curator was a trooper; the more treasures I shoveled her way the more she gobbled it up. I may have gotten carried away but we both had fun. And through it all let me tell you this individual was the best sport and the most interesting interlocutor that I have had the pleasure of chatting about glass, history and design with in a while. It was a fantastic visit.

I know, you want details – what exactly did she take, for what museum and for what purpose? OK, I'll give you the inside scoop: the museum in question is the Yale University Art Gallery and the two items I donated are destined specifically for the newly renovated and about to re-open American Decorative Arts galleries. Moreover, at least one item will be included in their soon to be published catalog on 20th Century Design and one item will be on permanent display in the new gallery. It would be disingenuous for me not to say that I am absolutely thrilled! I am so happy that the following two excellent and important pieces will be receiving some very well deserved time in the public spotlight:

Winslow Anderson Blenko vase dontation to Yale University Art Gallery
#903-2 by Winslow Anderson in seeded Chartreuse. Designed in 1948
Winslow Anderson Blenko vase dontation to Yale University Art Gallery
side view showing indentations
Joel Philip Myers Blenko decanter dontation to Yale University Art Gallery
#6732S by Joel Philip Myers in Tangerine. Designed in 1967
Joel Philip Myers studio glass
Joel Philip Myers, studio glass work "Dr. Zharkov's Gold One & Platinum One" from 1973, 22in.

The first item that was selected is Joel Philip Myer's truly spectacular 6732S elaborate balustrade decanter in Tangerine (amberina coloration). I have repeatedly used this design in my published articles and Newsletters to demonstrate the pinnacle of Myer's work for The Blenko Glass Company, it is an important, rare, and gorgeous piece (and I happen to have one available now). This decanter is a prime example of two major motifs of the designer's: One; The 1960s psychedelic re-interpretation of the Art Nouveau aesthetic, with exaggerated organic forms. To read the following quote of Myers' on his glass design process at Blenko is to conjure an image of this design: "I permit the glass to sag, flop, flow, stop, start, stretch," he said. "I control and yet am being dictated to by the glass." And two; An interest in exploring stacked, totemic forms, as manifested in a half dozen of his designs for Blenko, but none as dramatically as in this example. The elaborate profile was also subsequently explored many more times in his mature Studio Glass work (see image above).

The second item is Winslow Anderson's 903-2 "double indent" vase in a perfectly frothy seeded Chartreuse color (a beautiful Amethyst example is currently available). This vase is a really wonderful representation of Winslow's early and rebelliously creative design sensibility; a classical and understated collared vase form upon which he has performed an "intervention" by dramatically poking the molten glass on either side thereby perpetually evoking its molten state long after it has cooled. Such an intervention would surely have seemed irreverent, if not sacrilegious, at the time. And it is a motif and strategy that Anderson exploited and extrapolated upon richly throughout his career at Blenko. In fact, on page 11 of the catalog "New American Glass: Focus West Virginia," in an essay based on a lecture given by the designer at the National Ceramic Convention in 1947, Anderson discussed this design and emphasized his interest in process and exploring the unique inherent qualities of glass. A full eight designs of Anderson's made use of the indentation technique (including #903-4, #910-4, #949, and #921) while many more used similar strategies to evoke the fluid, molten state of the glass.

So, this brings to a very fruitful conclusion this little "dance with a curator" story but I am happy to say that my dance card is yet again full; in the intervening months I have had some wonderful exchanges with three other curators from noteworthy museums, all of whom are interested in doing "something" about Historic Period Blenko glass. One, in fact, came by for yet another equally passionate visit wherein books were once again spread out and closets were yet again emptied. This mid-western museum is on a longer time schedule as they are currently considering an exhibition on mid-century American glass and doing background research for a proposal. I daresay the project has the potential to become something groundbreaking that has never been undertaken on this scale by a significant museum. Keep your fingers crossed and I will keep you updated!

Damon Crain

Please email me with your comments!

 
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