Venetian glass: exquisite link to Pilchuck School

Venetian glass: exquisite link to Pilchuck School
By Matthew Kangas. Special to The Seattle Times (9/17/04)

Although “Murano: Glass from the Olnick Spanu Collection” is touring to three more museums after it leaves the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, nowhere will it have as much resonance as in the Pacific Northwest. Finally, visitors get to see the missing link in the Pilchuck Glass School story: Venetian glass in all its glory and influence. Without the famous Italian glassblowers whom Dale Chihuly and Benjamin Moore brought to Pilchuck from 1978 on, Pilchuck and American studio glass in general never would have reached the heights it has. Conversely, if the Murano masters had never come to Pilchuck to see the muscular, can-do young Americans at work, Venetian glass would still be in the doldrums. For that and many other reasons, “Murano” is a must-see. For one thing, it is possibly the most beautifully designed glass exhibition I have ever seen. With ingenious, backlit Plexiglas-covered cases by the giant of modern design, Massimo Vignelli, each of the 200 pieces gets its due. Arranged chronologically, the evolution of artistic styles, techniques and shapes from 1914 on is clearly laid out. Don’t expect a comprehensive history of Venetian glass (made on Murano Island in the Venice Lagoon since 1291) but a highly selective survey assembled by a New York couple, Giorgio Spanu and Nancy Olnick. We get their connoisseurs’ point of view rather than that of an art historian. Despite the ample treasures by 20th-century design giants like Carlo Scarpa, Giò Ponti and Vignelli, there are glaring omissions that keep the survey from being more than a cross-section of the Spanus’ taste. There is no Chihuly, no Robert Willson, no solid-glass sculpture at all, nothing from the famous Forge of the Angels Gallery where Picasso, Cocteau and others had work made, and nothing from S.A.L.I.R., the center of Murano engraving. Olnick and Spanu concentrate on the 1924-45 period which, interestingly, includes the Mussolini-era glass that inspired Chihuly’s famous “Venetians” series (1988-2004). he severe shapes, solid colors and allusions to the “machine age” of the 1930s are beautiful, if cold, but they mark a radical break from all the traditional frou-frous — filigree, engraving, lavish color — that characterize the prior 700 years of Venetian glass.

Once the island opened itself up to architects and others who admired glass but did not know how to make it, the rigid, blue-collar technicians were jump-started into executing the many facets of modern design. After art-nouveau, there are examples of art-deco influences, along with Chinese and Japanese art. After World War II, Scandinavian design, abstract expressionism, op art and the postmodern Memphis style were also felt. This exhibit is also a wonderful way to educate oneself up-close and personal about the somewhat complicated glassblowing processes used. Though everything begins on the blowpipe, a million things can happen before a piece reaches the showroom. Little colored canes or thinner filigree strands are added. Clear layers can be set over inner, colored ones, and walls can be changed with the introduction of tiny air bubbles. After cooling down in the annealing oven for a few days, the outer walls can be engraved, bathed in acid, or even chipped with a tool for special effects. Now, if only there were a couple like Spanu and Olnick in the Northwest so that our museums could also own and display the Italian glass that has been the hidden key to understanding the Pilchuck revolution.

Article © The Seattle Times 2004

Museum features marvelous Murano glass

Museum features marvelous Murano glass

DEBBIE CAFAZZO AND LISA KREMER; The Tacoma News Tribune (9/3/04)

When New Yorker Nancy Olnick acquired her first piece of Murano glass more than 15 years ago at a Sotheby’s auction, it was an impulse buy. A half-cobalt blue, half-emerald green hourglass caught her eye. She placed a bid, then didn’t think about it until the auction house called to tell her the piece was hers. She brought it home, placed it next to an Andy Warhol painting and the bewitching began. That first piece launched a love affair with Murano glass for Olnick and her husband, Giorgio Spanu. Soon, they were traveling the world collecting examples of glass from Murano, an island in the Lagoon of Venice that traces its heritage in glassmaking back to the 13th century. Beginning Saturday, visitors to the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art in Tacoma can share in the couple’s passion with an exhibit that includes more than 200 pieces from their personal collection. This is the only West Coast showing of the touring exhibit. It’s in Tacoma for nine weeks.
“To enter our collection, the glass has to be made on Murano – no matter where the artist is from,” Spanu said. Originally, the collection was intended to cover the 20th century, but as Spanu and Olnick delved deeper into the world of glass, they discovered new, young artists producing fabulous work. Thus, the exhibit spans the years 1914 to 2002. “It’s one of the most important collections of 20th-century glass in the world,” said Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass at the Corning Glass Museum in New York. “It’s incredibly representative in terms of its breadth and depth of a period.” The exhibit was designed by Lella and Massimo Vignelli, with David Law, and is curated by Marino Barovier.

The collection is mainly vessels, with only a few glass figures. It’s arranged chronologically, beginning with a brightly colored piece produced around 1914 by Barovier and Co., one of Murano’s glass house dynasties, and ending with a nearly colorless glass and copper vase made by Giorgio Vigna in 2002. Walking through the exhibit is not only a tour through the history of glass art, but also of the major artistic and political movements of the 20th century.

From the boldly colored floral designs of the early part of the century, through the echoes of classicism and images of strength projected during the fascist 1930s to the boundless creativity unleashed following World War II and into the modern era, each of the glass pieces is a reflection of its times. Oldknow praised Olnick and Spanu for the variety of their collection. “They’re very rare in that many people who collect 20th and mid-century art don’t always collect contemporary,” she said. Spanu is a walking encyclopedia, whose knowledge of both the art of glassmaking and the artists – including Paolo Venini, Artisti Barovier, Carlo Scarpa, Thomas Stearns and others – is impressive. Where did he acquire it? “I read a lot,” he said with a smile. One reason the Olnick-Spanu collection is unusual is that glass art hasn’t always been considered high art, Oldknow said. “It’s always been allied with applied arts, or the decorative arts,” she said. “Until recently it hasn’t been used as sculpture. Like ceramics or fiber, these are subjects that have really expanded beyond their roots.” Art glass was never meant to be used, Spanu explained. “It is meant to embellish everybody’s life … to make your life richer,” he said. In the end, Spanu wants those who visit the museum to take away from the Murano exhibit the simplest of pleasures: beauty and peace of mind. “That’s why I have it,” he said. “To relax.”

If you go:

What: “Murano: Glass from the Olnick Spanu Collection”

Where: Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, 1801 E. Dock St., Tacoma

When: Saturday through Nov. 7 Information: 253-284-4750;

Also: Collectors Nancy Olnick, Giorgio Spanu and artist Benjamin Moore will offer a panel discussion about the exhibit at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Article © The News Tribune 2004