A Maestro of Glass Work

Posted October 8, 2008 at 2:14pm

To say that Lino Tagliapietra’s glass work is masterful would be an understatement. After all, Tagliapietra earned the title of maestro in 1957 when he was only 22. Since then, Tagliapietra has created a worldwide reputation, teaching and collaborating with the most reputable glassblowers in Italy and the U.S.

Yet in bringing his exhibit, “Lino Tagliapietra in Retrospect: Modern Renaissance in Glass,” to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, gallery chief Robyn Kennedy hoped to honor the artist’s generosity as well as his craftsmanship. Though the Renwick Gallery normally showcases only the crafts and decorative arts of American artists, Kennedy said it wanted to bring Tagliapietra’s work in “because of his importance to the American glass movement.”

Tagliapietra grew up on the Italian island of Murano, adjacent to Venice. At age 11, he earned his first paycheck working for glassmaker Archimede Seguso after he quit school. He ascended from this low-level position through the ranks, from “garzonetto,” a general assistant, to “servente,” the first assistant who helps the maestro directly, and finally to maestro only 11 years later.

Renowned for their glassmaking, Muranese artists guarded their professional secrets closely. In stark contrast, Tagliapietra took his first flight to teach his art at Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle in 1979. Tagliapietra spoke no English, and the airline confiscated his tools, but he pressed on. At Pilchuck and later at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, Tagliapietra taught and collaborated with American students. Now 74, he spends half the year in Seattle and half in Murano.

The traveling exhibit includes 140 pieces. Among them are a few two-dimensional pieces that look like sparkling paintings and many three-dimensional pieces of round and boat shapes, as well as a room full of fanciful goblets.

One of the most striking works is a simple globe-shaped vessel blown with colorless glass and striped with evenly spaced canes in every color of the rainbow, undoubtedly inspiring its name, “Rainbow Vessel.” As it is viewed from different angles and in different lighting, the vessel changes colors completely. Another of Tagliapietra’s more recent works, a 2002 sculpture designed with blown glass with a spectrum of canes, is called “Angel Tear.” Its bulb-shaped bottom portion stretches into a tall point, the whole piece glowing with vibrant color. Several pieces use one of Tagliapietra’s signature shapes, a bowl with a flat disc extending outward that recalls Saturn’s rings.

The goblets are less abstract than the other pieces, with easily recognizable shapes, such as a dragon or flowers, often twisting up the stems. One goblet with a blue blown bowl and base is held aloft by a swan stem with gold leaf. Kennedy said the goblets have already prompted speculation among museum staff.

“Who would you envision holding this goblet?” Kennedy said staffers have asked each other, wondering what kind of person would be worthy to drink out of such an ornamental chalice.

Tagliapietra’s glass exhibit isn’t the first or only glass being shown at the Renwick Gallery. Upstairs in the gallery’s permanent collection visitors will find Beth Lipman’s 2003 sculpture, “Bancketje,” a long oak table covered with more than 400 glass creations, mostly dishes that appear to have piled up carelessly after a feast. Dale Chihuly, who has often collaborated with Tagliapietra, is featured with his “Cobalt and Gold Leaf Venetian.” The gallery’s most recent visiting glass exhibition was “Glass! Glorious Glass!” — a broad collection of glass works from 41 artists that was shown in the museum from the end of September 1999 to late January 2000.

Susanne Frantz, the traveling exhibition curator, will speak about Tagliapietra’s work at noon Oct. 23, and to coincide with the exhibit, an Italian cultural festival will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 9.

The Tagliapietra exhibit closes in D.C. on Jan. 11 and will open again in the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., in April. The Renwick Gallery will then prepare for “The Art and Craft of Greene and Greene,” which opens March 13. That exhibition will feature the architecture and interior decorating of Charles and Henry Greene, who were based in Los Angeles a century ago.