The Corning Museum of Glass is a haven for glass as fine art in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. Historically, A separate entity Corning Glass Works, now Corning Incorporated, founded the museum in 1951, as a gift to the world for the company’s 100th birthday. Historically, Corning Inc. had a hand in everything from the first lightbulb to fiber optics and Pyrex, and today produces Gorilla Glass®, used on many smart phones and related devices. The sculptures thus vary from intricate ornaments of daily use to deeply abstract purely aesthetic and conceptual designs. The Museum houses the world’s most extensive collection of glass from the past 35 centuries, ranging from objects of daily use to deeply aesthetic and conceptual sculpture.
And glass is a medium of contradictions. Molten glass cools, going from amorphous solid – a state somewhere between liquid and solid -- transforms from a form that cannot be touched into forms that are often meant for daily haptic uses. As a medium that defies strict mimicry of form such that marble and bronze sculptures might articulate a nose, say, or a hand. Glass is hard and yet brittle and fragile. The medium lends itself, therefore, to strange literalism, such as sculptures representing water or imitations of rock formations, in strict analogies, but the medium also lends itself to abstraction, such as emotions or political statements, and symbolism, or even more subtle depths of thought and feeling.
Two pieces in the museum’s contemporary wing speak to the medium’s potentials of the latter. One piece, “Black Cube” by Marian Karel is the size of a large table, which looks like the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. But closer inspection shows quiet bulges in the middle of its surfaces. The curator’s notes for this piece show the artist was arguing for an energy bursting from the cube, and a schematic shows what he was implying mathematically. The sculpture is an apt rendering for any number of scientific mysteries all but demanding to be discovered. In the recently added Contemporary Art and Design Wing room, a separate sculpture, “Sheer Volume” by Michael Scheiner is dozens of glass plates stacked on a staggered, slanted lean against the wall. The artist sandblasted the sheets incrementally, so that a frontal view shows a rock formation, but a side view negates the entire figure. This piece might be a commentary on Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks, whereupon that artist criticized vanities of preservation by freezing basketballs and sharks. In this work, the artist has a more optimistic and tender perspective, that perhaps science might be more kind to nature.
Several pieces use the malleability of glass to show the medium’s superiority to painting. In, “My beef with the American Government,” the artist lays bedridden in front of a parade of cattle. The piece was a commentary on the Vietnam war. A stained glass window, “Melancholia,” by Narcissus Quagliata is almost monochromatic white, shows an artist forlorn, riding away from his family in an airplane. The tension here between painting has to do with the way the colors drip and glimmer, and shows a bright color palette can belie a great sadness. Such an achievement would not be possible in a painting because the colors in a painting would be too stark with its contrasts for the sentiment.
Two chandeliers in different pieces of artwork show a wild time, “Chandelier” by Sia notwithstanding. In “Evening,” Cerith Win Evans made a chandelier out of translucent glass that has light bulbs blinking. The bulbs flash Morse code in a sequence of the poem, “Evening.” This work speaks to the end of Morse code and the end of the popularity of candelabras, but the discerning art critic might be reminded of the 19th Century psychics and fortune tellers who would flicker lights to trick people into thinking the psychics were communicating with the dead. The same trick was used for dramatic effect on the Netflix show “Stanger Things” in its first season. In a word, if Morse code and chandeliers are dead people, the artist thinks we can communicate with the dead through beauty. A second chandelier-based sculpture, “Carroña (Carrion)”,” by Perez shows crows eating a blood red, broken chandelier, and the chandelier is half-broken. This work speaks to the movements of time, and its pessimistic theme is something of a reciprocal to the optimism “Evening.”
When glass and light meet, they form a dance that is extremely mellifluous for the eye. This interaction between light and glass is the reason why The Corning Museum of Glass opened its contemporary wing under a glass ceiling in its brand new 2015 wing. The day-lighted new wing was not intended to fracture light. Rather, glass loves light and is a material that looks better in light, unlike paints and fabrics that can be damaged when exposed to light. This new wing was designed as a vitrine to showcase the best in glass today. The 900+ skylights are comprised of three different types of glass (translucent, transparent, and opaque), and dapple the light, as if sunlight were streaming through trees in a forest.
Address: 1 Museum Way, Corning, NY 14830