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Lino Tagliapietra: Birth of a Genius

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By Matthew Kangas

Curious about glass, but intimidated by the myriad, confusing effects? To the careful and patient viewer, the Lino Tagliapietra retrospective answers all questions. It is a truly educational show about a great teacher who taught by doing and showing, not just talking. "Lino Tagliapietra In Retrospect: A Modern Renaissance in Italian Glass" is on view at Museum of Glass in Tacoma until August 24, 2008 along with two related exhibitions, "Living Legacy: Homage to a Maestro" (to Sept. 7) and "Dante Marioni: Form, Color, Pattern" (to Sept. 21).

The 73-year-old native of Murano Island in the Venice Lagoon changed the face of Northwest art, American craft, and international glass art, including that of Venice. Beginning in 1979, he made numerous visits to Seattle and the Pilchuck Glass School to impart the storied secrets of Venetian glassblowing.

By adopting a boundary-free, global attitude about skill sharing and the evolution of artistic vision in glass, Tagliapietra became the single most important living figure for glass--after his friend Dale Chihuly who freely called him "the greatest glassblower in the world."

Tagliapietra is the rare example of a glassblower who became a designer and artist. This was unheard of in the Venice of his childhood where he first saw glass being blown at the age of six while playing soccer in the street behind the factory Artisti Vetrai Muranese. By age 11, his formal schooling had ended and he was willingly apprenticed to Archimede Seguso on June 16, 1946. His first weekly paycheck was for 120 lire, which he promptly gave to his parents.

As the thorough survey expertly curated by Susanne K. Frantz reveals, Tagliapietra's career has been cut in half; first, for his work for others, including Seguso, Giorgio Ferro, A.D. Copier, Marina Angelin and, of course, Chihuly, for whom he made the celebrated Venetians (1988) and, second, with Chihuly's help, when he came into his own as an artist in 1990. Since then, in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, he has had nearly 60 shows, many at Traver Gallery in Seattle where he had his first U.S. solo gallery exhibition in 1990.

Looking back at the early years, the Venetian maestro recalled how, after beginning as a water-carrier in the Gagliano Ferro factory, he was allowed to apply ribbing to one piece for the first time. He had already spent two years as a gofer, or garzonetto (Venetian dialect for boy-apprentice). With the depressed economy of the defeated Italian nation after World War II, it took even longer for young glassblowers to develop. If the Fascists of the Mussolini period (1922 - 45) weren't bad enough, the takeover of the unions by the Communists made things even worse, equalizing all salaries regardless of differing skill levels. Workers left Murano in droves. The first strike in Murano history had to do with the workers wanting to work one less hour on Saturdays. The factory owners refused.

Inspired by seeing the work of the great American abstract painters Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly at the Venice Biennales, Tagliapietra further educated himself as an artist and observed closely the techniques of the older glass maestros like Alfredo Barbini, Seguso and others so that, when Chihuly gave him free time for his own art after a day making Venetians, the Italian (who made maestro status at age 25) was more than ready. As Dante Marioni points out in his essay in the handsome accompanying book ($50, American studio glass artists never would have attained excellence without Tagliapietra's generous teaching. First, he taught them how to make Chihuly's art; then he applied their new skills to his own ideas.

Lino Tagliapietra in his Murano studio.

Lino Tagliapietra, in the Murano studio, around 1998. Photo by Francesco Barasciutti, courtesy of Lino Tagliapietra, Inc.

Natoalos: Lino Tagliapietra

Natoalos, 2000, designed and made by Lino Tagliapietra. Blown glass with mezza filigrana canes, squeezed and folded; metal stand. Glass: 23" x 24" x 11". Courtesy of Lino Tagliapietra, Inc. Photo by Russell Johnson

Hopi: Lino Tagliapietra

Hopi, 1993, Designed and made by Lino Tagliapietra, Blown glass with twisted and pinched canes, 18" x 9" x 9", Private Collection, Photo by Russell Johnson

Mandara: Lino Tagliapietra

Mandara, 2006, designed and made by Lino Tagliapietra. Blown glass with multiple incalmi, criss-crossed canes, Pilchuck‚ 96 technique; cut 22" x 15" x 7". Courtesy of Lino Tagliapietra, Inc. Photo by Russell Johnson

The avalanche of spectacular work that followed comprises the second half of the exhibition. Showered with medals and honorary degrees, he began to combine many intricate techniques in one work; carving, blowing, caning, layering, casing, and trailing along with the elaborate Italian tricks so sought after for centuries: battuto, zanfirico, filigrano, reticello, pulegoso, martelé, inciso and incalmo to name a few (all are helpfully explained in wall statements and the book). Without his artistic vision to balance such complexities, Tagliapietra's glass vessels, sculptures and installations never would have transcended their craft. With his eye for pattern, color and texture, each work (from the goblets onto the Dinosaurs, Saturnos, Hopis, and Spirales to the installation-size Endeavors) became a unique medley of perfectly balanced approaches.

Besides the American painters whose canvases he saw at the Biennales, the young artist was also exposed to the classical historical examples in the Murano Glass Museum. There he saw techniques that originated beyond Venice in Byzantium, Egypt, the Near East, and, above all, ancient Rome. Trying to recreate these--a fold, a lip, a wrap--he achieved an even greater vocabulary to use in his own art. Assembling them all into contemporary examples that also combined other aspects, he made possible the "renaissance in modern Italian glass" of the exhibition's subtitle.

One can see crystal-clear vases done for Steuben Glass as well as the more colorful works from over the years. For those mesmerized by the sight of glassblowing, there are videos and DVDs available. The effortless movements have been compared to choreography and, as the maestro tells each crew, "Please, we dance together. You must dance with me. You must stay with me."

Regarding this approach, Tagliapietra told Frantz, "I'm totally open. I think that what I like to do the most is research. I don't want to represent Venetian technique only--even though I was born with it. . . Your style is what you are. My older work has a different spirit and my expression has changed." Despite working with some drawings, most pieces are entirely conceived in his head, rendering them ultimately impossible to completely dissect or analyze.

Beyond Tacoma, if one scans the developments in contemporary glass around the world, in the U.S., northern Europe and Japan, for example, Tagliapietra's influence is felt there, too. It is a renewal of what was called the Venetian style or "la faćon de Venise." Italian glass rules and dominates. Because of his own gracious assistance and support to others, and with the examples of his own art now widely seen, Lino Tagliapietra is the reason.

MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor for Art Guide Northwest, also writes for Art in America, Sculpture and Art Ltd., among many other publications. A new essay collection, Relocations: Selected Art Essays and Interviews, covering 70 years of Northwest art, has just been published in New York by Midmarch Arts Press. Copyright © Matthew Kangas 2008

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