A love affair with glass
In anticipation of 2017’s Collect, we’ve asked a group of gallery owners to tell us about their favourite material. Peter Layton tells us about the magic of working with glass
Henry Moore, one of my long-time heroes, once said in relation to stone carving, ‘I like the resistance of hard material’. For my part, I love working with the soft responsive qualities of hot glass: I love its immediacy and its ability to capture a frozen moment in time as it cools and hardens. I also love clay. I studied ceramics at the Central School of Art and Design during the Swinging Sixties under some of the best potters of our time, including Ruth Duckworth and Gordon Baldwin.
While there, I had tutorials with William Turnbull, took tea with Bernard Leach in St Ives, spent a month at Wedgwood and a summer working at the Morar Pottery in the Scottish Highlands. Some years later I was able to purchase this incredibly beautiful place and produced salt-glazed pots and built my first glassblowing studio.
On graduating from the Central I took up a teaching position in ceramics at the University of Iowa. Harvey Littleton, a potter considered to be the father of modern studio glass, had recently set up the first university glassblowing department in Wisconsin. One of his graduates was also teaching at Iowa and I was lucky enough to participate in one of his first summer glassblowing workshops. Total novices, we built the furnace and other equipment and within a few days were attempting to blow life into misshapen ‘gobs’ of fiercely molten glass – how captivating and exhilarating! There was great anguish and pleasure in creating those early, lumpy forms: primitive and crude, but with a vitality that is sometimes lost in today’s quest for sophistication. Despite managing to burn myself badly I soon realised that this was the start of a life-long love affair.
I believe that all materials have special properties and extraordinary character and that it is our job, and indeed a privilege, as artists, to bring these out; but I also believe that glass is truly the most magical stuff. One can describe the alchemy of the process, of turning sand into molten glass, of creating something beautiful out of a runny honey-like glowing mass, but it is pretty nigh impossible to convey that sense of connection and adventure
in taming the molten material.
As a potter living, teaching and exhibiting in California during the mid-1960s I felt myself to be part of the clay movement known as Abstract Expressionist Ceramics, an offshoot of the Abstract Expressionist school of painting emanating from New York. My contemporaries were Peter Voulkos, John Mason and Kenneth Price. Our heroes among others were Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. The spontaneity of Action Painting, emphasising the importance of process, material and gesture chimed exactly with my own work in clay, and later in hot glass. Just as Pollock’s organic drips and splashes ‘capture a moment in flux’, so glassblowing freezes a moment of decision and discovery, recording controlled chance and drama in glass.
For centuries the methods and technologies of glass working were kept secret – the Venetians sent assassins to chase down errant glassmakers wanting to trade their mysterious skills abroad, and patterns, style and technique were followed according to the tradition of place or culture. In the late 19th century the work of the great artist industrialists such as Tiffany, Galle and Lalique drew attention to the artistic possibilities of glass, leading to the solitary endeavours of genius as in the work of Henri Cros and Maurice Marinot. The seed planted in 1962 at Littleton’s early experimental workshops paved the way, around the globe, for the exploration of glass as a medium for artistic expression.
As I approach 80, having spent over 40 years working in glass, I realise how blessed I have been to be part of this young, international glass art movement. What an honour and privilege to have known and worked with so many of its great pioneering spirits and how lucky I am now, to be working alongside artists like Louis Thompson, who so impressed us recently with his sensitive and thought-provoking installations in Reflection at Salisbury Cathedral.
There is a plethora of amazing ideas and visual interpretations of the medium in my studio alone, from the finely polished, intricate optical works by Anthony Scala and Jochen Ott to the complex colourworks by Tim Rawlinson and Layne Rowe. We, the pioneering generation, are being overtaken by incredibly talented young stars. This is entirely as it should be. The contemporary glass world is vibrant and growing – the future looks bright.
Collect 2017, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3, 2-6 February 2017.