As a material for sculpture, glass is more durable than either granite or steel. And in the hands of Robert Willson, hot molten glass --- "rich and utterly sensuous," as described by the artist --- is richly and utterly transformed into solid, evocative, and bold forms. Willson, born in West Texas in 1912, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1934 and then traveled to Mexico the following year to study at the San Carlos Academy of Art in Mexico City, eventually receiving a Master's degree in Fine Art from the University of Fine Arts, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
This sojourn would later prove to be seminal in his development as an artist, as he met many of Mexico's burgeoning modernists --- Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Maria Izquierdo, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Goitia, and Roberto Montenegro, among others --- and had the opportunity to travel to some of the ruins of Mexico's pre-Columbian cultures.
This was at a time when many artists in Mexico, as well as modern artists throughout Latin America, were searching for their national cultural identity, their "roots." Even among east coast intellectuals of the United States, there was a search for a new, American identity, whereby the "Red Man" became fashionable and the handmade was embraced. Artists and writers turned away from Europe and looked to the indigenous. Museums, too, were quick to take notice: In December 1931 the Museum of Modern Art presented what became the extremely popular one-man exhibition of paintings and fresco panels by Diego Rivera, followed in 1933 by American Sources for Modern Art, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art: Olmec to Muralists in 1940, and Indian Art of the United States in 1941.
The timing could not have been more appropriate for a young man with the desire to "re-create the honesty and power of ancient art." For Willson, the art of the "ancient Mexican Indians... [was] full of force and meaning." And he was especially interested in how the ancient legends of native cultures were incorporated into contemporary art and life.
Another pivotal moment in Willson's artistic life came in 1956, when he received a scholarship from The Corning Museum of Glass to study glass in museum collections. After studying the history and techniques of glassmaking in Corning and several New York City museums, Willson traveled to Venice and Murano, a city on a small island in the Venetian lagoon where glassmakers have worked since 1291. The history of glassmaking is almost entirely identified with the history of glass produced in Venice, or more accurately, in Murano. The educational grants Willson received would be critical to his oeuvre, in that the combined experiences enabled him to produce works that synthesized the totemic qualities of the primitive with the technologies of the modern, as exemplified in Tribal Group: Chief, Image Maker, Prince, Hunter (1979) and Family Totem (1976).
His King and Queen (1974) may immediately evoke comparisons to the colossal statues in front of the Temple of Ramses II. But upon further contemplation, the delicate sugary skulls from an Oaxacan Day of the Dead celebration or the intricate patchwork designs of an Amish quilt also come to mind. The seated figures, seemingly wrapped in a mosaic of colored glass, push into our space as if from behind a waterfall or some mysterious membrane. It's like a birth, exploding into vibrant, colored stars. Shapes and colors blur at the edge, giving a sense of motion, like bodies moving at warp speed.
This event, this movement, is congealed in glass like thick, transparent, sugary syrup. But, like all of Willson's work, it is solid glass. Willson called glass the material of the future, although this future is far from mechanized and sterile. It's a future where there is a conglomeration of cultures from the past, eschewing the classical, the rational. For Willson, it is not representation nor grandiose theory that moved him to do what he did. But rather, he wanted to produce an art that had "social relevance" and one where "color [is used] to create visual interest and to convey a joyful humorous spirit."
This spirit and joy can be seen in Willson's playful approach to "simple" forms and colors. Of course, the idea of "simple" quickly evaporates as you contemplate the work. There is nothing simple about his work. It is a marriage of an extremely critical eye for balance, color, and form, and extraordinary patience to spend many hot hours with master glassworkers to get it just right, to give the viewer that feeling that all we are looking at something newly emerged from nowhere --- just like the King and Queen's entrance from the abyss.
Willson's emphasis on simple form and color, and the magical properties of glass, seem to contradict his statement that art should be socially relevant, implying a convergence of art and politics. But it was exactly this conscious move away from Eurocentric, Renaissance-inspired art and toward the seemingly simple that was political.
Willson brought the "other," the optional, the different, to the world of art --- not only in his choice of subject matter or stylistic and conceptual influences, but in his choice of medium, which has languished in the margins of the modern art world. This is where he made his most political of choices.
Robert Willson: A Texan in Venice is on display at the Corning Museum of Glass, One Museum Way, Corning, through October 26. Hours: daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tix: $12, $6 ages 6 to 17.
Alex and Heidi are art historians who teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology.