Situated on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in a building that previously served as a Napoleonic warehouse-turned-1950s boarding school, Le Stanze del Vetro is a minimalist gallery space that since 2012 has staged twice-yearly exhibitions dedicated to the art of glassmaking in the 20th and 21st centuries. These shows, which are open to the public free of charge, are invariably expertly curated and beautifully presented – and this autumn’s offering is no exception.
The artist currently in the spotlight is the American Thomas Stearns (1936-2006), who today is regarded as one of the pioneering masters in the field of 20th century glass. Curated by international glass expert Marino Barovier, the exhibition focuses specifically on works that Stearns produced in the early 1960s, when – on the strength of a Fullbright scholarship and a grant from the Italian government – the young artist travelled to Venice for an apprenticeship at the esteemed glassworks Venini & Co on Murano.
During his two-year residency, Stearns was paired with one of Venini’s youngest master glass-blowers named “Checco” Ongaro, and together they produced highly innovative works that fused traditional techniques with innovative designs, pushing the boundaries of the ancient medium to radical extremes. Inspired by the Abstract Expressionist movement that was sweeping across America at the time, Stearns sought to capture emotion through form and the use of bold colours, often employing the “incalmo” technique of constructing objects by fusing two or more elements, in order to create sharp chromatic contrasts.
Stearns described his two-year residency on Murano as “a time of great zeal and accomplishment within my life”, observing that “there was an ongoing awareness of no end of possibilities and of as yet unexplored techniques”. Initially, this experimental approach led to criticism amongst some who felt that Stearns’ asymmetrical works were too wildly at odds with the classical symmetry of Venini’s traditional forms. Before long, however, popular opinion shifted and his creations became widely admired – even to the extent of being exhibited and nominated for a Gold Medal at the 1962 Venice Biennale.
Too difficult to mass produce, the exceptional pieces that Stearns created for Venini today rank among the most highly coveted forms of twentieth century glass – and indeed when his sculpture “La Sentinella di Venezia” (1962) sold at auction last year for $737,000, it became the most expensive piece of Murano glass ever sold. Be sure to seize this rare opportunity to admire many of his Murano masterpieces reunited, before the exhibition at Le Stanze del Vetro closes on 5th January.