The Henry Ford Museum will open a small but spectacular permanent new gallery on Friday, and one that’s considerably artier than its standard exhibits of tools and technology.
With 180 artifacts, some of them quite large, the Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery is a concise, dazzling history of the revolution worked in Toledo half a century ago, when artists and chemists figured out how to shrink the mechanics of making glass to a scale that individual artisans could employ.
And thus was born the Toledo Studio Glass movement.
It’s not that there wasn’t glass artwork before 1962, when Cranbrook Academy of Art grad Harvey Littleton held the first glassmaking workshop at the Toledo Museum of Art. Think of Steuben, or Toledo’s own Libbey.
But at the time, the temperature required to melt glass was possible only in an industrial setting.
“It’s all about chemistry,” says Charles Sable, the Henry Ford’s curator of decorative arts, who spent years organizing the exhibition. “Beforehand you couldn’t melt glass in small batches. It was a confluence of art and science.”
Littleton had a friend, Dominick Labino, who was a chemist for the Johns Manville Corp., and that connection proved vital.
“Labino came up with glass marbles that melted at a lower temperature than previously thought possible,” Sable says. “The marbles melted, and the artists were able to blow bubbles.”
At first, they weren’t able to do much more, as they groped their way toward understanding this out-of-reach medium. It was only later that year that they were finally able to produce an actual vessel.
The Henry Ford exhibition starts with Littleton and Labino’s earliest experiments, and includes some of their glass marbles and a one of the very first vessels the workshops created — what Sable calls “a piece of the true cross.”
Organized historically, the exhibition quickly moves from relatively crude and halting to dazzling examples of how’d-they-do-that dazzle. A few of the new glass zealots wangled their way into apprenticeships at the world-famous Murano studios in Venice, and gradually top-secret European techniques became to inform the American studio glass.
The vessels, paperweights and sculptures here are housed in brightly lit cases (glass, naturally). They guide the visitor through the medium’s birth, the outsized influence of artist Paul Stankard, and then through the dizzying explosion from 1980 on when American studio glass absorbed influences from around the world, and became influential in its turn.
This is just the first step for The Henry Ford by way of glass. Next April, it will unveil its Greenfield Village exhibition of historic and more modern work, the Glass Gallery — a complement to its gorgeous new gallery of modern glass.
Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass
Permanent exhibit opens Fri.
The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood, Dearborn
9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. — 7 days a week
$21, adults; $15.75, youth (3-11); $19, seniors (62+); Free - members