Seeing contemporary glass in 1959

Glass 1959 at The Corning Museum of Glass

From the perspective of the present, it’s hard to imagine contemporary glass being a new phenomenon. This year, The Corning Museum of Glass opened its third international survey of recently created glass and published the 40th issue of New Glass Review. But the exhibition reviews of Glass 1959, the Museum’s inaugural international survey exhibition of contemporary glass, provide a glimpse into the experience of seeing a critical mass of contemporary glass objects together for the first time and the enthusiasm that experience generated.

A surprising collection of outstanding pieces[1]

Unusual, exciting, unique, surprising—exhibition reviewers employed such words frequently in describing Glass 1959. However, these terms describe not only the glass objects themselves, but also the method by which they were selected. The five selectors were celebrated art and design thinkers without expertise in glass. They included an Italian architect, an architecture historian and curator, a furniture designer, a museum director, and a magazine editor. Gathered together for one day in a Manhattan warehouse, the selectors each chose 100 glass objects from more than 1,800 that had been shipped to New York for evaluation. Agreement about those objects was neither required nor expected, although it frequently happened, as the exhibition comprised 292 rather than 500 objects. Reviewers recognized that the process of Glass 1959 shaped the product—a diverse exhibition of glass objects representing the state of current work in the medium of glass.

“A testimony to harmony between the beautiful and the useful”[2]

Nelson Rockefeller, then the governor of New York, described Glass 1959 this way in his remarks at the exhibition’s opening. Glass 1959 and other design exhibitions of its time blurred the line between art appreciation and consumer education, opening museums to new visitors and introducing fine glass objects to new buyers. The gallery full of elegant glass objects intended for use in homes and offices offered exhibition viewers a compelling opportunity to keep up with the Joneses. Most objects in the exhibition were mass produced and available for purchase. Both the exhibition reviews and the price-list that accompanied the exhibition catalog affirmed the expectation that objects first seen in the Museum would ultimately be integrated into everyday living spaces across the United States.

A transparent fairyland[3]

The more fanciful reviews of Glass 1959 invoke language of the magic and wonder of glass. Reviewers were delighted by what they saw and how they saw it. The exhibition design deliberately excluded barriers between museum visitors and glass objects; a stroll through the exhibition was an immersive experience. Affixed to the shelves and tabletops with adhesive, the glass objects appeared as they would in the home, but in an abundance that must have seemed somewhat surreal. Selectors and reviewers alike reflected on the difficulty of singling out individual pieces from the visual spectacle, but all managed to choose some favorites from the wealth of glass objects.

Glass 1959 introduced the world to contemporary glass as a field of art and design. The nearly 300 glass objects in this groundbreaking exhibition demonstrated the depth and breadth of artworks and design objects in glass created worldwide. The exhibition opened at The Corning Museum of Glass in June 1959 and then embarked on a two-year national tour, traveling to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Toledo Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Carnegie Museum of Art.

If you are interested in learning more about Glass 1959, we invite you to visit New Glass Now | Context at the Rakow Research Library.

[1] “Modern Glass Makes an Artistic Bow,” Chicago American Pictorial Living, March 27, 1960.

[2] “Elegance of World’s Glass in Corning Display,” Ithaca Times, June 16, 1959.

[3] “Glass Exhibition Refreshing Scene,” Pittsburgh Press, December 5, 1960.

These and other published reviews of Glass 1959 may be found in the exhibition records maintained in the Rakow Research Library.  

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