Masters of Studio Glass: Richard Marquis
Masters of Studio Glass: Richard Marquis
Richard Marquis, a self-described glassblower and collector of beat-up, vintage objects, has had an extraordinary influence on the development of contemporary studio glass in America and around the world. As an artist, he is admired for his understanding of color and form as well as for his humor and willingness to experiment. As a glassblower, he has influenced an entire generation of artists working in glass who aspire to his technical mastery and the originality of his vision.
A special exhibition of 30 objects by Marquis was held at The Corning Museum of Glass from February 16, 2013 through February 2, 2014. The objects in the exhibition spanned 45 years of Marquis’s career from 1967 to 2012, and all of the works presented were drawn from the Museum’s collection.
Cigar Bands, Bottle Tops, and Bowling Balls
In dog years, Richard Marquis has been working in glass for over three centuries. In that time, he’s worn out four dogs, and is working on his fifth. Also in that time, he’s created a weird and varied body of work, a portion of which is in important public and private collections. Eschewing publicity, he works quietly and haphazardly in his shop somewhere in the Northwest.–Richard Marquis
This short autobiography is a summation of some of the things that are most important to Richard Marquis. He has always been a dog-lover. He has always been a maker and a collector of objects, and he has pursued these activities in a way that can only be described as extreme. Marquis often uses his collections in the creation of his objects, combining found pieces—such as a %%salt%% shaker, shaving brush, or hobby chemistry set—with glass elements. He makes objects that he wants to collect.
Because Marquis is a collector, and his collections are vast, they are important in terms of understanding his work. His collecting “categories” include Model A Ford Trucks, Studebakers, %%metal%% advertising signs, old pump insect sprayers, rubber squeeze toys, %%salt%% shakers, graniteware, anything with a Mexican Siesta or English Setter motif, Hallware, Aloha shirts (he sold this collection to the musician %%Rod%% Stewart), push-button knives, paint-by-number paintings, burnt match furniture, outboard motors, old slide viewers, Christmas %%bubble%% lights, kid's chemistry sets from the 1940s and 1950s, Fiesta tableware, old cans, bamboo fly %%rods%%, fat pencils, and expired, unexposed film. Vintage bowling balls, repurposed as building blocks, are stacked in a large pyramid next to the studio that, with his house and an assortment of outbuildings and containers, defines Marquis’s island compound.
As a child, Marquis assembled collections of cigar bands and bottle tops in the same careful way that he constructed perfect model airplanes. All of these things were routinely thrown out by his peripatetic parents, who promised their son, every time that they moved, that he would see his possessions again one day. This tale may explain why Marquis does some of the things that he does. But to understand the objects that he makes—with their toy-like scale, animated countenance, and humorous, ironic, or nostalgic content—as simply a reflection of childhood experience would be a mistake.
As a person, Marquis is unpredictable, yet he is highly disciplined. Similarly, his work is unpredictable, disciplined, and ripe with other contradictions. It is humorous and intellectual, intentionally unintentional, sincere and ironic, practical and impractical, smart and dumb, elegant and stumblebum. Like the outsider artists that he admires, Marquis’s world is unique and in constant invention. His objects are an element, almost a by-product, of an elaborate universe under construction.
Ceramics is mostly about ideas. Anyone can take clay home to their kitchen table and make something nice if they're thinking. With glass you have to go through years of practice to do anything. You can't go into the hot shop and just putz around. Glass held my interest the most because it was wide open, and it was hard to do.–Richard Marquis
In the early 1960s, Berkeley was on the cusp of its golden age of social and cultural revolution. The decorative arts department at the University of California was a hub of activity, powered by the energy of the emerging Funk movement. “Funk is visual double-talk, it makes fun of itself, although often . . . it is dead serious,” the art historian Peter Selz proclaimed in his seminal 1967 exhibition on Funk art. “In contrast to Pop art, which as a whole is passive, apathetic and accepting, the Funk artist belongs to a new generation which is confident, potent, and often defiant.”
On his arrival at Berkeley, Marquis enrolled in ceramics courses taught by the well-known abstract expressionist ceramist Peter Voulkos, and the respected jewelry-maker, ceramist, and musician, Ron Nagle. Nagle and his students, including Marquis, favored the kind of anti-intellectual but considered investigations of form and subject matter that intrigued high-profile painters and sculptors such as Philip Guston and Antonio Neri, or underground comic-book illustrators, such as R. Crumb.
Marquis’s introduction to glass came though the artist Marvin Lipofsky, a student of American studio glass founder Harvey Littleton. Lipofsky was hired in 1964 to start a glass program at UC Berkeley, and he created energy and excitement about the “new” material. One afternoon, Marquis saw Lipofsky blowing glass, and Marquis was hooked. He began working for Lipofsky as a teaching assistant and tech, repairing furnaces and other tasks. The Museum’s small Double-Handled Vessel, Trapezoidal Bottle, and Double Bubble Vessel [^^2005.4.167^^, -.168, -.169] were made at this time. Blown in shades of blue, green, and brown, these bottles reflect the palette widely available to American studio glass artists in the sixties, most of whom batched their own glass. Imported commercial glass color bars would not be widely available to American artists for another decade.
By 1968, Marquis had decided to pursue a master’s degree at Berkeley. He was frustrated, however, by the lack of glassmaking knowledge available there, so he applied for a Fulbright grant to go to Venice and observe glassmaking processes there. Acting on the advice of another young studio glass artist, Dale Chihuly—who visited Murano on a Fulbright in 1968—Marquis ended up, in 1969, at the famous Venini glassworks on Murano. “At the time I received the Fulbright grant to go to Italy, I was considered one of the most skilled [American]. . . glassblowers in the fledgling studio glass movement,” Marquis wrote in 1995. “It was a pitiful state of affairs. I was about as skilled as any ten-year-old on Murano.”
At Venini, Marquis worked on the floor with the glassblowers so that he could observe them closely, later making detailed notes and sketches in his room. His discovery of Venini’s extensive glass colors led to his first project: making murrine, or mosaic glass, in the stars and stripes of the American flag. The Museum’s Stars and Stripes Acid Capsule #4 [2012.3.34] is one of these early murrine objects. Marquis's interest in the flag grew out of the intense political climate which he had just left behind in Berkeley. "It was the free speech movement," Marquis says. "[There was]. . . a whole bunch of antiwar stuff going on and the burning of the American flag. It was contemporary to me. It wasn't historical, like the American Revolution or anything like that. It was what was happening the week before I got to Italy."
In addition to murrine, Marquis learned other traditional Venetian techniques at Venini, such as a canne and incalmo, that he would later teach to other American studio glassblowers. The Museum’s small pink and white Mae West Cup [^^2001.3.52^^] was also made during Marquis’s time at Venini. On his return to Berkeley, he had a friend make a cloth carrying %%case%% for the cup, in imitation of the leather carrying cases that sometimes accompany historical European glasses.
Prayers, Teapots, and Constructions
I see my recent work as a sort of contemporary folk art commentary about things that interest me and how they relate to historical precedents in my craft and the current states of glass and art, while hopefully displaying finesse in terms of form, color, imagery and technique. . . In conclusion, let me say that in order to finish putting together my 1928 Indian V-twin Scout, I still need a front wheel, rear fender, chain guard, magneto, and center stand as well as the usual exhaust systems, cables, and chains. Any help will be appreciated.–Richard Marquis
In 1970, Marquis completed his master’s thesis at Berkeley with a masterpiece of murrine: making a complex word cane of the Lord’s Prayer [^^94.4.111^^]. Marquis was familiar with the long tradition of the Lord’s Prayer in American popular culture, and as a fan of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, he knew that the prayer had been inscribed on the head of a pin. Because the pattern of the hot murrine cane could be infinitely stretched out, the size of the words could be relatively large (that is, easily readable) or reduced to the size of a Ripley's pinhead. The Museum owns several examples in different sizes of Marquis’s justly famous murrine, including a small piece of cane in which the microscopic words of the prayer, according to Marquis, fit in a space even smaller than a pinhead.
During the 1970s, Marquis moved further into murrine, which he explored in one of his favorite forms: the teapot. He made teapots, such as those in the Museum’s collection, inspired by traditional American crazy quilts, by checkerboards, and by Venetian pezzato or patchwork vases of the 1950s. Although Marquis uses traditional Venetian decorative techniques, his work in glass is never mistaken for Venetian. His approach is a distinctively American interpretation, which is what makes him so different from many artists who work in the Italian style today.
The “Fabricated Weird” series from the early 1980s, such as the Museum’s Squirrel Horn Construction [^^2007.4.174^^] and Potato Landscape Pitcher [^^85.4.8^^], signaled a new direction for Marquis. These pieces, which Marquis called “visual notes,” were quickly assembled from the things that surrounded him in his studio, such as a broken pieces of glass, a chunk of obsidian, pieces of murrine cane, or a souvenir sandpainting.
In 1983, Marquis moved to Whidbey Island in the state of Washington, where he lives and works today. He made new connections between his found and created objects, pairing disparate items, such as paint-by-number paintings, fat pencils, or antique oil cans, with blown glass forms. The Museum’s Grey Rock, Sky Blue Vase, Blue Teapot [^^2012.4.117^^] is an early mixed-media assemblage, combining Marquis’s blown glass with toy cars and pieces of murrine cane glued onto the glass. “The toothbrushes and %%salt%% and pepper shakers were chosen for other things than being humorous,” Marquis says. “There are formal considerations: form, color, and mass which people don't see because they are struck by the content. For instance, I might have a yellow %%plastic%% dog %%salt%% shaker next to something because I needed something yellow there, not because it's a dog.”
Marquis has continued to make his constructions and assemblages over the years because he enjoys the activity, and because it offers him a needed change of pace from blown and hotformed work that has become increasingly technically complicated and difficult. The Museum’s Untitled Construction [^^2007.4.177^^], made in 1994, reflects Marquis’s interest in things such as vintage %%salt%% shakers. He displays these with another one of his obsessions: a deep red black granulare glass vase that not only reflects Marquis’s mastery of a complicated Venetian technique, but is a technique that Marquis himself researched and revived.
From Marquiscarpas to Razzle Dazzle
Decoration is not a pretty word. An object first must have a strong form which decoration can then either enhance or confuse, depending upon what the artist intends. I put things together so they look good. If it needs decoration, I do it; if it doesn't, I don't. I keep working on something until it works. There's a vast background vocabulary of revered historical images, techniques and decorations. By using these in combination with low-brow objects . . . I'm able to question and reexamine traditional aspects of working with glass.–Richard Marquis
In the 1990s, Marquis turned his focus to mid-century Venetian glass, and specifically to designs made in the 1940s for the Venini glassworks by the acclaimed Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa. Many of Scarpa’s most famous designs illustrate the relationship between glass and textiles, reflecting the ability of Venetian decorating techniques to create patterns ranging from subtle weaves to bold graphics through the use of multi-colored filigrana canes and murrine.
Inspired by Scarpa’s approach, Marquis developed increasingly complex designs for murrine. He created densely patterned surfaces for vessels based on ancient forms, such as the Museum’s Marquiscarpas, as well as more whimsical pieces, such as the tipsy elephants that reference the charming Art Deco-period animals made at Venini and Barovier & Toso on Murano. Marquis continued to combine his blown glass with found objects, such as in the Museum’s Granulare Shelf–Lighthouse [^^2012.4.111^^], which displays intentionally low-brow “lumpy” granulare glass in the context of a thrift store paint-by-number painting.
“Sometimes,” Marquis says, “I think my recent work is just one long continuous compatibility test.” During the making of the early Marquiscarpas, Marquis was losing many of his pieces as he was cold-working them, the incompatibility of the colored glasses causing the fragile vessels to break during grinding. In 1997, he switched to Bullseye compatible glasses, made in Portland, Oregon, which enabled him to successfully develop more elaborate color combinations.
In 2001, Marquis began a new series with Bullseye glass. Working with a team of Bullseye’s material experts, Marquis pioneered a new glassforming technique that he called “slab construction,” a term borrowed from ceramics. Marquis’s well-known teacher Peter Voulkos, among others, had popularized slab construction in ceramics in the 1950s. Marquis, as usual, devised his own version adapted to glass. The Museum’s Dust Pan #04-6 [^^2012.4.113^^] illustrates the new slab technique. Marquis also made striped glass racing cars, pyramids constructed of “confetti” murrine, and wildly patterned boats inspired by the razzle dazzle camouflage used on warships during World War I [^^2012.4.115^^]. At the same time, he continued with his blown work, making vessels ranging from fanciful teapot goblets [^^2012.4.112^^] to sleek mirrored cars based on the infamous land speed racers [^^2012.4.114^^].
Over the course of his career, Marquis has made an astonishing variety of work, ranging from commentary on contemporary art and folk culture to social, art, and glass history. Throughout these explorations, his distinctive style, love of material, and engagement with the process of making shines through the clever content of his pieces, resulting in charismatic objects that have their own logic, integrity, and intention.
Published on October 29, 2012