Tina Oldknow was the Museum's curator of modern glass from 2000-2014, and the senior curator of modern and contemporary glass from 2014 until her retirement in September 2015. During this time,...
Robert Willson: A Texan in Venice
"As an artist seeking a material to work in with love, I happened to see glass being made in Arkansas, Ohio, and West Virginia. Immediately, I knew this was a material in which I could work — it was and is the most modern and the most exciting fabric possible. That it had the art qualities of transparency, permanent color, internal tension, and changing variety may not have been as important as the simple brilliance of it."
Robert Willson (1912–2000) was a Texas artist with a lifelong passion for glass and for watercolors. With these materials, he explored color, reflection, and transparency.
A Texan in Venice documented the last 20 years of the artist’s career, a time that he considered his most creative. The exhibition, curated by Tina Oldknow, presented 37 solid glass sculptures, one blown glass footed bowl, one ceramic sculpture, six watercolor landscapes, and 21 working drawings.
A significant group of sculptures and watercolors was lent to the show by the New Orleans Museum of Art and by Willson’s widow, Margaret Pace Willson of San Antonio, Texas. Other important sculptures were lent by The Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock; The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia; the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; the San Antonio Museum of Art; and private collectors Paul and Elmerina Parkman of Washington, D.C. Mrs. Willson has also made significant gifts to the Museum of her husband’s glass sculptures, watercolors, working drawings, publications, and other archival materials.
The exhibition honored Willson for his pioneering use of glass as a sculptural medium, and for his long association with the Museum, which began with a fellowship he received in 1956. He used the funds to make his first trip to Corning, where he had a memorable meeting with one of the founders of Steuben Glass. “Frederick Carder showed me what it meant to experiment with glass in an artistic sense,” Willson wrote. “Glass has not been the same since, nor have I.”
Willson also used his Corning fellowship to make his first trip to Venice. There, he was captivated by the play of light and color on the water of the city’s numerous canals. He wanted to capture this visual effect, and he found that solid glass was the way to do it. Murano, Venice’s glassmaking island, was the only place in the world with the hands-on talent that Willson’s vision for glass sculpture required, and he made annual work visits there for nearly 40 years. On Murano, he worked with such great glassblowers as Alfredo Barbini, Pino Signoretto, and Loredano Rosin.
An important figure in the history of American studio glass, Willson was one of the few Americans working in hot glass outside industry in the 1950s, and he was the first American artist to make large-%%scale%% sculpture in glass on Murano.
The artist felt a strong affinity with tribal societies and other groups, such as ranchers, who spent most of their time outdoors. He was not interested in abstract, theoretical ideas, but in art that had social relevance. “I make a simple form with a symbolic meaning, much as primitive people do,” Willson said. He was inspired by early Greek vase painting, pre-Columbian %%stone%% sculpture, and Native American art of the Southwest. Using elements of these cultures, he created a vocabulary of symbols that he hoped would have significance for contemporary life.
The Museum is grateful to Margaret Pace Willson for her generous support of this exhibition.