Meet The Artist: Marvin Lipofsky

Corning Museum of Glass, July 25, 2007

Welcome. You’re listening to a “Meet the Artist” podcast from the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning NY, the world’s largest museum devoted to the history and art of glass.

This “Meet the Artist” podcast series features interviews with living artists who work in glass. Today, artist and teacher Marvin Lipofsky talks with the Corning Museum’s Curator of Modern Glass, Tina Oldknow.

TINA: Hello. I’m Tina Oldknow, the Museum’s curator of modern glass. I welcome you to our series of conversations with artists who have made a significant impact on contemporary glass in America and abroad. Today, I will be speaking with Marvin Lipofsky, who is one of the pioneers of the American Studio Glass movement.

Marvin, thanks for joining us today. Because you were one of a small group of artists who was responsible, really, for creating the studio glass phenomenon, I wanted to ask you about your early career.

You graduated with a B.F.A in Industrial Design from the University of Illinois, and then when you went to the University of Madison at Wisconsin in 1962 to study clay and metal. Your first ceramics class at Madison was with Harvey Littleton, ceramist turned glassmaker, who invited you and the other students to blow glass. Can you tell me a little about that, and what your first impressions of glass were?

MARVIN: Well, yes. Maybe I should just tell the whole story: I spent five years at the University of Illinois, and I was in the Industrial Design department. My interests in art were always three-dimensional, and they didn’t have a major in sculpture at that time, so industrial design seemed a profession… a natural… something that I could do. While I was there, I took all the sculpture classes that they offered. So… but then, towards the end of my undergraduate days, I realized I wasn’t going to be an industrial designer, but I appreciated the education that I had and the training in that department. This was at a time when there was a draft, and I thought that maybe to avoid military service I would teach. I understood that if you could… if you were a high school teacher, you didn’t have to join the military. Although I had two years of R.O.T.C. training, one of my professors recommended… in the Art Education department… that I look at the University of Wisconsin. He saw my frustration with what I wanted to do and thought that maybe that because of all my interests that I would feel comfortable in graduate school in Madison. I took one ceramics class, actually from David Shaner, who was really a potter’s potter, and I fell in love with clay. I liked it quite a bit, and I thought that maybe I would do graduate work in clay…

TINA: Marvin, was David Shaner at Illinois or Wisconsin?

MARVIN: He was at Illinois.

TINA: Uh huh.

MARVIN: Clay just felt good to me, so I decided that I wanted to make ceramic sculpture, not knowing that it wasn’t really very prominent in the midwest. I, as an undergraduate, went up to the... from Champaign-Urabana, I went up to Chicago and saw an exhibit of sculpture at the Art Institute, and there I saw two sculptures, which I didn’t know the people at all, but I thought, that’s what I was trying to do, but on a much smaller scale. And that was Peter Voulkos and John Mason.

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: So my… my claim… the first ideas in clay were somewhat… just beating the clay up and hand-building things, and so forth. And that’s what brought me to the University of Wisconsin and my interest in sculpture, more than anything else. So, actually the first class I had in graduate school was ceramics, and I happened to be the last student to walk into the classroom, and there was a little guy surrounded by about six or seven students talking, standing in the middle of the ceramics studio, and as soon as I walked in, he said, “Who are you?” and before I could even say anything, he said, “Are you married?” And I couldn’t… didn’t say anything else, and he went on to lecture his students in… mainly the female students… that if they learned to make good soup like his wife did… they could find a husband in the University.

TINA: That sounds just like Harvey!

MARVIN: That was my first introduction to Harvey Littleton. Then after he gave his talk, he asked me, “Do you want to blow glass?” And I said, “Well, I’ve never heard of it.” And he was just organizing, at that moment, his ceramics students to blow glass for the very first time in the University system. At that time, Harvey had a small studio that he built out at his farm… he lived in a farm at the… outside of Madison. And the students would come out one day a week and work on their own… during the week at his farm, and that was the first class. Now, because I was interested in sculpture and so forth, I didn’t register for the very first class, but I went out there several times with one of the other students, Tom Malone, who was the assistant in the studio, and I blew glass with him. In the second semester I officially registered in the class. By that time, we had obtained a building on the campus, on the edge of the campus, where we built our first furnace, and the students then had their own studio.

TINA: And what did you think about glass when you first started working with it, as opposed to clay?

MARVIN: I had no real… it was interesting, but I didn’t have a major interest in it. Number one, we weren’t able to do very much. It would be almost embarrassing to show the first product that we made. And I remember being in the studio when the students opened up the annealing oven for the… after the first time they worked with glass, and they all started to argue with each other… who made what, because they couldn’t tell the difference. Everything looked alike.

TINA:Well, what kind of things were they making?

MARVIN: Uh…

TINA: Just cups?

MARVIN: Shameless to say, they looked like little turds in the bottom of the oven. There wasn’t any form. They barely could blow a bubble or make a little vase or something like that. But it just kept progressing until… what it is today, which is just phenomenal. But those first few pieces that were blown were like mostly paperweights and little blobs of glass. You could just barely hold the glass at the end of the pipe. Now, Harvey, who was teaching us, really never was a very good glass blower himself.

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: He made glass, and he blew glass, but that really wasn’t his expertise. He just pushed the glass around. So, he didn’t have a great deal to teach us. We were just a couple steps behind him when we were learning, and mostly taught ourselves with his direction and his guidance to, how to do it. So, today when you see the people and… the people around the shop in Corning and so forth, and they’re making these fantastic goblets… and very skilled, and technically a very… We had no concept about that. That was way beyond our means at the beginning.

TINA:In the early days, I’m assuming it was kind of frustrating, or was it? I mean, was it frustrating not being able to work the material? Were you looking at historical glass, and wondering how it was made? I mean, I know that you eventually decided you needed to bring someone in who did know how to blow glass, to teach people, and you brought, I believe, Gianni Toso.

MARVIN: Well, as a student, Harvey used a couple books to guide us. Actually, there were three points: one was the… Maurice Marinot’s book…

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: …and he had some pieces from Erwin Eisch, and Eisch was a visitor that very first… in 1964, they had a workshop after the First World Congress of Craftsmen at Columbia University in New York.

TINA: Right.

MARVIN:People came out to Madison to work with glass, and Eisch knew how to blow glass. So, that was the very first real glassblower that we witnessed. Before that we just… we looked at Eisch’s work. Harvey had a few pieces of glass in his home, one from Leerdam…

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: There were a couple pieces from the Leerdam factory in Holland, and I… and pieces from Erwin Eisch, and we learned a little bit from that and the techniques and how to do it. Now, glass wasn’t primary at that time for anyone because we were all majoring and doing work in other things, so my early work was in sculpture, and glass was just a curiosity at the most those first couple of years.

TINA:Well, at one point you kind of switched over to glass, you actually felt that glass was no longer a curiosity for you, that you felt you really wanted to, kind of explore it as a sculptural material.

MARVIN: Well, when I look back at the pieces we made in those years in the 60’s… the early 60’s, there was a naiveté. There was a rawness to the materials, and basically most of us just followed what Harvey had done, but on a… doing our own way… working with glass. It wasn’t really until I accepted a job at the University of California in Berkeley…

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: …in 1964, and built up the studio at the school that I really had an opportunity to explore the material.

TINA: And did…

MARVIN: I worked as much as possible on the weekends, and giving demonstrations, and so forth to the students, that I was able to, kind of start learning about glass. I was very dedicated to working with it, because I was hired to start a glass program, and so therefore I put all my energy into it.

TINA: That’s what I was wondering. I was wondering if you had gone to Berkeley specifically to start a glass program, or whether you were involved with the ceramics department…

MARVIN: No. Actually how I got my job was… I was usually the first person to arrive in the ceram… in the studio in the morning, and Harvey was an early riser, and I walked into his office. He was reading some mail, and he was reading this letter, and he turned to me and said, “Here’s your job, boy,” (this was my last year) and I read the letter. It was from Ed Gloughsbach from the University of California at Berkeley, inviting Harvey to come out there and do a glass workshop. Meanwhile, Harvey was becoming the chairman of the art department in Madison, so he was… had no interest in doing that, but I wrote to the University saying that I was interested in continuing in higher education and welcomed the challenge to do… develop glass, and so forth, and they hired me to start teaching. I actually signed my contract when I was at the First World Congress of Craftsmen in New York.

TINA: One of the things I wanted to ask you about, in terms of your teaching style, I read a quote in your book, the catalogue of the retrospective show you had at the Oakland Museum a few years ago, and you said, “My style was confrontational in some respects. I wanted to confront the students not only with problems, but with ideas. I filled the walls of the studio with information I had gathered, and anyone could have walked in and discovered what we knew by just reading the wall. I prided myself that we didn’t keep secrets.” What do you mean by that? That “you prided yourself that you didn’t keep secrets”? And what kinds of things did you have on the wall?

MARVIN: Well, most of us who taught had glass, or so forth. We were one-person departments or one-person… there weren’t many people there. So, I had to do everything myself, and my interest was to impart information to the students. So, every time I found some information, we did pamphlets. People came, and we documented those, and then we would staple those up on the wall for people. Gianni Toso or Howard Ben Tré or whoever, whatever it was, and we documented that with little papers, and the students made all of those, with drawings and so forth. So, whenever anybody would ask a question, I would just tell them to read the walls! The information was there. Sometimes I had to point it out to them, but I mean, that was the information. So, I thought it was a great way of sharing with people. In the earlier years, we had lots of visitors come because there weren’t too many glass programs, and the other people from other glass programs came too, to visit, and being California, it was a nice place to visit. So, I just started putting all these papers up on the wall, posters of shows and information, and that just became “reading the walls.” I always confronted the students… to challenge them to work. I would challenge the students that were here to learn that I wasn’t here to teach them… that now is a time for them to learn.

TINA: One of the things I liked about the wall that you’re talking about… all the information was there, and I think that’s another thing that distinguished studio glass in the early days, was that everyone shared whatever information they had. This was completely opposite to what industry does. What were the first pieces you made in glass that you felt really… that you felt excited about… that you felt were really getting somewhere you wanted to go?

MARVIN: Oh, that’s hard. The… after we got… I got the equipment going, and so forth… and this was the first equipment I personally built… I just jumped into making things, and exploring, and experimenting. So, we just tried everything. We had heard… I’ll just give you some examples… I heard that if you puff some oil into a bubble in the glass, it would coat the inside of the bubble. So, I tried that quite a bit. I went to a… they had a ceramics supplier in Berkeley. I went to the ceramics supplier… ceramics store, and there they said, “Here, try some of these decals…” he said, “See if you can fire them on the glass,” and I tried that, and just one thing after another. It was… California was so free, and there were so much… open. We tried a lot of fuming with metallic salts and things like that, tried just all kinds of experiments just to see what it was. If I saw a picture of something in a history book, then we wanted to experiment with it. Unfortunately, the skills that we had very early in the 60’s didn’t allow us to do fancy Venetian style wineglasses, but that probably was just as good because we pushed the glass in other directions, and we weren’t bound by techniques. It was a pretty free and open situation, and politics had a lot to do with it, too. I became a little involved in politics when I was a student at Madison, and by the time I got to Berkeley, it was just… it was all politics, and the student movement had just started, and the free-speech movement was going on, so that had a lot to do with what we were thinking about, and sometimes put a little of that into the glass. But one major point was Ida Fran… a student who was in architecture, and he was… did a little bit of glass, but mostly was teaching in the architectural department, he said, “Let’s go out and see the Oakland Hot Rod and Roaster show in the Oakland Coliseum.” I never had much to do with hot rods or roadsters, but I went along with him, and it was just fantastic to see all these painted cars, and reshaped cars, and so forth.

TINA: Oh.

MARVIN: And when I was there, there was a display about flocking…

TINA: Oh. Uh huh.

MARVIN: …and there was a car… there was an old “Woody” station wagon, the kind that the surfers used to use, and they had flocked the whole car, and they called it a “fuzz wagon”. So I said, “Look, could you do this on glass?” And they said, “Well, probably,” and found out some addresses where to buy the supplies, and so forth, and I started flocking the glass, and that’s where … the “California Loops” series came into play.

TINA: Well, I love the “California Loops”, and it’s funny, when I talk about them and talk about the flocking that you use… in the East, for example, people don’t know that, you know… in California at that time, you could get Christmas trees that were all bright orange and bright yellow and black and, kind of… all different colors of flocking, and so this was something that, you know… was available, and that you saw, as opposed to, maybe, in the East, where people never even saw stuff like that. So, I think that’s important to just bring out, you know… even going to something like that hot rod show in Oakland, that was really more of a West Coast phenomenon.

MARVIN: Well, it… that opened my eyes to a lot of things that other people had known about, but I hadn’t much knowledge, and it was the painting of the cars…

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: …the silver flakes, the paint and so forth. Now, kids who were students had grown up in California and seen a lot of that, and… but I wasn’t aware of it, and I started to use these paints on my glass, and using the flocking on my glass, and that carried over as the students down at San Jose State University started using things like that. David Hopper was doing a lot of work with that too as a student, and so we were all pushing… One reason I went in that direction, was that we didn’t know how to mix colors…

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: I should really say, “I didn’t.” I wasn’t a chemistry person, and we didn’t have many colors to use in the glass, so we tried to introduce color other ways, and that flocking… using the flocking on the glass, just opened up all kinds of color possibilities. The second thing is, I had a student, an older student who taught electrical engineering, who wanted to blow glass with me, and talked to me about electroplating, he had made a little electroplater and was plating on plastic, and said… I said, “Well, maybe you could do it on glass too.” I said, “Well, let’s try it.” And he brought his little tank into the studio, and we fooled around with it and started plating… copper plating on the glass with conductive paints so that it would conduct the electricity, and the copper would be deposited on the glass. So, I did a lot of work with that, and some of the sculptors were working with that in California, and eventually I had a tank with… a copper sulfate tank with about 300 gallons to…

TINA: Wow.

MARVIN: And so it was quite a wild experience.

TINA: Well, now, you know… I was looking through some old catalogues the other day, and I love the early catalogues, the Toledo Glass National Exhibitions, which I believe were in, like ‘68 or ’67, ‘69 and ‘70, right around late 60’s/early 70’s, and, you know… in the 1970 exhibition, you had the “California Loops” arranged in an installation, it really was an installation, not a…

MARVIN: Right.

TINA: …and you combined them with, you know… with silkscreen, plastic and canvas and vinyl, and I, you know… when you think about contemporary glass today and people still talking about, you know… mixing media, and it’s still pretty rare, I just find that to be so important, and also important in terms of glass from the very beginning, encouraging this kind of mixing and different forms of presentation. But, you know… I guess I was kind of wondering what, kind of inspired you to mix materials like that? Was it, again, just because the glass was limiting at that point?

MARVIN: Well, yeah, that’s very true. Let me go back a little ways: the “California Loops” series came about because at that time, people who were making glass, not necessarily my students or the people around me, but the people at other places… I used to say that they made vases that could sit on your yacht and not tip over in a hurricane. They were all big blobby things… big heavy bases… and I wanted to get the glass up off the table, up off the pedestal, and so I made them… I worked with the negative space in making the sculpture. So, that’s why the “Loops” came into being, and why the glass just barely touched the… was barely grounded. It just sat on small points of contact.

TINA:I’m so glad you told me that because we have often at the Museum wondered why your sculptures, the “California Loops” are so… have a very, kind of tentative connection to their… the ground, you know… to the base.

MARVIN: It’s the truth, and I could name names of the people I saw that said, “I’m not going to make anything like that. I’m gonna lift it up off the pedestal and look at the negative spaces, and make things light.” And I thought they were more… sexier, more sensual. It was not this heavy-handed, clubby way of making things, and that’s really how it developed. Also, with the “Loops”, is exactly what the glass would do if you had a lump of glass on the end of a pipe, and it was warm and you swung it, or spun it; it would tend to elongate, and if you were careful, you could manipulate that elongation into curves and sensual angles, and so forth, and that’s really what was inspirational in trying to do that. All the things I’ve done with glass is what glass does naturally.

TINA: If you had, for example, been making sculpture out of clay, it might look actually quite different, because clay is a completely different kind of material.

MARVIN: Yeah. Right. Clay was completely different. How I started out with clay, is that I just started to hand-build things, and I found a group of wooden forms, like paddles and clubs, and so forth. I started to beat the clay to make impressions in the surface and to just scar the surface of the clay, and that’s really what the… my clay was… trying to build up tall pieces. At that time, when I was doing ceramics, we had a kiln that you could… that was about three feet tall, so you couldn’t put anything bigger than that in there in one piece. Also, that kiln had a little space between the shelves and the door that shut with a peephole. That space was about six or eight inches deep, and every time there was a firing, nothing was in that space. Now, space was quite precious when I was a student, and I was making great big ugly things and everybody was upset with me, that if I wanted to put my work in the kiln, they didn’t have any space for their little vases and bowls and what-have-you, and so I was, you know… they were really quite upset because I took up so much space. So, they asked me, you know, not to fire so much, even though I was a grad student, I kinda had to refrain, but I used… I said, “There’s a space in front of the kiln.” So, I made big slabs that turned out to be tombstones… and this is the start of the politics also… where I could fill the space in front of the kiln. I could have it every time they fired. I would have a piece in there, and it wouldn’t bother anybody.

TINA: Mm hmm.That is great.

MARVIN: And then I started making little figures, heads, and things like that, and I don’t know… some just funny little things… I would place in the curves of the pots, because there were spaces between the curve of the pot to the next pot, and so I made something that fit into that space, which nobody claimed and nobody was angry with me. So, I got a lot of work in the fire all the time.

TINA: So, basically you were using those negative spaces that you liked so much.

MARVIN: Maybe that’s where the negative space started. Also, because the clay was soft, and you could push it around, and I started to… some of the students were writing in haiku and poetry. I started putting poetry and stuff on those tombstones, and then some political things and things I felt were important to say.

TINA: Now, with the glass… when you started really working with it full time, developing the “California Loops”, was there other artists’ work that you were looking at, at that time that, kind of inspired you to do that? Did you look at historical glass beyond, kind of trying to use it as a way to figure out how to do different techniques? What was the milieu, kind of? What were the things you were looking at?

MARVIN: Well, I think most of my work – I say most, but not all – I did look at other artists, and of course I was growing up in the time of the abstract expressionists.

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: And I looked at [Willem] de Kooning. Franz Kline was a… and [Robert] Motherwell, they were very important, and the big bold strokes and de Kooning’s painting styles. Pete Voulkos and John Mason and the California clay people were influences on me also. But I was totally going on the abstract side of things. Even though I came to California… with the figurative painters in California and the Bay Area figurative scene, that didn’t impress me. I wasn’t too interested in it, except the way they painted and applied paint and color to their canvases. Most of my work...

TINA: Uh huh.

MARVIN: …came out of either factory techniques, factory ways of working, or just working the glass. Not so much from other artists. But it was easier in California to be influenced a little bit about what was going on around me, but that was indirectly. When I started working in factories, it was just really taking the ability… what the factory did and turning it into my own aesthetic. So, I realized shortly that all the factories used molds. They would blow into molds…

TINA: Mm hmm.

MARVIN: They would blow the same vase over and over again, or the same shape, and I took those molds and tried to readapt them to another shape, and used the molds to blow into, but make my own shape out of that mold. I knew the workers were able to do that, and that’s what they did all day long. So, I was able to work in the factories fairly easily, even though what I was making was a little bit strange to them… the shapes and so forth that I produced wasn’t anything like what the factory did. But they understood how to blow a form into a mold, and then I adapted the molds by carving my own molds and making my own shapes and adapting things like that. One of the first experiences there was in Finland, where I was outside the Nuutajärvi factory and found a big pile of scraps. They had thrown old molds away, and I took all these old broken molds and brought them back into the factory and reassembled them, and everybody was a little bit… wondering what I was doing, and then we started blowing into these shapes. I made new shapes, something that I was interested in.

TINA: That’s actually really fascinating, and I want to know more about your, kind of experiences in factories.I know that you worked in Venini in the early 70’s.

MARVIN: Right.

TINA: And then, most recently in the 90’s, after the fall of communism, you’ve been working in the Czech Republic at Nový Bor, and, you know… it’s so interesting for me to hear how you refashioned those, you know… Finland has a great tradition of using wood molds, but what about someplace like Venini? What kinds of things did you discover there?

MARVIN: Well, how I got to Venini was at the… invited… I think there were only a couple of us from the States… to a seminar… a glass seminar in Sweden, in Vaxjö, Sweden, and there I met a gentleman by the name of Santillana.

TINA: Ludavica de le Santaliana.

MARVIN: …who was the Director of the Venini factory.

TINA: Right.

MARVIN: …and I remember him coming up to me and saying, you know… “Hey Lipofsky, all your friends have been to Venini, why don’t you come and visit us too?”

TINA: Well, that’s because Chihuly and Dick Marquis had been, I believe, and also…

MARVIN: Yeah.

TINA: Dan Daley? Had he gone yet? Or… Ben Moore perhaps?

MARVIN: No, no, no. They hadn’t gone yet. This was some of the other people who had been there like Jamie Carpenter…

TINA : Right.

MARVIN: And I said, “Well, yeah. I’d love to.” And so the first opportunity I had, I said, “Well, I can come this summer.” And he just said, you know… “Go ahead. In the afternoon, just come on into the factory.” It was sort of at the end of the workday, and they gave me a guide, one of the assistants, to help and I started to work with this assistant, and I took them there. I took the molds, they had steel molds, they didn’t use many wooden molds, and took the cane that was available, and started to develop that first work, which I… which the Museum has two pieces from that…

TINA: Right. The “Stripes”. Those are great forms, and they are kind of, for blown sculptural forms, really quite unique. You really had a very different kind of way, kind of direction that you were taking with those forms. Well, we also have a piece that you did in the last decade that you made in the Czech Republic. What kinds of things did you learn in the Czech Republic, and how was it working there?

MARVIN: Well, I had met the Libenskys. I had invited them to come to the States, and at that time, with the communist era, it was very difficult to get people to come out, and actually to get them out of the country, and so forth… and of course it was a kind gesture. Stanislav said, “Why don’t you come and work in Czechoslovakia like you’ve done other places, and then the next year I wrote him, and I said, “I can come,” and I’m sure that had set him back a little bit, because it was just, kind of a friendly gesture. He didn’t really think that I was gonna. So, I went there in the summer of ’84, I think it was, if I’m not mistaken, and I went and worked in the factory in Nový Bor.

TINA:I think that you, more than many American artists, have really always been conscious of Europe and Japan, especially, you know… places where there is a lot of glass going on. Throughout your entire career, you’ve been photographing work and artists, you know… kind of, all over the world, and that was a really important thing that you did to really… and again, right from the very beginning, establishing studio glass as a global activity, and being very, very involved... Thinking about teaching and thinking about your studio and your own practice, has there been anything, that surprised you about, kind of the way your career has evolved? Or what, maybe you didn’t expect?

MARVIN: Well I never expected anything.

TINA: Uh huh.

MARVIN:Everything that I’ve done, as far as glass, had all been just by accident. I didn’t expect to go to the University of Wisconsin for graduate work, and be involved blowing glass. I never thought before I went to graduate school, that I would be teaching at the University of California in blowing glass. So, that was just beyond comprehension. Visiting and working in the Soviet Union, and working in Russia, working in China. Those things just never were in my mind; I had no idea. So, it’s all this pleasant discovery; these little accidents that just happened along the way. Sort of in glass too, like the work with the accidents of the glass, the happy accidents, the… not necessarily mistakes, but the uncharted possibilities that… what glass can do, and to take advantage of those shapes and those forms, and what happens with glass.

TINA: Well Marvin, it’s been a great, great opportunity to talk to you, and thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. It’s been… it’s really been a pleasure. Thanks so much.