All About Glass

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Masters of Studio Glass: Erwin Eisch

All About Glass

A special exhibition of 22 vessels and sculptures by Erwin Eisch (German, b. 1927), one of the founders of studio glass in Europe, was on view at The Corning Museum of Glass from March 15, 2012, through February 3, 2013. The exhibition recognized Eisch for his achievements in developing glass as a material for artistic expression, and it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the birth of studio glass in the United States. Objects in the exhibition spanned 40 years of Eisch’s career in glass from 1964 to 2004. All of the works presented were drawn from the Museum’s collection.

Erwin Eisch was a close friend of Harvey K. Littleton (American, b. 1922), whose career in glass was celebrated in the 2012 exhibition Founders of American Studio Glass: Harvey K. Littleton.

Erwin Eisch, Art, and Glass in the 1960s

Studio glass in Europe had a much different history from that in the United States. After World War II, many European craft traditions were integrated into industry, while American craft generally was not. European artists worked as designers in factories, and they often produced unique studio pieces in addition to their limited-edition and mass-produced designs. During the 1960s, European artists looked with interest at the new Studio Glass movement in the United States. They liked the way that Americans were so free and untraditional with glass, and they were drawn to their activity that, then, had little or no commercial value.

Erwin Eisch

Erwin Eisch studied painting, but had trained as an engraver in his family’s small glassworks in Germany. In 1962, he met the ceramist and American studio glass pioneer Harvey K. Littleton. Through their friendship, an important early link was established between European and American studio artists working in glass. With the artistic development of glass as their goal, Littleton and Eisch shaped a new future for glass with the help of the many young and dedicated artists who were their students.

Eisch was born and raised in the Bavarian town of Frauenau, with his father, Valentin Eisch, his mother, Therese Hirtreiter Eisch, and his five siblings. Like his friend Littleton, Eisch grew up surrounded by glass. His father was employed as a master engraver at the glass factory of Isidor Gistl in Frauenau. From 1946 to 1948, Eisch apprenticed with his father, learning glass cutting and engraving while studying at the well-known Glasfachschule (glassmaking school) in the nearby town of Zwiesel. In 1949, he completed his course at Zwiesel, and he enrolled in the Academie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Munich, where he studied industrial design, painting, sculpture, and glass. Taking a break from his studies in 1952, Eisch returned to Frauenau to help his father and brothers start up a glassworks of their own, the Glashütte Valentin Eisch.

Glashütte Valentin Eisch, Frauenau

Eisch resumed his studies in Munich in 1956. He remembers this as “the time of abstract art, Art Informel, of Jackson Pollock’s action painting.” Ever the rebel, Eisch gravitated in his art toward social criticism and anti-art-establishment actions, creating provocative paintings, sculpture and installations. At an exhibition in 1961, a critic commented that his work was “a rebellion against good form ... going against the coolness and soberness of our times,” noting that Eisch’s paintings expressed “a sense of humor.” Eisch remembers that the gallery manager begged him not to create a brawl with the contentious statements that he posted on the walls. “‘Don’t let yourself be compromised by a thing’s purpose or function,’ was one of my statements,” Eisch remembers. “I would say exactly the same thing today.”

In 1962, Eisch married the sculptor Margarete (Gretel) Stadler and they moved to Frauenau. There, while raising a family, Eisch and his wife, who had studied with him in Munich, made glass objects at the family’s glassworks with expressionistic forms and non-traditional engraved and enameled decoration. Throughout Eisch’s career, Gretel Eisch has been an important supporter and an active and influential artistic partner.

Erwin Eisch and Harvey K. Littleton

Harvey Littleton and Erwin Eisch

In August of 1962, Harvey Littleton and his wife, Bess, were in Germany as part of a larger European tour focused on researching glass and glassmaking. A visit to the well known glass school in Zwiesel was a key destination, and in town, Littleton happened to see a “squashed” vase made by the “artist and glassblower” Erwin Eisch. Inquiring as to where he could see more of Eisch’s work, Littleton was directed to the Valentin Eisch glassworks in Frauenau.

In Frauenau, Littleton met Eisch and his wife, and although Eisch spoke limited English and Littleton limited German, they formed the beginning of a friendship that would last a lifetime. It was a memorable meeting. On seeing a room full of Eisch’s work, Littleton remembers that it was like “being hit over the head with a hammer.” Many years later, Littleton recalled, “I saw [Eisch’s] work and I realized that he was doing what I wanted to do—play with the glass, make forms that had no other reason for being than that he wanted to make them. Function was something to be used or not used. Totally free. . . .I knew I had met someone of great importance to what I wanted to do. I had met Jean Sala in 1957, and Paolo Venini in 1959, but neither really understood.” Eisch’s observation on their serendipitous meeting was “it is astonishing how the wind acts, and the spirit wafts ... You can call it coincidence if you want to, but I believe that there are mysterious forces (of the spiritual kind) which spin and weave their connecting threads, bringing together what is meant to be.”

Eight Heads of Harvey Littleton - Erwin Eisch

Some months after his visit to Frauenau, Littleton wrote an article on Eisch for Craft Horizons (now American Craft). “His forms, which embody the drama of the blowing process, reveal the gusto and directness of Eisch’s handling,” Littleton wrote. “Eisch ... feels that art, the creation of form, must involve the whole body, not just the intellect. . . . Unfortunately, so many have lost the feeling for the whole form in the course of industrialization ... The artist must hold and feel the moving form in the hot glass.” Littleton and Eisch became close friends and colleagues, with Eisch playing a role in European studio glass similar to Littleton’s in American glass. Both men encouraged young artists to take up the material, and to use it and develop it as a medium for art. A featured work in the exhibition is Eisch’s portrait of Harvey Littleton, which he made in 1976. Titled Eight Heads of Harvey Littleton [76.3.32], the portrait consists of eight mold-blown and painted glass heads with different attributes and characteristics.

In 1964, Eisch met Littleton again at the World Craft Council conference in New York City. Afterward, Littleton took the Dutch glassblower Sybren Valkema and Eisch to Corning. That was Eisch’s first visit to The Corning Museum of Glass, where he met the Museum’s director, Tom Buechner. Eisch would not get to know Buechner well until 1982, when they met again at Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, where Eisch was teaching painting on glass and Buechner was an artist in residence. They, too, formed a lasting and influential friendship, and Eisch’s portrait of Buechner, made in 2004, was the most recent work in the exhibition.

Hand - Erwin Eisch

After Corning, Littleton and Eisch continued on to Madison, Wisconsin, where Eisch taught the first of many workshops in the United States. In addition to the glassmaking equipment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Littleton had a furnace on his farm in Verona. “There, in the barn, which recently had been home to 27 cows, stood a small furnace, several annealing ovens, and tools and machines of all kinds,” Eisch remembers. “This was all very new for me. I was totally abashed and completely speechless ...This is ... how things were in the early 1960s. How small and insignificant everything seemed when it started. The first burner in Harvey’s furnace, for example, couldn’t heat any higher than 1000 degrees C. So, we added more soda and lime to soften the batch, which caused the pieces to devitrify a few weeks later.”

After his return from the United States in 1965, Eisch built a studio furnace in the basement of the family’s glass factory. There was, “a constant lively exchange,” Eisch notes. “Many glass artists from all over the world came and worked in Frauenau.” In 1988, Eisch continued to attract artists to Frauenau with the establishment of a summer art program, Bild-Werk, that focuses on instruction in painting and artistic glassmaking.

The World According to Erwin Eisch

For American and European artists, Eisch’s philosophies about making art and what it means to be human have held as much meaning as his artworks. Eisch’s speaking was—and still is—inspirational, and the way in which he made and executed glass was exciting. His ideas resonated with the humanistic ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, just as they do today in the context of New Age-influenced thinking.

Buddha's Inner Smile - Erwin Eisch

At the 2001 Glass Art Society Conference in Corning, Eisch spoke about his life in glass and in art and the importance of mindful experience. “We have to leave the realm of commodities and objects and compulsory behavior, and return to the essential quality of life,” he said. “We have to learn to see again, to catch on, to grasp ... Knowledge and education have flooded us with light, but at the same time, our shadows and darkness have been taken away, our mysteries and myths banished.”

In speaking on art, Eisch emphasizes the humanistic and intuitive nature of creation. “The reason for any kind of artistic activity is deep and chaotic: it is a force coming from the soul ... The past cannot help us, nor can what we have known until now, which is a necessary practice in the sciences. There is no such thing as progress in the arts—it is based on individuality and uniqueness and rooted in the intuition, in the perceptive mind ... We have to oppose a technologically perfect world with our imperfection. We have to try to bend the straight and expanding road of technological progress and make it round.”

And on the subject of glass, Eisch characteristically promotes an individualistic non-conformity. “Glass art cannot regress to the 1920s, to the time of functionalists and perfectionists like Adolf Loos, to the anachronism of a technical, perfect glass and material fetishism. Studio glass has to reflect the individual. It must pertain to the unique and whole human being.”

Exhibition Objects

The Museum’s exhibition featured objects by Erwin Eisch that span 40 years of his career in glass, from 1964 to 2004. Now in his mid-80s, Eisch is still active in the studio and in participating in the Eisch family’s summer art program, Bild-Werk, in Frauenau.

The earliest objects in the exhibition dated from 1964, and represented the kind of popular pieces that Eisch designed for the Glashütte Valentin Eisch. A bottle with enameled decoration [64.3.29], by Gretel Eisch, depicts religious scenes from the stories of St. George and the Dragon and the Flight into Egypt. A tiny cup [64.3.31], covered with prunts, evokes the long heritage of glassworking in the Bavarian forest. These are not just commercial or tourist products, but personal and recognizable as Eisch; they could have only been made by him. A drinking glass [89.4.74], dated 1968, is a memento of Eisch’s trip to the States to see Harvey Littleton again and to teach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is made from the #475 Johns Manville glass marbles that were in common use by American studio glass artists at the time.

Eisch’s expressionistic and gestural sculptures from the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of which are untitled, are personal works that explore the body and its parts. There is the tall Hand [98.3.11], symbol of creation and humanity, that is ambitiously large in scale. Other sculptures [98.3.9 and 98.3.10] reveal Eisch’s ongoing interest in the erotic with their phallic protrusions and breast-shaped ornament. A gold telephone [76.3.3], misshapen and cartoonish, exhibits Eisch’s sense of humor, but it also illustrates his complex relationship with glass. For him, colorless transparent glass is ultimately undesirable.

Telefon - Erwin Eisch

For American artists, one of the most influential aspects of Eisch’s work in glass was that its dark colors and opaque decoration intentionally denied the qualities of glass that were traditionally its most prized. Eisch felt free to treat the glass any way that he wanted, and to completely disregard function in the service of poetry. For centuries, glass has mimicked rock crystal for its purity, and other precious and semi-precious stones for their luxury and desirability. The most distinctive—and magical—aspects of glass are its transparency and its ability to manipulate light. This is not what interests Eisch, however, who favors mystery, exploration, uncovering, and emotional depth. For him, transparency negates all these things: it is shallow, easy beauty. Eisch prefers that beauty be challenging, that “perfect” glass be rendered imperfect, so that it reflects the totality of experience.

A group of objects made in the 1980s demonstrates Eisch’s ongoing concern with imperfect forms and impenetrable surfaces. The “Poetry in Glass” bottle [81.3.39], the black, pod-shaped bowl [2008.3.6], and the vases adorned with vegetal decoration [81.3.42] and tadpole [82.3.57] document Eisch’s attraction to the natural world. The bottle Spirits: Hobby Horse [80.3.60] is more symbolic, as is Finger's Studies [82.3.84], with its optimistic slogan, “Hope is a rope.” The colorless bottle with gilt decoration, titled To The Big Corning Day/May 29th 1980 [80.3.18] refers to a day important in the history of the Corning Museum. This was the day that the new building, designed by architect Gunnar Birkerts and housing the glass collections, opened to the public. One anomaly in this group is Lethe [80.3.61], a colorless vessel with engraved decoration. Here, Eisch uses transparency as he understands it, which is as blankness and nothingness. In Greek mythology, Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in the Underworld, and she is also the spirit of oblivion.

The centerpiece of the exhibition was Eisch’s monumental portrait, Eight Heads of Harvey Littleton [76.3.32], which he made in 1976. In each head, a different facet of Littleton’s personality is explored. We see Littleton as a gentleman, a poet, a teacher, a man of Frauenau, and a worker. We see him with a headache, or fragile, and most typical for Eisch, we see his spirit.

Littleton’s portrait debuted in 1976 at the special exhibition “Modern Glass from America, Europe and Japan,” organized by the Museum für Kunsthandwerk in Frankfurt. Littleton was one of twelve American artists in the show, and he attended the opening. Littleton remembers, “Erwin and Gretel were lying in wait for me when I came in, and that’s when I was faced with the Eight Heads of Harvey Littleton. I was very pleased and flattered by the whole process—that they cared enough to do that. And the titles were very interesting: Harvey Littleton the Teacher ... the Poet ... and so on.” In support of the artists’ shared beliefs, Harvey Littleton the Teacher is depicted with a speech bubble bearing the words of Littleton’s controversial and well-known statement, “Technique is cheap.”

As would become standard practice for them, Gretel Eisch modeled the head in clay and Eisch made the mold, blew the glass forms, and painted them in enamels. Tom Buechner, who also was at the Frankfurt opening, immediately purchased the Littleton portrait heads for The Corning Museum of Glass.

Self-Portrait - Erwin Eisch

Following this homage to Littleton, portrait heads emerged as a predominant theme in Eisch’s sculpture, which included numerous self-portraits and portraits of personalities influential to him, such as the Buddha and Pablo Picasso. In 1985, Eisch remarked, “The portrait itself, the reproduction should no longer be considered an art form in our photograph and television-infested era ... my concern is not the reproduction but rather insight and the search for internal structures. The portrait is simply a sort of hanger.” 

Apart from the well known portrait of Harvey Littleton, the exhibition included a 1982 portrait of the Buddha, titled Buddha's Inner Smile [82.3.47], a mostly colorless self portrait from 1997, titled Self-Portrait from the Outside [2000.3.59], and a vivid self-portrait made in 2002 [2008.3.27]. Covered in yellow enamel and bearing the figurative elements commonly seen in Eisch’s painting, this is an emotional portrait “from the inside.”

The most recent sculpture in the exhibition was Tom Buechner: Inward Gaze [2008.3.28], which was made in 2004. It is engraved with what might be Eisch’s greatest compliment, “Open Mind.”

Eisch’s work in glass exhibits a strong expressionistic quality that links it to German Expressionism; it also contains elements of folk culture, a darkness and obscurity reminiscent of Art Informel, and an interest in cartoonish humor and exaggeration typical of Pop and Funk. Cognizant of all of these movements and styles, Eisch developed a unique approach to, and philosophy of, making that is individualistic, humanistic, and iconoclastic. Working with glass in a manner out of the bounds of traditional craft, he found a means to engage with the issues of contemporary art.

Published on January 24, 2012