At the outset of the fall semester, John Stuart Gordon — the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery — prepared to lead a seminar of six students from across academic disciplines: current Culture Editor for the News Julia Carabatsos ’20, Nolan Crawford ’19, Lily Dodd ’21, Adelaide Goodyear ’18, former News Production and Design Editor Mari Melin-Corcoran ’20 and Jocelyn Wickersham ’19. Gordon, who recently published an academic work titled “American Glass: The Collections at Yale” that catalogues and historicizes Yale’s extensive holdings of glass objects, gave each of the students an index card. He then requested that the students write down what crossed their minds when they first thought about glass.
Each response differed from the next. Some students thought of functional items like drinking vessels or eyeglasses, while others considered glass’ more abstract qualities like transparency and fragility.
The art history seminar Gordon taught provided students with an opportunity to curate an exhibit for the YUAG. This exhibit — titled “A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass” — will be on view from March 29 to Sept. 29. The exhibit draws from Gordon’s research, presenting over 140 objects from Yale’s extensive glass collection in thematic displays. These displays not only represent the varying ways in which the seemingly ubiquitous medium can be used, but also seek to use the objects in order to present larger narratives about American history and creativity.
“Before we had almost anything else, we had this heading: Stories in American Glass,” Gordon said. “It was the idea of the story that seemed to capture the students. I remember having one class discussion where they focused in right on that preposition. They were adamant about the fact that the stories were in these objects. They are embodied and contained in these objects.”
Gordon attributed this cohesive focus for storytelling to a generational affinity for contextualization and interrogation. Because the nature of art collecting has changed, the exhibit would have been curated much differently in the hands of a different set of scholars, but according to Gordon, these students “made this material relevant by asking relevant questions.”
“Students today think so much about representation and why things are the way they are,” Gordon said. “Even in my generation, people just accepted the way things were. [The students provided] a contemporary way of thinking about this installation.”
Gordon’s seminar covered methods of glass production, the history of American glass and a comprehensive overview of curatorial procedures — Gordon noted that it was “amazing [the students] didn’t revolt” when presented with material to fill nearly two courses. Rather, the student curators began to apply their specialties to the class material, resulting in an exhibit that tells stories of not only American innovation and craft, but also student engagement.
The exhibit can be experienced from two directions. If one enters the exhibit from the side of the main elevator, the first object on view is an homage to Rhea Mansfield Knittle, a Midwestern glass dealer and scholar who helped Francis P. Garvan, class of 1897, amass a collection of American glass that he eventually donated to Yale beginning in 1930 along with numerous other objects.
The homage to Knittle is located within a section titled “History and Politics of Collecting.” This section of the exhibit juxtaposes an array of objects that would not usually be paired in a museum — such as historical flasks depicting celebrities as well as pre-Colombian obsidian and contemporary jewelry.
Crawford, who helped curate the history and politics section, mentioned that before this experience he “saw glass as a ubiquitous material” that he often took for granted. The ever-present nature of the material is emphasized as viewers move through the exhibit. The next sections highlight glass objects intended for the home — these objects range from sconces that flaunted a homeowner’s wealth to ornate lighting fixtures and a vase intended for celery stalks.
“Celery was a luxury item,” Gordon said. “It reminds us of pre-school snack packs today, but the fact that you could have these big stalks of whitish green with fronds on the top was luxurious. A porcelain or silver vase wouldn’t work as well, because it wouldn’t show that the stalks were minty green and fresh. This was a big object that had visual importance — this is glass for show.”
These home objects introduce another theme in the exhibit: the merging of aesthetics and function. Glass has historically been associated with acidic beverages such as milk and alcohol due to its imperviousness to these liquids. Yet the material’s aesthetic potential allowed for a sense of luxury in these objects.
This theme of functionality carries into the next section: “Glass in Science.” Gordon noted that innovation and glass have always been inextricable. The composition and resulting attributes of glass render it useful in laboratory contexts — Yale’s Department of Chemistry even maintains its own glassblowing facility.
This section of the exhibit features objects such as a Chemex coffee maker and a pressed glass serving platter that Gordon said has a doily-like aesthetic evoking “a grandmother’s attic” and may represent the most advanced glass-pressing technology of the period. Loans from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s collection also appear in this section. One of these donations is the Yale Microscope, which was acquired by Yale in 1735, rendering it the oldest surviving complex microscope from the period.
Wickersham was most enthralled by the idea of using glass for the sake of art, the topic of the next section. She noted that by the 20th century, it was no longer necessary for artisans to only construct glass objects for functional use.
Each student curator is recording a segment for an audio guide tour of the exhibit, which can be accessed via the YUAG’s mobile phone app. Wickersham’s clip will focus on a contemporary glass sculpture by Linda Benglis titled “Hitch.” Wickersham explained that Benglis made the object by pouring glass into a sand trench and looping and folding the material as it hardened.
“It’s overcoming all of these binaries, since some of the sand has made the glass coarse and rough while the rest remains shiny and smooth,” Wickersham said. “She also talks a lot about the femininity of her practice, and how the glass world has been very masculine for a long time.”
To accompany the exhibit, the YUAG will host a symposium entitled “Stories in American Glass: New Scholarship, New Perspectives” on March 28 and 29. The symposium will comprise speaking events led by art scholars. As an element of Wickersham’s current independent study with Gordon, she will present at the symposium on the state of contemporary glass scholarship.
“It’s one of those things that’s sort of entrenched in the past, people writing books about different kinds of glass and all of these specific kinds of cataloging,” Wickersham said. “But now, art history is making a move toward putting things back in context and seeing what objects say about the culture that created them.”
Still, the new direction of contemporary glass scholarship does not negate the importance of grasping the basics. The final — or first, depending on the entrance chosen by the viewer — section of the exhibit is titled “What is Glass?” This section, curated by Dodd, focuses on various production methods and helps to contextualize the rest of the exhibit. This section will include both examples of naturally-occurring glass from the Peabody and an array of touchable glass samples to give viewers a tactile understanding of the material on view.
Alexandra Ward — a fellow in the Department of American Decorative Arts who assisted with the exhibition — said that the “What is Glass?” section allowed her to reflect on the broader curatorial process.
“I sat in on the course, and a lot of it was about how things are made,” Ward said. “We moved chronologically and talked about some of the evolutions in how glass was handled, and a bit here and there about the themes. But, a lot of the class was about how it’s made, why that matters, what that tells us about glass technology. When you look at the rest of the exhibition, those are the themes that the students drew out of the information that John was teaching them.”
The student curators affirmed that working with Gordon was a highlight of the experience.
“It’s so great to work with him,” Wickersham said. “He always asks what we think when there’s a question on the table — he’s not one of those people who will give his view first and see if you agree, he genuinely values everyone’s opinion, which is such a fun way to work.”
Rianna Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org