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"If you had my money," said a wealthy friend of mine, "what would you collect?" He expected to hear wine or Ferraris, both of which he knows I covet. My answer surprised him. "I'd collect Lino Tagliapietra," I replied.
Unless you're a devotee of Venetian glass, you may not recognize the name. It's worth knowing, though, because Lino Tagliapietra is the art-glass genius of our time. To buy Tagliapietra's best works today is like living in seventeenth-century Holland and having access to just-created Rembrandts.
This is not just one man's enthusiasm. Accolades for Tagliapietra's works are so abundant, and effusive, that you wonder why he's not a household name. Museum shelves are filling up with colorful, fantastically shaped Tagliapietra sculptures. International awards and special showings clog his calendar.
"He's simply the greatest living glassblower," says Howard J. Lockwood, the publisher of the quarterly newsletter "Vetri: Italian Glass News," which is devoted to late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian glass.
"Fifty years from today his work will be well- known," adds Lockwood. "That's something you can't say with any assurance about almost any other well-known names in the field. He's already in most major museums."
Proof that Taglipietra's creations are in a league by themselves comes from the prices they command at auction. Although many glass artists ask for -- and sometimes get -- inflated gallery prices, their < auction action is limp. Prices drop precipitously from the gallery "gotcha!" Not Tagliapietra's work. When his pieces reach the auction floor, they usually fetch the high end of the estimate. Considering that Tagliapietra's best work dates only from the mid-1990s and he's still adding to his oeuvre, that's saying something.
So what's Lino Tagliapietra got that sets him apart? "He's taken the whole tradition of Venetian glassblowing to new heights," says William Traver of the William Traver Gallery in Seattle, one of his earliest American supporters.
Susanne K. Frantz, the former curator of twentieth-century glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, asserts that Tagliapietra's work is "the most sensational blown glass made since the 1950s."
What Tagliapietra has is unrivaled technical mastery allied to inspired design. Yet unlike, say, Picasso, his design talent flowered surprisingly late. "When he was a factory worker, he did other people's designs," explains Traver.
This anomaly is explained by the demanding technical requirements of Venetian glassblowing. Now 67, Tagliapietra (the name, ironically, means stonecutter in Italian) started his apprenticeship at age 11 in Venice's legendary glass workshops on the island of Murano. A decade later, he achieved the rank of maestro, or master. That's when you stop being a journeyman and become an artisan in your own right.
But master status is just a beginning, no matter how talented you are. Glassblowing, unlike many other forms of modern art, demands a technical proficiency that takes decades of application. The medium is unforgiving.
When heated to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, glass is invitingly plastic -- and then suddenly set for all eternity as it rapidly cools. Artists who work with glass are enthralled by its immediate gratification (no laboring for months as with metal, wood or stone) and daunted by its no-second-chances spontaneity. Glassblowing is the ultimate performance art.
It was that very opportunity to perform that transformed Tagliapietra's art. His artistic transformation began after American glass artist Dale Chihuly, one of the founders of Seattle's famed Pilchuck Glass School, solicited Tagliapietra to teach at Pilchuck.
"Actually, it was Lino's brother-in-law, who is also a glassblower, who was asked first," recalls William Traver. "He didn't enjoy America, so he suggested that Lino go the next year. Lino came and he loved the freedom.
"For our part, we're all just amazed at his technical ability. You see, Pilchuck [artists] had ideas, but not the skills. Lino had such technical mastery, he could do anything. It was the beginning, really. Lino's first show in the U.S. was in my gallery back in 1981."
What happened at Pilchuck Glass School was a classic Old-World-meets-New-World saga. Tagliapietra was the flower of an ancient, exacting system of craftsmanship that dates to the thirteenth century. Glass from the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon (all the glass furnaces were isolated on Murano to prevent fires) was famed throughout Europe. For centuries, Venetian glassblowers were among the very few who knew how to make mirrors. They perfected a thin-walled style of glass so delicate that it looks like a soap bubble made permanent. It was -- and still is -- magical.
These trade secrets were jealously guarded. In the old days the Venetian glassblowers, although extravagantly paid, were forbidden to leave Murano. Those who escaped had their relatives imprisoned. If that persuasion failed, assassins were sent after the glassblower to kill him. Inevitably, Venice's trade secrets were leaked to competing glassmaking empires in France and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).
Vestiges of Murano's cultural insularity still remain. So when Tagliapietra arrived in Seattle in 1979, he finally had the opportunity to exercise the creative side of his glassblowing skills. All things were possible -- especially in his skilled hands.
Pilchuck's freethinking inspired Tagliapietra. He established a studio in Seattle, where he makes half his sculptures. He bought an apartment there, too, where he spends roughly half the year. Tagliapietra's technical mastery has, in turn, upgraded the skills of Pilchuk's students, many of whom now proudly put on their résumés that they studied under Lino Tagliapietra.
Back home on Murano, though, Tagliapietra was seen as something akin to a traitor. "He left Italy and took their traditions with him," explains Lockwood. "He abandoned them, in a way. A lot of it was jealousy."
Only now, says Traver, has Tagliapietra established his own studio on Murano. "It's taken him a long time to arrange that," he adds, noting the resentments of Tagliapietra's colleagues on the island. "But now he's seen as the prodigal son returning."
For collectors of Tagliapietra's works, this is the golden era. "Right now he's doing some of his best works," says Traver. You'd expect a gallery owner to say that. But the same sentiment is echoed by Lockwood. "His present work is absolutely fantastic," he says.
One of the elements that make Tagliapietra so exceptional is that, unlike many art-glass sculptors, the hand of the master is attached to Tagliapietra's works. He does the glassblowing himself. Many other glass artists are simply designers. They lack Tagliapietra's technical proficiency. It's the difference between owning something Rembrandt himself painted compared to a sketched "cartoon" that students in his school painted in for him. With Tagliapietra, you get the master himself.
What are Tagliapietra's choicest works? Everyone agrees that they're those pieces that display the classic Murano glassblowing techniques, such as complex filigree patterns combined with surface cutting applied to elongated or swollen shapes. It is what makes Tagliapietra's designs so distinctive.
Not surprisingly, this comes at a price. Current Tagliapietra sculptures typically sell for between $15,000 and $45,000.
True to his Murano sensibilities, virtually everything he makes employs dazzling colors. He was, however, invited in 1998 by Steuben Glass Works to create sculptures using its clear, bright white lead crystal. These pieces have their own subtle impact, like seeing the black-and-white version of a color photograph.
Tagliapietra's works appear regularly in galleries around the United States, as well as in Europe and Japan. You can see his works in New York at the Heller Gallery; in Seattle at William Traver Gallery; in Chicago at Portia Gallery and in Pontiac, Michigan, and Boca Raton, Florida, at Habatat Galleries, among other places.
Worth visiting is the twice-a-year SOFA show (International Exhibition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art), which alternates between New York and Chicago. Tagliapietra pieces are always on display. If you get to Venice itself, Galleria Marina Barovier is the place to go.
"The overwhelming effect of these pieces on a receptive viewer can be compared to facing a meal comprised of nonstop courses, each more ravishing than the next," observes Susanne Frantz in Tagliapietra: A Venetian Glass Maestro (Vitrum, 1998). "The food is so delicious that one cannot resist eating; nevertheless, you hope that the chef will stop cooking before you die of pleasure. Tagliapietra's glass is that rich and that good."
Lockwood puts it more prosaically: "If you buy one, you're going to want more. You always end up wanting more."
Matt Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.