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Corning Museum now home to eclectic glass art collection

Post Time:Jul 27,2009Classify:Industry NewsView:351

A 95-year-old railroad magnate just shipped his most fragile cargo to a new home: Corning Museum of Glass.

Ben Heineman's sumptuous collection of contemporary glass art is in residence until Jan. 3. Best of all, these glittering guests will stay for dinner.

Heineman and his wife for the last 75 years, Natalie, have donated all 240 pieces formerly displayed in their Chicago apartment. Next year, the museum will spread these works throughout its permanent collections.

This is the largest single gift of modern glass ever donated to a museum, Corning officials believe.

"Overnight, our collection has become 500 percent better," says Tina Oldknow, the museum's curator of modern glass. "I love everything they had."

A photo at the new exhibit shows the Heinemans at home in 2007, blissfully imprisoned by scores of vases, bowls and sculptures. Their designs range from miniature skyscrapers to a scowling alligator and a crab topped by angels — a true glass menagerie. Two Rochester glass sculptors, Michael Rogers and Michael Taylor, are represented in this array by 87 international artists.

Ben Heineman formerly headed the Chicago & North Western Railway Co. and expanded it into a conglomerate that included Lone Star Steel and Fruit of the Loom.

His corporate rsum instantly evokes a stuffy life spent in board rooms and country club wet bars. However, both his politics and his artistic tastes were adventurous.

In 1952, he backed Adlai Stevenson (a classic lost cause) in his doomed presidential race against Dwight D. Eisenhower. More recently, Heineman had better luck campaigning for a fellow Chicagoan named Barack Obama.

A certain brash enthusiasm also marks his glass collecting. In 1984, he fell instantly in love with avant-garde glass sculptures shown in a Georgetown shop window. They were made by pioneering American artist Harvey K. Littleton, whose daughter, Maurine, happened to be the saleswoman. Heineman bought two, launching his 21-year search for other trailblazers in glass.

He and his wife (a nationally renowned social worker) — who have a policy of not giving media interviews — had a sidewinder missile's instinct for closing in on hot talents. They brought home experimental pieces by Dale Chihuly, Italian master Lino Tagliapietra and many masters not yet labeled investment grade. Along the way, Ben became a trustee at the Corning — one reason for his recent gift.

Visitors eyeballing the wildly diverse collection will feel like kids gawking in a toy shop. But most of the art shares one paradoxical quality: labor-intensive spontaneity. Dazzlingly imaginative shapes and textures were slowly crafted with homegrown techniques.

Connoisseurs eager to learn how they were made might feel frustrated. The labels are bare-bones, because no museum wants to bombard viewers with long texts on 87 artists. Instead, the Corning offers an audio tour, videos of glass artists at work and live demonstrations on glass molding.

The 240 artworks repose in a spacious re-creation of the Heinemans' 71st-floor apartment in Water Tower Place, which Oprah Winfrey also calls home.

Guests can relax in white chairs by French designer Philippe Starck and wiggle their toes in shag carpets. The mood is casual elegance, but security is tight: This is not a hands-on display.

No prose can give a fair notion of this indecently opulent exhibit. It's full of self-contained worlds that keep a sense of mystery even as you peer through them.

Peter Aldridge's Astrolabe resembles a telescope mirror pierced by prisms. Made of cold, glistening optical glass, it may remind older viewers of Superman's icy Fortress of Solitude. Rainbow hues filter through the prisms, giving Astrolabe's austere geometry a touch of warmth.

Swedish artist Bertil Vallien's Cargo Seed is a thin, sleek canoe suspended from the ceiling. Its interior is solid glass encasing tiny sea creatures and colored stones.

"Vallien modeled it on a Viking burial ship," says Oldknow. "It evokes a state of suspended animation."

The figural art is just as challenging. Dan Dailey's Serpentina is a whimsical queen with a gold crown, bee-stung lips and royal purple robes. But this queen is built from junk. Dailey scavenged early 20th-century Vitrolite glass from dumps and factories to create this regal bust.

No visitor should miss Tagliapietra's virtuosic sculpture, Spirale. A hypnotic swirl of black and yellow rods, it lures you into an Op Art vortex.

Here and there, recent photographs of the Heinemans line the walls. He was born in 1914, she in 1913. You can't help feeling what Oldknow did when she invited them to see the exhibit.

"I thought: 'Please, let them live until it opens,'" she says. "They arrived, and they were enchanted. They said it made them see their pieces very differently."

Source: /www.democratandchronicle.comAuthor: shangyi

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