Appreciation: Marvin Lipofsky

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Marvin Lipofsky in his studio

Oh, to be young, gifted, and heading to the Bay Area in 1964 with a sweet teaching job awaiting you. Marvin Lipofsky didn’t know then that he would spend the next fifty-plus years circling in and around Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, not just as a key participant in the US and international resurgence of glass as a modern sculptural medium, but doing so at the site of some of the grooviest and most invigorating cultural happenings in modern American history. Despite my admiration for Lipofsky I’m not going to claim he was responsible for Haight/Ashbury, The Grateful Dead, San Francisco Funk, or wearing flowers in your hair, but he was both witness and a part of it, irreverent, iconoclastic, aggressive, risk-taking, confrontational and with a kind of impatient energy (what they used to call “letting your freak flag fly!”) that still marks him today.

Like many Californians, Lipofsky isn’t from the Golden State. Born and raised in a suburb of Chicago, he attended the University of Illinois for his BFA, and then went on for his MFA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he was among the legendary Harvey Littleton’s first graduate students pursuing glassblowing at an American university. Littleton taught Lipofsky more than the possibilities of smallish gas-fired furnaces that artists could manage independently of the large for-profit factories where glass had previously been fabricated (hence the name “Studio Glass” for the movement Littleton started), he also helped make possible Lipofsky’s next big move; Lipofsky graduated UW in Spring 1964 and a few months later, with a job secured with Littleton’s support, he moved West to build the glass program with a professorial appointment at UC-Berkeley. Lipofsky would, a few years later, create and vastly expand the Glass Program at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in Oakland.

But it as a sculptor that Lipofsky has made his greatest contribution to modern art. He’s undoubtedly one of the great color-field painters of contemporary art, if we’ll overlook the awkward detail that Lipofsky doesn’t make color fields and isn’t a painter. But since the 1970s, he has been engaged in a wonderful and restless pursuit of the subtle and evocative possibilities in chromatics, bending and torqueing color in space, making color flow to and fro as both optical and volumetric form, plastic and curvy, sinuous and sensuous, and everywhere taking advantage of the special nature of glass to have color within it, not atop it, making color into form. He’s a hue-man, a dappler, in his work color flows and then suddenly erupts, or gets busy and then moves slowly, and the bulbous and curvy nature of his pieces invite transitioning rivulets of coursing and rippling tone. He makes color breathe while always giving it a lissome and attentive shape. Lipofsky’s sculptures are smallish, intimate in scale, not the endless yards of canvas employed by the canonic color field artists of his youth, but table top sculpture, something you hunker down over, filled with multiple subtleties of changeling color that shift as you move about his work and as light moves through and around it. His sculptures variously suggest sea forms, shells, jellyfish, somewhat akin to eroded aqueous or natural forms that freely seem turn in on themselves, but also invite intimations of the recesses of the body, with passages of rich interior and exterior interplay that everywhere alludes to organic origins.

It is where these sculptures begin that has become a great part of the legend of Lipofsky. With the possible exception of LeRoy Neiman, it’s a good guess that no visual artist has ever traveled more as a fundamental part of the fabrication of his or her work than has Marvin Lipofsky. Many artists jet about doing visiting artist gigs; and a lot of sculptors who work in glass, travel to do demonstrations at hot shops here and there. Lipofsky is certainly a road warrior who has blown glass in China and Chico, and just about everywhere in between. But beginning in the 1970s Lipofsky began to use these visits abroad and around the US (he’s repeated this process in well over 20 countries, from Japan to the Ukraine, New Zealand to Spain, Israel to Canada, etc., and in North America from Toronto to Tucson, Tacoma to Toledo, etc.) all as central activities in the fabrication of his work. He took the visiting artist concept, where you spend a few days at some art department or hot shop somewhere, schmoozing, doing crits with students and a demo or two, and instead of seeing that as a kind of extracurricular respite, Lipofsky fine-tuned it into how he creates the raw material for the sculptures he’ll complete in Berkeley.

Instead of a couple of days, Lipofsky usually stays a week or so, and has his hosts prepare a group of wooden molds and forms he’ll use to work the hot blown glass to his desired ends. Then Lipofsky shows up in Bulgaria or New Orleans (he’s done both), assembles a crew from students or the faculty or glass workers there, and gets to it. He enjoys the unpredictability of his working environment on the road; it’s like jamming with a new group of musicians at a new venue each time, rather than working with the same people again and again. Lipofsky gets refreshed by the techniques of his temporary collaborators, by local concerns and traditions, and somehow the milieu of his experiences of that place, be it Poland or Australia, is somehow imbued into the work he begins there. The hot glass is blown and then the wooden implements begin to do their work, ceaselessly bending and molding the taffy-like glass toward his desired ends. He makes the glass bubble into something Baroque, cursive and mellifluous, concaving and convexing through space with a delight in visual restlessness. Then it’s all shipped back to Berkeley, and there in his studio Lipofsky spends months doing coldwork, grinding, sandblasting, cutting, washing with acid, polishing, arranging and rearranging, all toward the final articulation of what he wants from each piece. These then get presented as groups, named for the place of their origins-The Kentucky Series, The Taiwan Group, The Czech Flowers, etc.-and exhibited as such, somewhere around a dozen sculptures
in each group.

In these series, Lipofsky demonstrates his special place in the history of modern sculpture in glass, creating objects that hover between the two major and usually separate streams of glass sculpture, a dialogue with functionality and abstraction. The roots of glass sculpture in objects for use-bowls, goblets, vases, etc.-are deep and powerful, and continue to mesmerize major figures working in glass such as Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra. In Lipofsky, too, there is just a faint whiff of functionality, these could be bowls reshuffled and turned inside out, he perceives his objects as having insides and outsides and their origins in blown glass still leave a sense of their manipulated cavity. The edges of his pieces are related to the lips of a vessel, lines in space that cursively zig and zag. But Lipofsky’s sculpture seem finally more abstract than related to use, more about a thoughtful spatial flow of vision and color that becomes an end in itself of the very highest order.

Lipofsky has mellowed a great deal in recent years, though some may recall his early days as a brilliant but sometimes acerbic force. Tales of his temper and disarming conversation are legion. (Years ago, I had written a few short essays on Lipofsky, had an email exchange or two with him and a phone interview; when I finally met him for the first time, at a SOFA art fair in Chicago, his first words to me were, “Gee, I thought you would be taller.”)
But these are honeyed days for Lipofsky, and his 50 years of work have earned him a place as an éminence grise of sculpture in glass. He’ll be honored at SOFA in Chicago this fall with a special installation of his work, and will be omnipresent at the GAS (Glass Art Society) Conference in San Jose this June (he received their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009). In the last year, he’s exhibited across the country, from Massachusetts to California, Missouri to Michigan. And all this without losing his edge, his origins in the counter-culture laboratory that was
the Bay Area in the 1960s. Well played, Marvin.

“California Loop Series #28,”
1970
11″ x 20″ x 13″
Blown at UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Finished by the artist in his Berkeley studio
Photo: M. Lee Fatherree

“Kentucky Series 2000-01 # 8,”
2001
16″ x 17″ x 17″
Blown at Centre College, Centre College, Danville, KY
with help from: Steve Powell , Brooke, Paul, Brent and students
Finished by the artist in his Berkeley studio.
Photo: M. Lee Fatherree