NEW HAVEN — “A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass” at the Yale University Art Gallery examines aspects of American culture — innovation, aesthetics, marketing, and more — through the lens of a single material.
It visits a Mesoamerican glassworker pounding and shearing a blade from obsidian before the Spanish invasion in 1521. It follows the early marketing of celebrities in bottles stamped with likenesses of the Marquis de Lafayette and the Swedish songbird Jenny Lind. It takes us to the early days of the light bulb.
But here, perhaps, is the best example: a broken enameled window from Philadelphia’s D’Ascenzo Studios, titled “Cotton Field,” from the Yale dining hall at its residential college then called Calhoun, named for Vice President John C. Calhoun, a proponent of slavery in the early 19th century. The window, designed in the 1930s, reflects a whitewashed view of the pre-Civil War South, depicting enslaved people placidly toting cotton.
In 2016, dining-hall worker Corey Menafee shattered the window with a broomstick. In 2017, the college was renamed Grace Hopper College. The window shards are arrayed here in a presentation that funnels centuries of history to this moment.
The sparkling and encompassing exhibition, curated by associate curator of American decorative arts John Stuart Gordon and a team of six Yale students, draws on the museum’s deep Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, donated by Francis P. Garvan, and loans from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
It gambols through history, taking the viewer by the hand to explain what creates glass, how glass is crafted, and how collecting trends mirror history. Technical innovation drives the narrative, which dips into industry, science, and art.
Glass is a singular medium: shimmering, mutable, reflective, translucent, and nonconductive. It has long been jewel-like but not necessarily costly, especially as manufacturing techniques evolved.
It has been crucial for seeing things more clearly. Yale was founded in 1701. In 1734, it acquired a microscope, now called the Yale microscope, which was the only one at the school for decades. It has glass lenses and a mirror to focus light on a specimen.
Light and glass go hand in hand. Before electricity, furniture was outfitted with mirrors to reflect available light. This show features several remarkable lamps, such as Roswell Gleason’s task lamp. The 19th-century Dorchester pewtersmith, following an English design, set two convex lenses parallel on either side of a wick to intensify the light, making it easier to read or sew at night.
At the end of the 19th-century, Louis Comfort Tiffany was relentlessly developing and patenting new techniques. Tiffany intended his “favrile glass” to resemble ancient glass found at archeological digs. His luminously iridescent desk lamp resembles an undulant stone pulled from a riverbed.
A second Tiffany lamp has a fanning, stained-glass shade with a dragonfly motif. Clara Driscoll, supervisor of Tiffany’s Women’s Glass Cutting Department, designed it. Tiffany believed women had a better eye for color. In Driscoll’s intricate work, the dragonflies’ long wings lift off the surface of a shade washed in blue.
Not everyone had access to a Tiffany lamp, but glass was an everyday item in most homes in the 19th century. Early on, as techniques grew more refined, bottles, flasks, and tableware grew increasingly common.
The green “Sailors Rights Flask (Turtle Whimsy)” is more than just functional. Its maker pressed the flask, and then playfully adorned it with legs, a tail, and a ridge along the back. The little fellow looks ready to scurry away. The flask is also a bit of political propaganda: It features a masonic arch, a sailing ship, and text: “Free Trade and Sailors Rights,” a slogan dating to the War of 1812 and still popular when the turtle was made nearly 20 years later.
The Industrial Revolution’s quicker, cheaper production fueled an appetite for souvenirs and commemorative memorabilia. A flask celebrating General Zachary Taylor, slightly skewed and impressed with scrolls, promotes his 1848 presidential campaign. It reads “ROUGH” on one side, “& READY” on the other, a nod to Taylor’s nickname, Old Rough and Ready.
Then came a backlash against industry in the Arts and Crafts movement, and with it a new kind of glass: art glass, produced by luminaries such as Tiffany and John La Farge. This and a rising nostalgia sparked by the US centennial in 1876 fueled a new trend: collecting.
The centennial’s mania for objects dubbed “Colonial Revival” hinged on rose-tinted nostalgia, a fascination with antiques, and a market for knock-offs. Progressives deployed the trend to draw immigrants into the American story; others used it to shore up nationalism.
Francis P. Garvan began collecting glass and other Americana in the 1910s, when scholarship was ramping up. Provenance mattered. He donated his treasures to Yale starting in 1930. He could never have anticipated the final section of this show, extolling glass in contemporary art.
The great Lynda Benglis, an early crafter of hybrid painting/sculptures made from poured latex, here has “Hitch,” made by pouring molten glass into a trough of sand and working it into a loop as it cooled. Sand — the silica from which glass is wrought at high temperatures — still coats the outside, a reminder of the piece’s origins, and of the cycle of life.
Benglis’s piece seems a perfect ending to the story of constant modernization and the course of history captured in “A Nation Reflected.” We leap forward, and we lurch back.
A NATION REFLECTED: STORIES IN AMERICAN GLASS
At Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, through Sept. 29. 203-432-0611, artgallery.yale.edu