In 2022, Jon and Judith Liebman’s collection of modern and contemporary glass was gifted to the museum, transforming KAM’s holdings of works in this medium. KAM Director Jon Seydl sat down with Jon Liebman to talk about their collection.
We honor Professor Emerita Judith Liebman, who passed away July 8, 2023. She was the first woman on the CEE faculty, as well as the first woman on the tenure-track engineering faculty. Her impact in the arts, with her husband Jon, will be long felt at Krannert Art Museum.
JS: So what led you and Judith to start collecting glass?
JL: It was almost an accident. Our summer home in the Colorado mountains was under construction, and though we had selected all the furniture, we suddenly realized that we had to decorate, too. We were living in Urbana, and we took several shopping trips to Chicago to find things.
On the first of these trips we happened into a gallery devoted entirely to glass sculpture. We found a piece there that would go perfectly on our new dining table, but its price was definitely not in our “accessory” budget, so we left it.
On a subsequent trip, we realized part way through the day that we both wanted to revisit that gallery. We did so and bought the piece, though its price was still budget-busting. Both our interest in beautiful things and our engineering curiosity about making things were stimulated by what we saw in the gallery, particularly the tremendous variety of forms that glass was made to take.
So, back on campus, we introduced ourselves to Bill Carlson, then the Professor in the glass program at U. Of I., and began learning from him (several years later, I took Bill’s undergraduate course in glassblowing, where I learned, primarily, that would-be glassblowers should start closer to age 6 than 60).
Along the way, we bought another glass sculpture, then another, and suddenly, without realizing it, we were collectors! The optical and color visual appeal first attracted us, then the engineering-related issues of “how do they do that?” grabbed us, and finally, the whole aesthetics of sculptural forms and colors made with glass totally sucked us in.
JS: Your call out your donations as the “Jon and Judith Liebman Collection of Contemporary Sculpture in Glass.” It’s distinctive for glass collectors to call out contemporary sculpture like that. What does that say about how you view the collection?
JL: When studio glass began, it borrowed heavily from Murano, where mostly decorative and utilitarian objects are made. However, most of the early American glass artists came to glass through college-level art programs, and they had ambitions beyond making vases.
So, as their skill grew and the number of collectors increased, the artists began to make things that were more sculpture and less “decorative,” and most of the collectors came along with them.
Judith and I are by no means alone in thinking of our collection as sculpture (even though it does contain a number of vessels and the like). From the very beginning, we were fascinated by the incredible versatility of glass as an artistic medium; no other medium can be transparent or translucent or opaque, can have so many different colors with subtle variations, can take so many different forms, and can be worked by so many incredibly different techniques from blowing to casting to flameworking to cutting and grinding.
In all of our considerations of whether to acquire a particular piece, in addition to visual appeal (which was a major issue in every case), we kept talking about “we don’t have anything like it,” “nobody else can do that technique,” “I’ve never seen glass used that way;” and then we’d wander off into another discussion of what an amazingly versatile sculptural material glass is.
So, if there’s something unique about our collection, it is that we have --unconsciously at first, but fully consciously and intentionally for the last 20 years or so -- set out to showcase the amazing diversity of art made from glass. That’s also an explanation for the fact that we rarely collect an artist in depth; mostly we have only a single piece by an artist.
JS: The collection notably includes many international makers while still emphasizing Illinois artists, including many associated with the former glass program at the university. Could you talk about your interest in the global and the local?
JL: Judith and I have felt remarkably well-treated by the University of Illinois, and we are emotionally attached to all things Illini. Couple that with a professorial interest in helping students (including students of glass art) and young artists, and with the fact that Bill Carlson, the Professor in the glass program here, was our early mentor; and you get a quick explanation of the representation of Illini, both as accomplished artists and as students or young artists, in our collection.
The international side was not so much a conscious decision as it was a sign of the times. At the time we began to meet other collectors around the US, there were annual trips organized by one of the major galleries along with a collector couple who were travel agents.
These trips visited glass art centers around the world, and were always buying frenzies (when there was a contested piece, we all put our credit cards in a hat and had a drawing for who got to pay).
So it was just natural that the collection began to look international. Then, as we began to understand that there were national characteristics of the glass art that were rooted in history, and as we developed favorites, notably Czech glass, that shaped the collection a good bit.
JS: Could you call out a few works that you think are especially important for a museum like KAM to have?
JL: The Bill Morris mountain lion canopic jar is, in my mind, the most significant piece in the collection for a museum holding (though I certainly do not fully understand all the considerations of importance to a museum). Morris is unsurpassed in his glassblowing skill; this piece, like all of the 50 or so in the canopic jar series, is at the size limit of what a man can control at the end of a blowpipe; and the work does not in any way pander to the superficial beauty of glass.
There’s an amazing amount of skill in the wonderful form of the piece, and then in the surface treatment that provides the amazing ceramic texture and the remarkably ancient drawings, all in glass without paint, that decorate the piece. This piece, best among many, demonstrates both the craft skill and the art aesthetics of a master contemporary glass artist.
In contrast, the very simple “bowl” by Frantisek Vizner has long been among my favorites as a demonstration of the superiority of glass as a sculptural material. There is nothing “decorative” about this work; it is of very simple (sensual?) lines without any embellishment. But it is surely sculptural: though it suggests “bowl”, it is a solid piece and is not a bowl at all. Beyond the graceful form, it does superbly what no other sculptural material can do: it uses the thickness of the glass to modulate the color and intensity of the transmitted light. The Libensky/Brychtova pieces have the same appeal.
JS: Glass artists and collectors often know one another quite well. Could you talk about some of the artists that you’ve worked closely with as you built the collection?
JL: First, of course, would have to be Bill Carlson. We went to Bill when we first got interested in glass, in the “how do they do that?” stage, and he was so generous with his time. He invited us to watch demonstrations by visiting artists for his classes, he gave us introductions to other artists and to galleries when we traveled, and he patiently answered a million questions to bring us up to speed. He was a wonderful mentor.
We commissioned two Carlson works: first a wonderful abstract piece that hangs on the wall in our Colorado house (and will eventually join the Krannert collection), and later the fireplace surround in the master bedroom of our house in Urbana (which will stay with the house as it is sold).
A few years later when Jose Chardiet joined the faculty, he very much contributed to the learning as well. Next were probably a handful of graduate students. Most notable were John Miller (now the Professor of the glass program at Illinois State) and his buddy Paul Nelson (now an independent artist in Louisville KY). We had lots of fun conversations with these folks while they were here studying, we bought some of their early work, and we actually commissioned a Nelson piece to go in the refurbished Engineering Hall.
Though he wouldn’t know us from Adam, I count Billy Morris as one of the major influences in my glass education. For many years, Morris rented the glassblowing facility at the Pilchuck Glass School in the off season. Early in our collecting lives, Judith and I had a day-long tour of the School with a whole bunch of other collectors. Morris was working in the hot shop, and one of the first stops of the tour, scheduled for just a few minutes, was to watch Morris at work. Judith and I were totally entranced; the tour went on, but we spent the entire day (mostly with our jaws on the ground) watching Morris and his team produce a single piece.
My reverence for the skill of a maestro comes from that day (and a year later we acquired that piece, the Morris crow with mortar that’s in our gift). Your question specifically asks about artists, but you mention other collectors in the lead-in, and I have to take the opportunity to say that other collectors have been a major part of our education.
The glass art community is indeed very small and very tight-knit, and almost to a person very generous with time and knowledge. Our association with collectors through the years has led to a number of friendships, and has been the way in which we learned so much about glass art.
JS: Of course, I want to know some of your favorite works in the collection. You’ve also decided to keep a group of works for the moment. Could you talk about a few of the works you held back and why?
JL: We have kept a total of 10 pieces, ranging from quite large to small, to take with us to our new home.
Among them: Ogetti “Sphere”. This is the only “mass-produced” (#138/250) piece in our collection. It came from one of the well-known Murano shops, where pieces like this one are produced assembly-line style by a line of craftsmen, each of whom does one step on the process on every piece. The double-spiral outer-disc inner-sphere form of this piece is a hallmark of the world-renowned artist Lino Tagliapietra, and we believe that this Ogetti production was supervised by Lino. Whether that’s true or not, the sheer glassblowing skill required to make this piece, involving spinning out two large hot-glass discs and then joining them, continues to drop my jaw when I look at it.
Africano Untitled (Twin Girls). I am a big fan of the work of Nicolas Africano, an internationally known glass artist who lives and works nearby in Bloomington-Normal. With a very few exceptions (when he modeled his then-teen-age sons), Africano’s career-long only model has been his wife Rebecca. His work clearly shows his roots as a painter, and the wonderful translucency in the folds of the dresses demonstrates his mastery of the glass medium. The representation of Rebecca and a mirror-image is also fun, as Rebecca actually has a twin sister, though Rebecca is surely the model for both, here.
JS: What was the most important thing I didn’t ask?
JL: Well, I don’t know that it’s important from KAM’s point of view, but from our vantage point, you didn’t ask “What has collecting glass sculpture done to your lives?” And that’s major.
While Judith has a somewhat broader undergrad education than I do (Judith has a BA in physics, I have a BS in engineering), both of us are fairly narrowly educated. (I have a standard rant about the narrowness of engineering education in the 1950’s, that starts out with “I took 160 credit hours in 8 semesters, and the only six hours I had that were taught outside the College of Engineering were “Chemistry 1 for Engineers” and “Chemistry 2 for Engineers.”). The point is that to think of us being involved in any way with the arts is already a stretch.
Our involvement with art made from glass opened us to not just one, but several new worlds. First was all the other collectors. Many of them were, like us, not very knowledgeable but knew they loved the stuff, and, like us, they were anxious to learn more. But others had come from other parts of the art world, and they served as mentors. It turns out that glass collectors are almost entirely wonderful people, and we developed a whole network of friends who were collectors, all across the country. Over the years, they’ve meant the world to us.
And then, of course, there were the artists themselves. Glass art is a performance art (compare the drama of watching a glassblower with that of watching a painter); artists commonly open their studios and their hearts and minds; and again, most glass artists are classically art-educated, so they have a lot to teach. Almost all of the best glass artists of all times are still alive today (though that has begun to change in the last few years), and part of the attraction of this medium is that you can talk to all these folks.
Finally, there’s the galleries and the museums. These were the slowest for us to become involved with, but over the years as we became more and more serious and knowledgeable, we found ourselves engaging with gallery owners and museum curators. We learned a lot of history, and a lot about art, from these folks, and in the last few years we’ve been able to teach some things to the newer generations as well.
Our lives over the last 30+ years have been very different (and much enriched) because of our involvement with glass art. We’ve a wealth of “glassy” friends and we have been intellectually challenged and stretched. It’s been a great ride!!!