A maverick in art and in life, Robert Willson liked to work outside the mainstream. He found inspiration for his massive, symbolic sculptures - influenced by the art of the ancient past, Native America, and the West - in Venice. A Texan in Venice? Not as unlikely as it may sound! Willson was an art historian and writer, as well as an artist, and he was well acquainted with the historic island republic of Venice, famous for its extraordinary art and architecture. Venice is also home to one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated glassmaking traditions. And glass was the catalyst for Willson’s art.
Arriving in Venice for the first time in 1956, Willson was captivated by the play of light and color on the water of Venice’s numerous canals. He wanted to capture that sense of trapped light and color, and found that solid glass was the way to do it.
“The light and the color coming through glass is one of the real pleasures of working with it as a sculptural material, and it is something that you can’t replicate in other materials,” Willson said in a documentary. “At first, I tried glassblowing, but it was unsuitable for my sculpture.” Willson then began working with solid, molten glass, built into thick, heavy forms at the furnace, and he was sold. “It seemed to me,” observed Willson, “that glass was the most modern and advanced material I could find.”
Willson, who liked to describe himself as “half Choctaw and half Texan,” felt a strong affinity with tribal societies and other groups, such as ranchers, who spent most of their time outdoors.
“The theme of my work today is the same as when I started making sculpture,” Willson said. “The simplicity of the primitive or prehistoric form is the starting point. I make a simple form with a symbolic meaning, much as primitive people do.”
Willson’s work explores themes inspired by ancient mythologies, Pre-Columbian and other Native American art, and the American West. A unique and visually arresting blend of European technique and Southwestern American style, his sculpture comfortably inhabits the shifting space between Old World and New, between modern times and ancient.
Planning for the exhibition, curated by Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass, began after the Museum received a large gift from the estate of Robert Willson in 2001. The work of Robert Willson intrigues Oldknow for several reasons.
“I am interested in pioneering artists; those who, for example, were working in studio glass before the American Studio Glass movement began,” Oldknow said, referring to the period of time when glassworking was brought back to private workshops and studios, as opposed to being done in factories that were not typically available to private artists. “Willson could not have made his work anywhere else but Venice. The Muranese were the only craftsmen capable of helping Willson to realize his vision of large-scale sculpture in hot glass.”
“Robert Willson: A Texan in Venice” continues the Museum’s ongoing exploration into Venice’s role in glassmaking history. The study began with “Venini: Masterpieces of Italian Design” and will continue in the summer of 2004 with a major, international exhibition of historic European glass, “Beyond Venice: Glass in Venetian Style, 1500-1700.”