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Harvey K. Littleton

Born: Corning, New York, United States

Harvey Kline Littleton is credited with changing the field of glass-blowing from a technical field dedicated to functionality to a sculptural art form worthy of museum exhibition and collection. He was born in Corning, New York. His father, Dr. Jesse T. Littleton, who was Director of Research for Corning Glass Works, is well known as the developer of Pyrex glassware for domestic cooking that could withstand the heat of household ovens. After starting in the field of physics, Harvey pursued the aesthetic side of glass and ceramics, starting at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1941, and continuing his studies at the University of Michigan until he was drafted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps in the fall of 1942. The summer before he was shipped overseas, he worked as a mold maker at Corning Glass Works and cast his first glass sculpture, a torso, in white Vycor. He served in North Africa and Italy, and before returning home in 1946, he took classes at the Brighton School of Art in England. Back in Corning, he cast a small edition of the Vycor torso, and then finished his degree in industrial design at the University of Michigan. Unable to gain permission to create a studio to explore the aesthetic properties of industrial glass at Corning Glass Works, even with his father’s support, Littleton and his friends Bill Lewis and Aare Lahti moved to Ann Arbor to create their own design studio.

                  In the 1950s, a University of Wisconsin-Madison travel grant enabled Littleton to travel to Europe, where he did research in Spain, Paris, Naples, and Murano, where he visited more than fifty glass studios. Encouraged by what he saw in Murano, he learned that it was possible for individuals to work with glass in a private studio instead of joining a team in a large industrial factory. Back at home in Verona, Michigan, Littleton gained recognition from the American Craft Council and chaired their panel on glass. He delivered a paper on his own work and exhibited a glass sculpture made from pieces that were melted, formed and carved.

                  In June 1962, following a flawed glass-blowing workshop in March at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, Littleton taught a low-melting glass workshop (based on Dominick Labino’s formula) with Labino, who was research director of Johns Manville Corporation; Harvey Leafgreen, retired glassblower from Libbey;  and Norm Schulman, who taught at the museum. His forms then were functional vessels and paperweights.

                  During the 1970s, Littleton and others strove to make technique subservient to aesthetic content. Almost by accident, he conceived of a non-functional sculptural glass form in 1963 after he melted and refinished a piece he had broken, ground down the bottom. After being rejected for an exhibition elsewhere, Littleton took it to The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the curators purchased it for their Design Collection. This launched Littleton’s early series of “broken-open forms” that he called “Prunted,” “Imploded” and “Exploded” forms. Next he allowed gravity to help form the stretched shapes of his “Folded Forms” and “Loops.” Getting increasingly complex in concept, Littleton’s works in the 1980s involved layers of hot-worked glass, sandblasting, cutting and encasing fluid, cased glass forms. In 1978, his Solid Geometry series comprised “heavy cased glass forms [that] were cut into trapezoidal, spheroid and ovoid shapes and highly polished.” The work being acquired is from Littleton’s best known bodies of work, his “Topological Geometry” produced from 1983 to 1989. This sculpture is one of his signature two-part “Arc” forms that comprise this final series, along with “Crowns” and groups called “Lyrical Movement” and “Implied Movement.” Littleton was forced to retire from working in hot glass in 1989 due to chronic back problems; so having a fine example of his late, most accomplished glass sculptures is the ideal way to represent this glass pioneer.