Off the Cuff: Michael Estes Taylor’s Contribution to Contemporary Glass

Charles Shepard, President and CEO

Every generation of artists has wrestled with two major demons – how to create art that is distinct from the notable art that preceded them and how to create art that is relevant to the particular time in which they find themselves. In the early 20th century, for example, a great many artists were tremendously influenced by the social, political, and economic upheavals that came to define Modernity. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the collapse of numerous monarchies, the rise of the metropolis, and the devastation of a world war, artists retreated rapidly from their former assignment of illusionist depictions of the natural world. Far more progressive – and far more intellectually engaging–challenges presented themselves in the form of any of several approaches emerging in abstraction. On the Dionysian side of the equation, given to emotive and poetic tendencies, we saw the development of Figurative Expressionism, Futurism, Fauvism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Orphism, and, eventually, Abstract Expressionism . By contrast, the rational and well-reasoned Apollonian camp leaned to Cubism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Geometric Abstraction, Minimalism, and Op art. No matter the medium or the material, most art of the last one hundred years stemmed directly or indirectly from these roots. 

It is, of course, entirely possible to engage any given work of art and respond favorably or unfavorably toward it without any sense at all of this historical context that I very briefly addressed in my introductory paragraph. That said, as you encounter a piece or several pieces for that matter, it is often fascinating to discover a set of visual clues that lead to a thread that can be followed back into the timeline of art historical achievements in such a way as to better understand what the maker of the art presently before us might have on his or her mind.

An abstract, red glass sculpture that uses long, rectangular strips to create a fragmented half circle.
Michael Estes Taylor, American, b. 1944. Robotic Hopper Twister Device. Fused glass construction 2012. Collection of the Artist. Photo courtesy of Habatat Galleries.

My first encounter with a sculpture by Michael Estes Taylor took my breath away. I saw him as an Apollonian prodigy who successfully stretched back in time to absorb, comprehend, and internalize the reasoning and the rendering of the very best practitioners of these earlier movements – Cubism, Constructivism, and Geometricism, in particular – and breathed new life into these endeavors through his contemporary interpretation in glass of their historic ambitions. Highly regarded Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Magdalena Dabrowski noted the shared objective within the artists of these early 20th century movements is to develop “a purely pictorial reality built of elemental geometric forms.” Michael’s work does all that and more. Working and shaping optical glass into geometric elements that he then fuses together in asymmetrical configurations, Michael creates sculptures that are seemingly ever in motion.  In that alone, he has surpassed the other achievements of his geometric predecessors by infusing geometry with kinetic implications. Beyond that, because Michael works in glass, his sensitive manipulation of light plays a dynamic role that no other geometrically-inclined artist before him could ever have imagined.

An abstract glass sculpture. The pieces of glass are stacked on top of each other the create half of a curve, extending toward the ceiling.
Michael Estes Taylor, American, b. 1944. Parabolic Curve. Fused glass construction, 2019. Courtesy of Habatat Galleries. Photo courtesy of Habatat Galleries.

Michael is one of the key contributors to the evolution of contemporary glass and is respected by every artist in the field. Further, because Michael never ceases to explore and expand his sculptural vocabulary, he continues to make major contributions to the advancement of glass as a medium that continues to change the language of contemporary sculpture in the 21st century.

Taken from the Michael Estes Taylor: Voyage of Variations exhibition catalogue, available for free in the exhibition galleries through November 17th.

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