Off the Cuff: The Glass of Wilfried Grootens

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

Wilfried Grootens’ work in glass is as evocative as it is precise, and as stimulating to our eyes as it is stirring to our hearts. Each piece presents a world both separate from but perfectly situated in the world around it. If you are fortunate enough to watch him work in his studio, you immediately understand that his prodigious talent stems from his skill both as a painter and a sculptor. The power of his three-dimensional masterworks is driven by, and entirely dependent upon, his mastery of marks painted with the utmost precision on two-dimensional layers of glass that he will, ultimately, fuse and shape into magical sculptural forms that contain within them a unique orchestral galaxy.

Art historically, a number of artists in the 1960’s were very successful in their pursuit of creating optical illusions on two-dimensional canvases that would “trick” the eye into perceiving dimension and movement despite the fact that these compelling, illusory images were, indeed, painted on a flat surface. Julian Stanczak, Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and several others breathed life into the legendary Op(tical) art movement and, today, each is considered a major figure in Contemporary art. Visually their work, with its focus on optics as a legitimate subject in art, could well be considered a precedent for the host of other artists who emerged later in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s tempting, and not altogether inaccurate, to think that Grootens’ work is related to these Op art masters. There are, however, immediately two key differences between his work and theirs; the first is obvious: by working three-dimensionally in the transparent medium of glass, within which he precisely calculates the optical impact of each painted mark, Wilfried Grootens’ work surpasses his predecessors greatest dreams and ambitions in sheer dimensionality. His work, thus, lives in a world that they would never have conceived. The second major difference between Grootens and the Op art masters is that while they reveled in optical manipulation toward a goal of deception Grootens concentrates on using optics to create a new and fresh reality in each of his sculptures.

Wilfried Grootens at work.

This process begins with the artist’s painstaking process of hand painting the beginning of a “pattern” on a single layer of float glass (essentially plate glass made in a float process) which, as each additional layer dries, is glued and stacked on top of one another until an appropriately-sized mass is formed. Often, Wilfried will assemble a cube-shaped mass within which he has made a painted pattern of marks that align into a variously shaped cosmos within the block of the cube. This is the unique reality that comes into being as the cube is assembled. It’s important to realize that much still needs to be done after the cube is assembled: seemingly endless rounds of grinding and polishing are required to get the piece into its final, gorgeous form. In its final form the surface glistens and there is no evidence whatsoever that the piece was created in layers. The cubes are the easiest to explain because each of us can more or understand that the stacking of identically sized sheets of glass would gradually produce a raw cube as the stack grew in height. The cube-shaped pieces are but one of Grootens’ forms. Egg-shaped orbs, spheres, half-spheres, and  tall obelisks make up a goodly portion of the artist’s oeuvre. Each of these forms, however, are built up using the same method of stacking glass layers. What’s mind-blowing is that all the curvilinear forms are the result of precisely cutting and grinding that particular shape out of a basic stacked block shape. In the past several years, I’ve seen dozens of his sculptures on display but never understood quite how they came into being until he shared a video of himself documenting his studio process; even then, though I might logically understand his process, my eyes still have difficulty seeing anything but the magical appearance of Grootens’ alchemy.

I have often said that the medium of glass has exponentially transformed the field of sculpture over the past 50 years by virtue of its ability to expand sculpture beyond a reliance on the traditional elements of art making — color, shape, line, form, and texture — to include the element of light. Bronze, stone, wood, steel, etc. can be bathed in light, but only glass can incorporate the element of light into its sculptural creation. So, as a medium for art making, glass stands head and shoulders above the rest. And in the specific field of sculpture in glass, Wilfried Grootens’ work rests securely in the top tier of all contemporary glass sculpture in the world. Not only have I had the honor of exhibiting his work, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art has proudly added it to the permanent collection. His is a youthful spirit emanating from a deep and ancient soul. Pay his work close attention, and let its magic infuse your heart.

Want to see more contemporary studio glass? Visit FMWoA during regular hours, or extended free nights on Thursday’s from 5pm-8pm.

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