Off the Cuff: Howard Ben Tré’s Column 5

Charles Shepard, FWMoA President & CEO

Howard Ben Tré  will forever be recognized as one of the most important American sculptors of the late 20th century. Any list of these renowned Postmodern sculptors will also surely include Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero, who both successfully introduced industrial steel as an appropriate medium for artistic expression. Equally high on that list, too, is Howard Ben Tré. Similar to his contemporaries, he made his mark on American sculpture in a new medium: glass. While their aesthetic visions varied considerably, what these three sculptors have in common is a commitment to large scale sculpture and a deep sense that their work couldn’t be made in any media already being used. As their careers evolved, it became evident that they share yet another trait: they are masters of their respective media.

To a significant degree, the work of each of these three sculptors lives comfortably in the realm of architecture, both in terms of scale and references. Serra and di Suvero use the nature of steel to scale up their work and give it gravity. Howard used the nature of glass—especially its density when cast instead of blown—to do much the same thing; and, when you factor in the relationship between glass and light, Howard Ben Tré had a distinct advantage over his colleagues.

A large-scale cast glass anchor with a steel band around it's inside, and two peepholes in the center.
Howard Ben Tré, American, 1949-2020. Primary Vessel 5. Cast glass, stell, and brass, 1991. Gift of Steven G. Hertzberg and Barbara G. Hertzberg, 2022.414. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

I have long held Howard’s work in high esteem and have, for ages, wanted one of his stunning works in the permanent collection. You can imagine, then, my excitement when Howard’s widow, Wendy MacGaw, left me a message. One day, out of the blue, she called about a collector who she thought might be willing  to donate a significant piece of Howard’s work to us. I immediately returned her call to see if I had heard her message correctly. Yes, I had: a collector, who had loaned a spectacular piece to a worldwide touring exhibition, was now willing to gift it to a museum. Wendy knew the collector well and was in a position to influence him with regard to where the sculpture might find a permanent home. I could see from the pictures that Wendy sent me that the work (below), Column 34, had a beautiful and translucent soft green cast, standing an imposing eight feet tall. I immediately envisioned this masterpiece installed in our Rothschild Atrium to greet all our visitors as they come through our doors!

A Greek-like column in blue-grey tinted glass with bands of blue at the bottom, middle, and top.
Howard Ben Tré, American, 1949-2020. Column 34. Cast glass, 1986. Gift of Robert and Vera Loeffler, 2021.22.1-3. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

I’m always struck both by the interest that glass collectors show in our museum’s growing contemporary studio glass collection and by their willingness to help us through donating many truly outstanding pieces as we continue to increase our commitment to exhibiting glass sculpture. In this case, Dr. Robert Loeffler and his wife were both gracious and generous in their act of donating this major piece of Howard’s work to further our collection. Daily, as I pass Column 34 on my way to my office, I am thankful to the Loefflers for this gift. I’m also thankful to Wendy MacGaw, who got me together with the Loefflers, and to her ArtPack shipping and installation team that got this great piece here and expertly installed!

Over the course of a day, the ArtPack team and the Technical department at FWMoA, Brian Williamson and Rachel Baum, installed Column 34 in the Rothschild Atrium. You can see their process in the video below:

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to see either of Howard’s sculptures at FWMoA, I invite you to make a special trip to the museum to see these impressive glass sculptures. I promise that you won’t be disappointed!

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