International Magazine of Studio Glass

Erwin Eisch

My Life and Work

01.07.2009 01:18:53
A review by Mark Angus


Erwin started his lecture with an image proclaiming “Welcome to Erwin”: a road sign erected by the “Erwin women’s club”, referring to a small town close by to Corning. Erwin said that he had never been there and did not know these women.


The lecture proper started with Harvey K Littleton’s chance visit to Erwin Eisch at his home in Frauenau in 1962, having just bought a weird glass jug from a shop in nearby Zwiesel, Bavaria. Erwin had recently made the jug whilst experimenting with hot glass in the family glass factory. This “happy accident” was the beginning of a life long friendship and a collaboration, which brought Europe into the view and is part of the studio glass movement history.

In 1964 Harvey invited Erwin to the famous Toledo workshop where an early studio glass furnace was set up. This early workshop would become of great importance to everything that followed in the studio glass movement. It brought together all the principal players that would take the message that you can make your own glass to the greater world.

Erwin’s blown work from this time has lost nothing of its originality and power: In his unique imaginative way, as a sculptor – but also a producer of traditional drinking glasses – he played with transforming familiar functional objects such as beer mugs into humorous male and female forms. Fighting against the doctrine of function, but also the aesthetic seduction of the materiality of glass he used black iridescent and opaque glass, moving on to more clearly abstract sensual sculptural forms. These actions were the prime starting points to clear the way for the studio glass movement: to define glass as an art material, uncompromisingly and beyond “applied art”, and to break down the preconception that glass was purely functional, – tableware.

Erwin then introduced his head series, an area of investigation in glass art that he has continued to the present day. The first series, now in the Corning Museum of Glass collection, was a tribute to Harvey K Littleton – the most famous of which with a speech bubble with Harvey saying “Technique is cheap!” – proclaims another message at the core of the studio glass movement. Despite the strong formative impact of this slogan on the movement it is still worth recalling in the technique fascinated movement of today. It not only stated that technique was not the value of a piece, but that the studio glass movement would share all of its knowledge freely.

Following the Littleton head Erwin showed subsequent series of heads, from Picasso, to Buddha, to the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to Erwin’s parents, and of course including Thomas S. Buechner. All of the mould-blown heads in Erwin’s various head series have some distortion, additions, or variations giving each head another aspect of the subject, and they are covered with enamel painted imagery and gilding and sometimes with imaginative wheel engravings. Each head is thus full of symbolism and fantasy, poetic allusion, many of which from our contemporary life. Especially with the heads from Picasso Erwin found a rich area to explore – illustrated for example with the “Net of Women”: “You can paint anything you like on Picasso”, as he said. Not only are the heads a way of artistic discussion with the figures and stories from Erwin’s biography and of our times, but the heads still start off arguing with the material: They use it, deny it, decorate and develop it on into artistic meaning beyond the ghetto of “glass art”. Erwin showed some of the steps of making a head, from the original clay model, to the mould making, to the glass blowing and decoratively playing with the hot blown glass.

From his glass portraits, as three-dimensionally modelled painting and decorating canvasses, Erwin went on to show his lifelong connection to painting. He was trained first as a glass engraver, following his father’s and forefathers’ glass decorating craft, but later he attended the Munich Art Academy where he studied painting and sculpture. Art, so he stated, especially painting and drawing, are essential to glass art. Erwin Eisch was a member of the influential art groups “Spur” and, together with his later to become wife Gretel, a member of “Radama”. In the late 1950s and early 1960s they participated in ground breaking group art activity, exhibitions and happenings.

Up to today drawing is a daily activity for Erwin producing water colour images which range from political statements to whimsical figures; very often he develops his themes in series. The statement “Heaven/Sky begins on Earth” is of especial importance in Erwin’s later artwork; it takes the simple starting point of children’s’ drawings to state a “framework” of human life, of what is Up and what Below, and of all the meanings and “in-betweens” that arise herein. This motto very much followed his other guiding idea of the relationship between two people, and of touching, the hand: and always, for him, there is no difference between what matters in art and what matters in real life.

Both his background as a painter, and as a sculptor, characterise his large scale installations, where glass is used in original and sometimes shocking ways. Erwin started with his humorous garden show installation from the 1960´ss “The Fountain of Youth” that squeezes a couple through a humorous bathroom and washing machine processing, and he spoke about our society’s irrational need for over-cleanliness and longing for eternal youth. This installation was – true to the times of pop art and of art happenings – followed by Erwin’s lasting 1972 installation “Narcissus”, which with its self-loving, paralysed figure in silvered glass is now prominently displayed in the new Frauenau Glass Museum. Thirdly, Erwin presented his large scale installation “Sixteen Heads and the Space in Between” (1998-1999), which is to be found in the Corning Incorporated Headquarters building. This impressive installation includes eight pairs of heads with canvas paintings and other elements, and condenses the qualities and messages of his later work in the theme of relationships, the tension between men and women – and, again, all the space and meaning “in-between”.

Of course, it was Erwin’s special desire to pay a special tribute to Tom Buechner, showing several heads in the “Tom” series, including “Do good work”: Tom’s guiding sentence that is well engrained in his many students in classical painting from his twenty summers of teaching in the “Bild-Werk Frauenau” summer academy. This very special connection to Erwin and to Frauenau is, amongst others, documented in the naming of the main academy building “Toms Hall”. The image of Erwin and Tom painting together, classical and from free imagination, demonstrated a fruitful artistic tension that has not only shaped Bild-Werk Frauenau and many artists, but, apart from that, seemed an experiment attempted with amusing outcomes.

Erwin paid tribute and told stories about many old friends from the world wide studio glass community – in the short overview it was amazing to see to what extent the village of Frauenau, from the early 1960s to the present, has become a studio glass meeting point and a focus of inspiration and creativity. Photographs of friends in his kitchen and in and around Frauenau started off with his European studio glass co-founders Sam Herman and Sybren Valkema and went on to include longstanding friends like Marvin Lipovsky, Carl Betz, Ji?í Harcuba, David Hopper, Masahiro Hachida (with whom Erwin collaborated on work in ceramic and paper in Japan), Stephen Paul Day, Therman Statom and many others. The names and encounters span from his first German studio furnace in the basement of the Eisch factory that was with its shiny metal wings a focus of local and global inspiration in the 1960s and 1970s, to today’s studio glass centre in Frauenau: Erwin gave some atmospheric insight into Bild-Werk Frauenau, the international summer school for glass, painting, sculpture and much more that he co-founded twenty years ago and that stands so much for artistic imagination and togetherness in Erwin’s sense. Also, there was an outlook to Erwin’s creative spirit and influence in his own region with its vivid glass art scene, by giving views of other artists work from Frauenau, including the massive glass Ark by his son in law Ronald Fischer, and work by his wife Gretel Eisch. The new Glass Museum Frauenau was shown with its extraordinary, imaginative way of staging local, European and global history and art through glass. Erwin concluded with an invitation to all to come to Frauenau and to experience Bild-Werk Frauenau and the rich glass scene there.

“Happy Accidents” was the title of Erwin’s lecture. It refers as much to the chance and joy of meetings in his life as it does to the ability of allowing chance to determine a trail of glass onto a glass head or the meaning of a brushstroke. It has characterised the life and work of Erwin Eisch.

His lecture was to a jam-packed hall, and received a standing ovation.

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