Thomas Stearns - Modern Masters London Tuesday, April 25, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Literature

    'Nuovi vetri di Venini', Domus, no. 386, January 1962, p. 39
    Marino Barovier, ed., Venetian glass: The Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu Collection, New York, 2000, p. 172, fig. 141
    Franco Deboni, Venini Glass: Its history, artists and techniques, Volume 1, Turin, 2007, p. 95
    Franco Deboni, Venini Glass, Catalogue 1921-2007, Volume 2, Turin, 2007, fig. 235

  • Catalogue Essay

    The present model vase was exhibited at the XXI Venice Biennale, in 1962.

    The Italian chapter, Thomas Stearns at Venini

    After graduating from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1959, Thomas Stearns was granted the Fullbright Travel fellowship by the Italian government and shortly afterwards became the first American to partake in an apprenticeship at Venini. This choice was made by the founder, Paolo Venini, based on flatwork window designs Stearns had produced during his student years at Cranbrook. The artist arrived in Murano in 1959, just missing his advocate who had passed away a few months before. During his time there, the artist worked alongside the maestro ‘Checco’ Ongaro however, the two men often clashed as Stearns had brought with him many new, conceptual ideas that were a far cry from the traditional techniques of the firm. Stearns was fascinated by light and designed many light fittings, alongside the glass vases and sculptures he became well-known for. During his time in Italy he became deeply inspired by the illumination and colour of Venice which is demonstrated in the titles of his most acclaimed works such as, The Sentinel of Venice (circa 1960) and Vessel for The Doge’s Tears (circa 1960). Throughout the four years in the country Stearns did not learn how to speak Italian therefore most of his works were created in isolation and through processes of trial and error. Thus, Stearns’ works may seem unconventional in comparison to other Venini works, characterised by asymmetrical designs in subdued colours (as we see in the present lot) or other larger, sculptural works evoked in broader strokes of colour. Many would argue that this breath of fresh air was welcome in a tumultuous period of Venini history; a time where, with its founder gone, it had to reassess its position. This ability to meld both notions of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism with the seamless elegance of Venini glass led to six of Stearn’s pieces to be chosen for the Venice Biennale in 1962, including the Cappello del Doge vase. Here, the Cappello del Doge is translated as the hat of the highest figure in the Venetian government, which is emulated in the shape of the design. Created with the ancient incalmo technique, made by fusing the edges of the opaque glass and transparent glass pieces requires each diameter to be of the exact same diameter, the vase cannot be mass produced, thus making Stearn’s works inherently unique. This ‘playful interpretation’ of a ‘quintessential icon’ (Susan Sacks, ‘Thomas Stearns’, Marino Barovier, ed., Venetian glass: The Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu Collection, New York, 2000, p. 27) is characteristic of the American artist’s work and what renders his pieces so identifiable. For his work at the Venice Biennale, Stearns was awarded the ‘Best of Show’ Award, an achievement never before bestowed to an American and was in fact later rescinded, as soon as the judges became aware of his monolingual nationality. The artist’s transition from functional glass to glass as sculpture is now seen as a precursor to the Studio Glass movement, where glass was seen as an artistic medium with a sculptural or decorative rather than functional statement. Towards the end of 1962 Stearns moved to New York to research the use of plastics in art and took up teaching sculpture at the Philadelphia College of Art, indicating his desire to take his glass creations to a new level. Stearn’s pieces have previously been exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and The Pennsylvania Academy of Arts. This striking piece represents a significant period in the artist’s career and would make a beautiful addition to any collection.

Property from an Important Italian Family


Rare 'Cappello del Doge' vase

circa 1962
Doppio incalmo coloured and clear glass.
14.1 cm (5 1/2 in.) high, 13.5 cm (5 3/8 in.) diameter
Produced by Venini & C., Murano, Italy. Underside acid-etched venini/murano/ITALIA.

£20,000 - 30,000 

Sold for £23,750

Contact Specialist
Madalena Horta e Costa
Head of Sale
+44 20 7318 4019

Modern Masters

London Auction 26 April 2017