Dante Marioni: Glassblower, by Tina Oldknow
The graceful blown-glass vessels of Dante Marioni are internationally recognized for their intense, vibrant colors and sophisticated, classic design. Marioni has a love and an enduring respect for the process of glassblowing, and he is careful to preserve the transitions of the craft as they were passed on to him. For Marioni, making objects is about the art of glassblowing rather than the blowing of glass art, and his elegant works are the radiant record of his ongoing relationship with the material.
Through the process of making his vessels, which are inspired by forms found in the ancient and Renaissance art of Italy, Marioni has entered a centuries-long artistic conversation about classical design, proportion, and aesthetics that dates back to the first Roman emperors who looked at Greek art and to the first Renaissance artists who rediscovered classical antiquity. Confident in the strength of his vision and in his mastery of a demanding medium, Marioni has unselfconsciously and studiously pursued his own interpretation of classical design, resulting in forms and colors in glass that are fresh, inventive, and tradition-breaking.
Apprentice To Tradition
Dante Marioni considers himself a traditionalist, and he has in fact learned glass-blowing in the most traditional way possible. Unlike many artists working in glass today, Marioni is not the product of a college or an art school program. He has learned his craft from American and Italian master glassblowers, primarily the Muranese maestro Lino Tagliapietra and Americans Benjamin Moore and Richard Marquis, both of whom traveled to the Venini glassworks on the island of Murano, near Venice, to learn glassblowing techniques.
Marioni was not a typical apprentice, however. Growing up in a family of influential artists and intellectuals that included his father, Paul Marioni, a pioneer of the American studio glass movement; his uncle, Joseph Marioni, a painter of monochromatic canvases in New York; and another uncle, Tom Marioni, a performance artist in northern California’s Bay Area, the younger Marioni could not help but be aware of movements and trends in contemporary art. More importantly, his world view was shaped by artists, which his naturally questioning, honest, and direct intellect reveals.
A black-and-white photo dating from 1968 shows Dante Marioni as a child with his father in the Mission District in San Francisco. The period is easy for anyone of a certain age to remember: the Bay Area was the center of a counter-culture revolution, and Haight-Ashbury was the happening hippie mecca. Marioni remembers being with his father and his friends, but he could not appreciate what they were doing, being too young to understand the newness of studio glassworking, not to mention their rebellious brand of it. “My father’s friends – all artist – definitely influences me,” says Marioni. “I think my education has been from being around all these leaders of the American studio glass movement, like Dick Marquis, who I’ve known since was seven years old, Fritz Dreisbach, Jay Musler….It was a big advantage that most people in glass do not have, and I was very lucky.”
Marioni was frustrated by the “gooey blobs and drips” that he witnessed being made in the 1970s, but remembers a few pieces from his youth: a Richard Marquis marble, which the artist gave him at a Renaissance Fair, and a Marquis teapot, which interested Marioni mostly because it was nonfunctional. But of all the glass objects lying around the house, the piece that impressed him the most was one made by Benjamin Moore. “My dad had this bowl that Benny had given him, and it was so symmetrical,” Marioni remembers, “It looked like a car wheel: it was folded, like a rim on a wheel, and I asked my dad about it, because I hadn’t seen anything like it. Everything was dip and drop, that’s what I saw growing up in California. I thought it was pretty cool and I looked at it for a long time. It was my favorite thing in the house.”
Of all the American studio glass artist who traveled to Venini in the late 1960s and 1970s – Dale Chihuly, Richard Marquis, James Carpenter, Dan Dailey, and Marvin Lipofsky – Benjamin Moore was the one who most absorbed the Venini design aesthetic. As Anna Venini Diaz de Santillana, the daughter of Paolo Venini, has observed, in addition to being a factory, Venini was also a culture, and while disseminating techniques to young American artists, Venini’s master glassblowers also disseminated Venini’s unique style. Moore returned from Italy with a strong sense of the direction he wanted to pursue in glass, a more design-oriented path that was as foreign to the artists struggling to free glass from its traditional role as vessel as it was to the craftspeople engaged in making popular art glass vases. Moore produced sleek, perfectly round, minimal vessels that were inspired by postwar Italian design, art deco, and turn-of-the-century Austrian glass produced by the Wiener Werkstatte, yet his work remained very contemporary and very American.
In 1979, Marioni’s family moved from the Bay Area to Seattle. Dante Marioni began taking lessons at The Glass Eye – a production glass studio started by Seattle artist Rob Adamson – and hanging out in the summer at Pilchuck Glass School with his father, who taught there for fourteen years straight, from 1974 to 1988. For Marioni, Pilchuck was not particularly special because it was a regular, seasonal part of his life. As he remembers it, “Summertime meant Pilchuck.” Marioni learned a lot about glass and about working as an artist, and he formed relationships with people who would become very meaningful to him, such as Benjamin Moore and Lino Tagliapietra.
“I remember going to Pilchuck with my dad in the winter of 1979, when I first started to blow glass,” says Marioni, “We went into a studio and there were some objects that Lino had made, all these perfect little cups, bowls, and pitchers. I had never seen anything like it. That’s always been something that has intrigued me as a glassblower. I was more interested in perfecting something than in inventing it.”
For someone who was not that interested in glassblowing when he started, Marioni caught on quickly, particularly after his graduation from high school in 1982, when he started working full-time at The Glass Eye. It was at The Glass Eye that he first saw Benjamin Moore blow glass, which inspired him to really pursue the craft. “We didn’t have any kind of formal mentoring going on, but Benny was the guy I looked up to for everything, in terms of influences,” says Marioni. “He was the guy who had the experience, and I listened. Above all, he was friendly to me, and put with all my questions.” Marioni spent most of his time with Benjamin Moore up at Pilchuck, where Moore served as the school’s education coordinator from 1974 to 1987.
The year 1983 was a defining one for Marioni. He met Lino Tagliapietra, and he took a glassblowing class at the Penland School of Crafts, taught by the family’s longtime friend Fritz Dreisbach. “I don’t think that my dad wanted me to pursue [a glassblowing] career,” says Marioni. “He wasn’t really excited about it when I announced that this was what I was going to do. He just said, ‘Really?’ …. But after that year, there was no way I was turning back.”
Dante Marioni’s introduction to Lino Tagliapietra, and Marioni’s subsequent development as a glassblower, has acquired a semilegendary quality. “ I was there the moment when Dante came up to Pilchuck and saw Lino Tagliapietra,” recalls Seattle art patron Anne Gould Hauberg, who founded Pilchuck Glass School with her husband, John Hauberg, and the artist Dale Chihuly. “It is one of the vivid memories I have. Lino was there, blowing glass. And Dante was just nineteen. …He was standing there and watching, and his face became determined. He was the right age, the right person, at the right place, and in the right circumstances, and he made up his mind, ‘I can do that.’ You could see it, in his face.” “When I saw Lino,” affirms Marioni, “That was a big deal. Not to make a huge deal out of one moment, but that was big deal. After that, every time Lino came back to Seattle, I was present, and my technical abilities changed dramatically each time I was exposed to him. Lino is the master, and that says it all. His command of the glassmaking language is unmatched.”
Glassblowing is taught by demonstration, and perfected by endless repetition. In addition to his exposure to Tagliapietra, Dante Marioni was still working at The Glass Eye, where he blew glass in the summers up at Pilchuck, which was the principal place to go for technique during the 1980s. Prior to Lino Tagliapietra’s arrival at Pilchuck in 1979, the glassblowing techniques taught there were somewhat idiosyncratic, combining a hodgepodge of European techniques that artists had acquired on their trips abroad, as well as individual preferences. Techniques, after all, was not the main priority, and many artists studiously avoided becoming technically proficient until they realized that there was really no other way to get the material to do what they wanted.
It is fairly universally agreed that after Tagliapietra’s first summer at Pilchuck, glassblowing at Pilchick (and eventually throughout the United States) was changed forever. “On Lino’s second day at Pilchuck, I asked him, ‘What do you think?’” Paul Marioni recalls. “Lino said, ‘You treat glass like ceramic here, you work it so cold. Glass has to be worked hot.’ Lino taught us all the things you could do with glass when it was really hot, and how it had to be worked that way. It was not our generation, but the next generation of glassblowers who learned to blow glass the right way, from the beginning. They had a head start in learning how to do things right, and they quickly surpassed us in technical ability.” Dante Marioni was among this new generation. He had blown glass for only a couple of years before veteran glassblowers at Pilchuck started noticing how quickly he was progressing and began to respect his understanding of the craft.
Whoppers, Etruscans, Needlenoses, and Trios
In 1986, the art deal William Traver offered Marioni his first solo show at Traver’s Seattle gallery, giving him a year’s advance warning. Marioni knew he had to come up with a new body of work, and he wanted to make it big. So that he could make larger work, Benjamin Moore offered Marioni the use of his studio on weekends. “This is when I conceived of the Whopper Vases,” says Marioni. “Benny let me use his shop, and I got the guys together and we set about it. I did not really learn how to blow big from working with the artists in Chihuly’s circle. There are little things that you pick up any time you’re around glassblowers, but going to Pilchuck and watching Billy Morris blow…. Well, Billy does everything himself, because he’s a huge guy, and he can reach way out and not get burnt, and I can’t. I knew I had to approach it differently. I learned how to blow big by working with people I knew – Benny Moore and Robbie Miller, and my good friends Joey DeCamp, Paul Cunningham, Preston Singletary, and Janusz Posniak, who learned with me.”
The primary, comic book colors and heroically scaled, classical shapes of the Whoppers made an instant, and lasting impression. No one had ever seen color used in such a way, and on such a scale. The Whoppers exploited one of the most ancient forms in glass: the simple flask, which – when handles are added – becomes the classical amphora. The tradition and antiquity of the minimal shape, combined with Marioni’s bright, hip, almost pop colors, was irresistible and startlingly original. With the Whoppers, Marioni found his aesthetic formula, and it set him on a path of development in form and color with seemingly unending potential. Marioni’s art works so well partly because it reflects exactly who he is: Someone who has jettisoned a more free-floating, experimental, “hippie” approach to glass and embraced technique and structure. Someone with a reverence for the past and tradition, who nevertheless is fluent in popular culture.
Marioni began his next series in 1989, when he started to make the Etruscan Vases. The forms were inspired by some ancient storage amphoras Marioni had seen in a magazine. These amphoras, which are commonly found by Mediterranean fisherman, originally were used to ship and store a variety of food and liquids. They have simple, full, somewhat elongated bodies that are pointed at the base to facilitate burial, up to their shoulders, in cool earth or sand. Marioni paired some of his Etruscan Vases with a footed cup, which refers both to the Renaissance Venetian glass tazza and to the ancient Greek kylix, a two-handled ceramic drinking cup. As with the flask/amphora, it is the handles that distinguish the kylix from the tazza.
In the following year, Marioni added to his corpus of classical forms, developing a Goose Beak Pitcher – a popular Italian shape with Etruscan roots – and a little later, a kylix to go with it. After spending some time perfecting this pitcher-cup duo, which he titled Pairs, Marioni added a third element: a distinctive type of flattened footed Flask, which is known as a pilgrim flask. This form also had roots in Renaissance Venetian glass, as well as in ancient Roman glass, and became the final element of what Marioni called his Trios. The only other series that Marioni has conceived of in “pairs” are the Lumpy Pairs, Needenose Pairs, and Flask Pairs, from 1992, 1994, and 1996 respectively. The Lumpy Pairs – consisting of a ribbed Pitcher and Kylix – again reference Renaissance Venetian glassblowing techniques and ancient Greek ceramic shapes. The characteristic expanded ribs are used in both Bohemian and Venetian goblets during the late sixteenth century. The technique was also a favorite of Italian glass designer Napoleone Martinuzzi (1982-1977), whose work from the 1920s and early 1930s was instrumental in defining the Italian novecento style in glass. For the Flask Pairs, Marioni returned to the pilgrim flask form he has first developed for the Trios, modifying the proportions so that the Flasks were significantly taller and thinner.
Marioni’s Needlenose Pairs, in contrast, represent a more personal interpretation of ancient ceramic forms. They are impressive for their synthesis of tradition and innovation, especially since Marioni’s understanding of these forms is developed through the process of making the object, rather than the visual analysis of it. The tall, thin neck, stretched out like the jaws of a needlefish, is an interesting modification of the ancient Greek oil bottle, or lekythos. The companion pieces to the Needlenose Vases, which vary in shape and size, are more neoclassical than classical, and recall the famous novecentro-style vases designed by Napoleone Martinuzzi. As Marioni is quick to point out, the combination of his forms is historically inaccurate, but this fact makes them even more interesting. Marioni’s ability to take ancient forms and combine them with each other or with later, neoclassical interpretations, or even significantly modify them and still have them feel classical, is partly what makes his work so original.
In 1999, Marioni introduced a “new style” of Trios, which presented taller, thinner silhouettes of the Goose Beak Pitcher, Kylix, and Flask. As he has refined his blowing ability over time, Marioni has gradually moved away from shorter, fuller forms to more elongated, almost mannerist ones. Marioni maintains that the thinner shapes were what he was always striving for, but that he just did not have the skill to make them. A look at the artist’s drawings from a few years ago shows, indeed, that Marioni’s newer forms are closer to the drawn profiles. “I’m constantly having ideas to make things that are technically beyond where I’m at,” says Marioni. “There are a lot of things that I want to do that I simply can’t pull off now. So, I just keep working at it until I get it.”
Color, Leaf Vases, and Mosaics
Dante Marioni’s intense, saturated colors are as stylish as his forms are classic. His combination of opaque colors and classical forms has some relation to the Italian novecentro-style vases produced by designers like Napoleone Martinuzzi and Tomaso Buzzi (1900-1981), yet Marioni’s color sensibility remains very personal and very American in its references to American popular culture. Opaque colored glasses ultimately have their precedent in the ancient and Renaissance glasses made in imitation of gems and semiprecious stones, and have been, over the course of centuries, a Murano staple.
Marioni has no color theories, but bases his choices on what looks good together and what colors will be most compatible. He enjoys shopping for color, and approaches the purchase of colors in the same way he shops for produce – he looks at everything and chooses what looks good. Standing in Marioni’s studio, in fact, in not unlike standing in the midst of a large outdoor farmers market, with its vistas of appealing colors in a variety of round shapes. Marioni is inspired by the colors he finds, and the availability of colors on a given shipping day will dictate what he uses in his work. Colors change, often dramatically, from batch to batch, and when Marioni finds the perfect egg-yolk yellow or clear grey, he will make as much use out of it as he can.
“My uncle Joe has influenced me, but not directly,” notes Marioni. “He paints monochromatic color fields – just a square of blue or yellow – and he rolls the paint onto the canvas, he doesn’t use a brush. His finished pieces are stunning, and I like that kind of impact.” Marioni observes that his own use of color is “too minimal for most people” and that his work, in many ways, is a reaction to intense surface decoration. The art glass of the 1970s was characterized by a penchant for fuming, which created an iridescent, Tiffany-style surface, while in the 1980s, glassblowers favored the application of additional color in the form of “jimmies” (small bits of colored glass) and internal decorations such as Venetian filigrana techniques. Marioni learned all these techniques during his employment at The Glass Eye, whose production glasswares were highly decorative.
Following his instinct for the concentration of color that wears best on his forms, Marioni has stuck with opaque colors, with occasional forays into more transparent hues. He admires other people’s use and understanding of transparent colors – particularly that of Seattle artist Sonja Blomdahl and Italian artist Laura de Santillana – but using transparent colors, for him, is a quite different process. Mainly, he cannot shop for transparent colors the way he shops for opaque (because the transparent rods are uniformly dark), and thus he must go after something he already has in mind instead of being inspired by a new color. Yet certain pieces seem to take transparent colors well, particularly the Leaf Vases, begun in 1994. This series, and the Mosaic Vases, begun in 1996, are Marioni’s only non-opaque colored series. “I have also blended colors, transparent and opaque,” adds Marioni. “But I realized after making some of the pieces – like Whopper Vases – that the transparent colors didn’t work with the static shapes I was doing. The straight lines did not do well as more curving ones, for example.”
The Leaf Vases, which gave Marioni plenty of curves to work with, seem at first to represent something of an anomaly in Marioni’s work. “I started making them when I visited the Rhode Island School of Design in 1993,” says Marioni. “I made little colorless maquettes and started making large pieces shortly thereafter. They don’t really refer to anything other than a leaf, yet they have elements that derive from Venetian glass.” What Marioni particularly likes about the Leaf Vases is the repetitive curve of their profile, which translates well in both opaque and transparent colors.
The Mosaic Vases – large, minimal, tall-necked forms that relate to the Whoppers – were started as a project with Richard Marquis during a workshop in Japan. Both Marquis, a master of the Venetian murrine (mosaic) technique, and Marioni wanted to re-create a specific kind of murrine called occhi (eyes), which employed colorless murrine ringed with a solid color, such as black, red, or yellow. Marioni recalls that the first occhi piece he and Marquis made was “black with little clear windows.” From Japan, the two artists continued to Australia and made more of them. “We made one with red and yellow checkerboards,” says Marioni, “and the following spring, we brought a whole bunch of color bars to Pilchuck and made all these experimental pieces. It was really special for me to be able to do that.”
The Mosaic Vases, like the Leaf Vases, represented a different path for Marioni. For the first time, he used colorless glass combined with solid colors for his huge forms – a radical departure from his opaque colors – and even more unexpectedly, opened himself up to the idea of internal decoration. Although Marioni had long made work with and for other people that involved all kinds of internal decoration and other “surface” embellishments,” he has not applied them to his own work.
Goblets, Gambos, and Finestras
Dante Marioni’s understanding of traditional forms ultimately stems from his reverence for them. The goblet in particular has been a focal point for Marioni, not only because goblets are the best glassblowing “exercise,” but also because they represent a perfect glass form. While footed cups are known in ancient Roman glass, the true goblet, a form that embodies the fundamental Renaissance ideals of harmony, proportion, and balance, was a Muranese invention. Goblets have been an interest of Marioni’s ever since he worked at The Glass Eye and, later, with Richard Marquis, whom he assisted in making the Teapot Goblets. Although Marioni’s goblets do not have a whole lot to do stylistically with his larger and more colorful work (at least not prior to 1997), they are what he tends to make for himself. It is as if the goblet acts as a point of departure for Marioni – those small, demanding shapes, almost always made in colorless glass, that bring his attention back to the material.
Marioni has take some interesting detours with goblets, resulting in collections of them presented in boxes or forming a gigantic column, such as his chandelier for an office building in Tacoma, Washington, made entirely of transparent green goblets. Marioni conceived of his boxed presentations as an “homage” to the goblet,” setting aside goblets he had made and particularly liked for his “collections.” One of these projects consisted of a series of goblets lined up and fitted inside a box that has been designed around their proportions. Marioni liked the “skyline” effect made by the cup shelf, and had the goblets sand-blasted and acid-etched so that they would show up better. “It was about goblet appreciation, to me, in a custom display unit,” says Marioni. “Like the other cup projects I’ve done, I originally made it for myself.”
Marioni’s ultimate homage to the goblet, however, may be the Gambo Vases, which he started making in 1997. The Gambo, or “leg” in Italian, refers to the simple type of blown goblet stem that was Marioni’s source for the new form. “The stem of a Venetian goblet is a drop,” explains Marioni. “It’s a bubble that the glassblower just lets drip, and there’s nothing more natural than that in glassblowing. That’s where the Gambo Vases come from: the stem. It’s a natural form for glass.”
The Gambo Vases are elegant, almost bowling pin-like forms that are essentially two big bubbles joined using an incalmo technique. Unlike Marioni’s other large vessels in opaque colors, the Gambos are not primarily one color with a second accent color used to articulate handles, balls, and wraps, but are instead two vivid colors that interact in an entirely different way. There are many precedents for the use of the incalmo technique, and works of particular interest to Marioni include pieces by the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala (1951-1985), whose 1960s incalmo designs for Venini are well known, and Seattle glassblower Sonja Blomdahl, who uses double and triple incalmo joins in her vessels. Through his use of incalmo, Marioni has further integrated his forms and colors, and as a result, color plays a larger role in visually defining the form. The Gambos are dynamic, contemporary shapes that, although historic, have become abstracted and ahistoric through Marioni’s manipulation of scale and reduction of form.
After his initial involvement with surface decoration in the Mosaics, Marioni has recently returned to this idea with his Finestra Vases, a series begun in 1999. Starting with a basic Gambo shape, Marioni has introduced a “window,” of finestra, at the shoulder of the vessel that is executed in mosaic (the same technique used for the Mosaic Vases) and, most recently, in the Renaissance Venetian filigrana technique known as a reticello. Vetro a reticello is a type of internal decoration in which air bubbles are trapped within a net pattern. The technique – which looks impressive and is, in fact, challenging – usually features tiny bubbles and thin netting, and it is primarily used for plates and goblets. Marioni’s reticello, on the other hand, is considerably magnified. The netting is closer to the size of a fishing net, rather than a hairnet, and the bubbled are correspondingly larger. At this size, there is no room for mistakes: everything is noticeable, and the placement of bubbles has to be perfect.
With the Finestras, Marioni has found an original way to incorporate internal decoration without disrupting his minimal forms – not an easy feat. Again, the Finestras are interesting not only for the interpretation of traditions that they represent, but also for the personal, innovative way in which Marioni has translated and even redefined those traditions. While Marioni maintains that he feels more comfortable, as a glassblower, in the realm of design rather than art, it is this aspect of his work that distinguishes it as art, which the best design always is.
A final, significant aspect of Dante Marioni’s work is the monumentality and architectonic quality of his vessels. This is unusual to find in blown glass, and is partly a consequence of Marioni’s classicism. Certainly, Marioni’s tall, thin pieces reference urban architecture in their scale and verticality, but even the smaller vessels have an undeniably architectural feel. This is most evident when Marioni’s objects are positioned against an architectural backdrop, such as the photograph of the Yellow Pair that appeared on the cover of The White House Collection of American Crafts. In that photograph, the Pair is shot in the context of an antique American interior, that of the While House, with a view of the Washington Monument beyond. The soaring spout of the Goose Beak Pitcher echoes the ascent of the obelisk, while the horizontal profile of the kylix is repeated in the skyline of the Mall’s uniformly high buildings, establishing a surprising and breathtaking visual relationship between the forms. Hopefully, Marioni is proud of that photograph. Rarely does such a harmony between architecture and art, particularly functional forms, assert itself. Then again, rarely does such a reverence for tradition and process as Marioni’s result in a direction for art so individual, unselfconscious, and untraditional.
Tina Oldknow, Retired Curator of Modern Glass at The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY
Dante Marioni, by James Yood
Dante Marioni’s acknowledgement of the tradition from which he springs begins with his overt and thoughtful dialogue with functionality. Glass as a sculptural medium, of course, has been tied to use and utility for thousands of years, as a material out of which skilled artisans fabricated vessels, cups, bowls, vases, plates, etc., true domestic ware that became part of daily life. Almost immediately a kind of parallel pursuit began, the production of high-end ware designed for a luxury market, creating vessels and the like rarely if ever intended to be used, fabricated for the adornment of the home, as signs of status, objects of visual pleasure, aimed for the mantle, not the table. In Venice, and particularly in the glass workshops on the island of Murano, workshops began to concentrate on the fabrication of such highly refined glassware at least five hundred years ago, and still produce such material today. Generation after generation of superb artists contributed to this tradition, until the phrase “Venetian Glass” became a sign of excellence, the top of the line. Marioni has made the visual and intellectual absorption of such material his life’s passion, and the extension of it into contemporary art his life’s work; he is drawn to that moment when a vase becomes a ewer, when a glass becomes a goblet, when a cup becomes a kylix. But functionality, the implication of the potential of use, remains a crucial conceptual tether for Marioni, the insistent touchstone on which he can hang his stunning stylistic riffs.
Dante Marioni does all this with such assuredness and grace as to make his vision seem inevitable, the perfect conjuncture of skill and perception. Of course, Marioni’s great technical talents provide him the means to work this magic, and the sheer bravura performance of his manipulation of glass is wonderful to witness. He naturally drifts towards, as Italians put it, difficulta, a kind of ceaseless testing of his skills, a brinkmanship that stimulates his energies. Part of his pleasure in this work, one senses, is in the performative aspect of glassblowing, in the risky moments of getting it right, in that crucial instant where a piece will work or fall apart. If the legacy of functionality is a conceptual tether for Marioni, an almost indefatigable hunger for technical proficiency is a driving formal force for him. His work is an inventory of some of the most beautiful and difficult strategies in hot glass, a primer in reticello, murrini, perhaps the finest examples of handles in the history of art (a personal confession – I can look at Marioni’s handles for hours, they give his vessels a kind of primary frontal view, a firm visual articulation, each one a perfect little – sometimes not so little – curvy caress, ceaseless in their variety, with all the attitude of human limbs, providing their objects with personality, their scale, color, form, and manner of connection to the object they adorn about as close to perfection as exists anywhere in contemporary art. This can make his goblets and vases without handles sometimes look at first naked and defenseless, vulnerable, like an ancient statue that has lost its limbs.), and clear glass, colored glass, etc., this is an artist who always needs to move on to the next challenge.
But let’s broaden the context of what is Italian about this most American artist. The artists that leap to mind when experiencing his work can be Tintoretto and Pontormo as much as they ever are Tagliapietra or Venini; the Italian nature with which Marioni is imbued extends far beyond the history of glass. Take, for example, one of Marioni’s wonderful Trio ensembles – They’re like a Holy Family in three vessels, a little sacra conversazione in colored glass. I never see one of his impossibly elongated pitchers, its slender elegance arcing upwards, always upwards, seemingly farther than a neck can go, without thinking of Parmagianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck, with a slimness, a grazia, that is almost musical in its rhythm. (One of Mary’s many honorific appellations is “vessel most pure.”) This interplay between the vessel and the human form is not unique to Marioni, but it is rarely so, well, bella, so well proportioned and judicious. Once of the touchstones of Italian and classical art is its pursuit of the ideal rather than the real, the search for an exemplar that resides somehow perfect in the mind rather than in the stuff of the world around us. You may know that old tale about Raphael, that when he was asked to paint a beautiful woman he decided to look at many beautiful women, so he could combine in one image the very best parts of each. That seems close to Marioni’s way, his maniera, in form and in color his vessels appear heightened to some core concept, some purified condensation of their essence. These sculptures, sensual and seductive, subtle and sinuous, celebrate beauty as an end in itself, providing us an aperture to visual pleasure and satisfaction that little else does. They attempt and achieve the very difficult balancing act between line and color that so obsessed the artists of the Italian Renaissance, the supple nature of their often curvaceous exterior contour, the spun-out linearity of the handles, etc., meeting Marioni’s often deeply saturated and rich color.
But what constitutes “Italian” anyway? Italy is the mysteries of the ancient Etruscans, the empire of Rome, a medieval assemblage of warring principalities, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Risorgimento, Futurism, Fellini, Verdi, Michelangelo, etc., It’s an incredibly complex matrix of styles and attitudes. It has also been for some centuries the home of some of the most important and evocative work in design done anywhere. That’s where I like to position Dante Marioni, as simpatico to that tradition, rethinking objects of use in a way that dignifies both maker and audience, that somehow ennobles us just by letting us look at them. Marioni’s work finally can be understood as classic, rather than classical, a modern and contemporary evaluation of some principles considered by previous maestri, not an homage to the past as much as it is its reinvigoration, his discovery that a new and bold articulation of tradition ends up energizing the past, the present, and, the undoubtedly, the future.
James Yood, Professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and regular contributor to Artforum, GLASS, and American Craft magazine.