Few things are as mesmerizing to watch as skilled glassblowers in the hot shop, gathering molten glass on their long iron rods then swiftly adding color, form, and texture before it cools in minutes. In Blown Away, a reality-competition glassblowing show that first aired on Netflix in 2019, this grace and elegance is also punctuated by a lot of stress: the inevitable shattering form, the ticking clock. ARTnews recently caught up with Alex Rosenberg, a season one contestant and one of five fan favorites set to compete in a Blown Away holiday miniseries that’s available to stream beginning November 19. In his work, Rosenberg, who also made an appearance as a guest judge on the show’s second season earlier this year, asks probing, existential questions about the use and value of specialized handcraft in contemporary society. In his offscreen art practice, some of his witty performances and installations are outright hijinks.
ARTnews: I heard about this performance you did where you sold handmade drinking glasses on the sidewalk outside of big box stores. I hope the rumors are true because it sounds very intriguing.
Alex Rosenberg: Oh, wow—that’s a deep cut! But yes, that definitely happened. I think it was in 2007 or 2008, in Massachusetts, and I believe there was no documentation. At the time, I was excited about learning the craft of glassblowing, but I’ve never really been able to make any money from it until very recently. I spent years striving to achieve some pinnacle of craftsmanship or whatever—but that didn’t really translate into what most audiences were interested in. Still, I really liked making clear glass and I wanted to get good at it. So I would get these products from Pier 1, Crate & Barrel, or similar stores, and then I would just try to replicate them. Eventually, I started selling these on the street right outside the store they were from. I was inspired in part by Eric Doeringer, who made miniature versions of various paintings outside of a Chelsea gallery and sold them.
But in your case, the forgery gesture is in reversed, at least as far as value is concerned. The version sold on the street is artisanal and the one inside is mass produced. Did people buy your pieces?
I don’t remember anyone buying anything. And in retrospect, the idea seems kind of self-aggrandizing, as if I was implying that the value of my craft is unquantifiable or something.
I read it as pretty self-aware, as this sort of existential commentary on craft under late capitalism. It sounds like many people sadly preferred the impersonal experience of the store. I’m curious about another piece you did, 2.6 Cents an Hour (2006), which seems related.
Oh, that’s one of my favorites! Rather than thinking about different ways to sell glass, I thought, what if I just make currency? I devised a process for making loose change by casting [a type of glass known as] lead crystal, then I applied a chemical coating that gives the coins a metallic appearance. The coating is very delicate, so as someone handles the coins, the coating slowly wears off and the true materiality is revealed. The nickels actually worked in pay phones and vending machines, but other coins were too lightweight. I was excited about the prospect of some stranger getting these coins as they entered circulation. But I was also thinking about how to measure the worth of skilled labor.
This theme of forgery keeps coming up. I know that when you’re learning to blow glass, you start by learning to replicate certain forms perfectly, like an orb. With your practice, you seem to approach that process in a more conceptual way, so that act of replication takes on new meaning, beyond a technical exercise.
That’s the perfect way to say it. You learn by copying forms in museums or history books that are considered the pinnacle of craft. But I started thinking, if I am copying this, why not copy that?
In Repertoire (2011–12), you used these glasses and vessels that you made during demos while teaching, then created an arrangement that, when lit correctly, casts a shadow onto the wall that perfectly resembles a man with an exaggerated erection lying down. It’s pretty uncanny.
That work came in part from the fact that I love learning new skills, techniques, and materials. I started thinking about shadows as a new medium to explore. I had a hard time showing this work because I couldn’t teach anyone else to install it. I tried working with a studio assistant, thinking that if I could teach one person to assemble the work, then maybe there could be a way to get people to install it elsewhere. But nobody ever could. The piece won a prize from a European museum in 2012 [Glazenhuis, Belgium], and part of the deal was that they were supposed to acquire the work. But they told me they couldn’t, since nobody could install it. They just wrote me a check instead.
I can see how it would require an expert because it’s not only that you created a certain shape, but you also created a very specific lighting effect by playing with the translucency and thickness of the various glass pieces.
After that, I decided to let the work deconstruct itself. I showed it once more in Europe, at this tiny glass museum in Denmark [the Glasmuseet Ebeltoft]. On the last day, visitors were invited to take one piece home, until all that was left was the one long, vertical shadow. I usually feel more comfortable pairing these technical exercises with something more self-effacing, and I wanted to poke fun at the machismo one often encounters in the hot shop.
Through several of these projects you seem to be saying, “Yes, I can make these perfect forms, but so what?” I hope I’m not putting that too harshly. But these projects feel rather different than some of the work you made on Blown Away. That made me curious: is there space for these questions in the glass world?
I think there is. It’s more that art on TV is just weird. There are all these incredible constraints—you’re really, really limited in terms of time and material. And it’s a family-friendly TV show, so it’s a very different audience. I have to say I found the critiques pretty disarming! I’m an educator [at Salem Community College], and I do critiques often. I started realizing, Oh, I am supposed to defend myself—this is a competition. I usually think of crits as an opportunity to reconcile my intention with an audience’s perception. On the show, it’s less about learning and growth, and more about defending your choices to the judges. That really threw me off at first.
But glass is always a performing art in a way. You have to practice all the time to keep it up, and there are choreographies involved since you’re often working with a partner. You have to do everything swiftly before the glass cools. I make sure to practice a few days a week; it feels a lot like doing scales. And performance is definitely coming up more in my studio these days.
Tell me about a more recent work of yours.
I’ve been trying to find more ways to work in public space, From 2018–19, I worked on a project at the Eastern State Penitentiary here in Philadelphia. It’s considered the world’s first penitentiary. It’s sort of in ruins and is a tourist attraction. Sometimes, they have art shows in the cells. But because it’s a National Historic Landmark, there are so many restrictions—you can’t put a nail in the wall or paint anything, so it’s a very strange place to show work.
I noticed that the wall surrounding it is made of the same kind of stone [Wissahickon Schist] that you would be climbing on if you were climbing in the Philadelphia area. And I imagined that the people who were incarcerated there probably fantasized about climbing over it. I went through the archives, where various escapes are recorded in the wardens’ journals. Shockingly, they let me climb the wall. I got to do 12 ascents using climbing equipment that I made from materials that would have been available to people that were in the prison at the time. I had some formerly incarcerated people teach me some craft techniques that they learned when they were in prison, like how to make a rope out of bed sheets. I worked with structural engineers and climbed the wall several times over the course of a couple weeks. I didn’t use glass for this project—there are certain skills and techniques I continually revisit, but I’m always wanting to learn new ones, too. Then, I set up an installation in one of the cells, where I displayed the gear, some drawings, and archival materials related to the site in a vitrine. Finally, I made an artist book recording the craft techniques and methods I learned. It can be used as an actual climbers’ guide for this specific site.