Robert Willson
Artist's Biography
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Artist's Biography

Robert Willson (1912-2000) was one of the most complex and contradictory American artists of the past century. Among the first American sculptors to use solid glass in a small factory setting, he was at once regional and international, steeped in pre-Columbian art as well as Texas folklore. Educated in the Southwest and Mexico, he discovered the glass studios of Murano, Italy, at the age of forty-four and never looked back. Robert Willson was a gangly fellow who sounded like actor James Stewart, fell in love with Venice and spent the next thirty-seven summers there making solid glass sculptures.

Long before other American glass artists found their way to the island of Murano in the Venice lagoon in the 1960’s, Willson was already a respected, steady presence. By the time of his death at eighty-eight in San Antonio, he had been repeatedly recognized by art museums through exhibitions and acquisitions, received two prestigious Italian museum retrospectives, participated (as an Italian) in several Venice Biennale exhibitions and been feted in a palazzo or two. Moving far beyond the humble stone house on a Choctaw Indian reservation of his childhood, Robert Willson lived multiple lives; young man in Mexico, family man and academic in Arkansas and Florida, sophisticated international artist in Venice, secret author and diarist in San Antonio, Venice and Miami.

As a young man of twenty-three, Willson was swept up in the Mexican Revolution, briefly painted with Diego Rivera, and was befriended by Frida Kahlo, Jos Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, many of whom he captured in photographs. Part of Mexican art history, too, Willson was among the first U.S.-born artists in the 1930s to adapt Mayan and Mexican folk art imagery. His art continually blended ancient Mayan imagery with ancient Venetian glassmaking techniques.

Willson was a diarist, correspondent, art magazine contributor, museum catalogue author, and loquacious television interview subject. His observations included prescient comments, not only about the future of glass in American art and architecture, but also about major and minor figures of Mexican and Italian art, the Mexican muralists of his youth, and three generations of Murano glass masters—Barbini, Zuffi, Guarnieri, Rosin, Signoretto, Raffaeli—all of whom he hired to execute his increasingly massive forms. Willson’s writings form an important international archive, part of the tradition of American artists who traveled abroad for instruction, exhibitions, acceptance, and recognition.

Robert Willson’s story is a tale of the clash between American pragmatism and European sophistication, the reconciliation of that conflict and a mutual triumph. Illustrated with examples from numerous American and Italian art collections, this site should be of interest to artists, collectors, glass enthusiasts, curators and art critics.

Biographical Chronology

1912 Robert William Willson is born on May 12, 1912, in Mertzon, Texas, to James Thomas and Birdie Alice Willson

1912-30 Family moves frequently during his childhood throughout Texas and Oklahoma: reveals an artistic bent early on, drawing portraits of friends and family; spends much time exploring on horseback with Bud Dukes, a member of Native American Choctaw tribe

1930-34 Attends University of Texas at Austin on Texas Regents Scholarship: concentrates studies in English: develops friendship with noted Texas writer J. Frank Dobic: because the University has no art department, he pursues his interests in visual arts independently: creates a ceramic tile design which is installed on campus dining hail; graduates with honors in 1934, Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in English

1935 Granted Farmer International Fellowship from University of Texas to study in Mexico: begins art research with Jose Clemente Orozco; studies with Rufino Tamayo: paints with Diego Rivera on mural at the National Palace: meets David Alfaro Siquieros: originated first course in the history of modern Mexican art at the University of Mexico; travels to various regions of Mexico to see significant ruins, local museums and peoples; records much of what he encounters in a sketchbook

1936-40 Public school teacher in various small Texas towns such as Harlingen, Ranger and Shep

1940 Hired as director of art department as Texas Wesleyan College, Fort Worth: enters studies of Texas landscapes in new sketchbook he maintains until 1948

1941 Further research in Mexico with Jose Clemente Orozco; graduates with honors, Master of Fine Arts degree from Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, San Miguel: visits master potter Harding Black in San Antonio, initiating an ongoing personal and professional relationship: marries Virginia Lambert on August 12

1942 Inducted into military: training at U.S. Marine Corps School at Quantico, Virginia: further training at U.S. Navy School, Washington, D.C.

1943-44 Serves in Marine Corps air intelligence in South Pacific: depicts and describes in sketchbook tropical beauty of New Hebrides, New Caledonia and Solomon Islands, as well as the terrors of war

1945 Discharged from Marine Corps as captain; resumes position at Texas Wesleyan College; son Mark Joseph is born

1946 Takes year’s lease from Texas Wesleyan for further study under G.I. Bill; experiments with ceramic glazes in workshop of Harding Black at the Witte Museum, San Antonio; teaches drawing at Trinity University, San Antonio; juror for Texas Watercolor Society Exhibition, Witte Museum, San Antonio, with Etienne Ret and Eleanor Onderdonk

1947 Returns to Texas Wesleyan; included in American National Ceramics juried exhibition and tour

1948 Director, Nob Hill Art Gallery, Winslow, Arkansas; founder/director of Ozark Council of Artists

1950 Included in US National Watercolor Juried Show, Alabama

1952 Hired as Professor of Art at University of Miami, Florida; teaches ceramics, enameling and drawing

1956 Receives National Study Grant to the Corning Museum of Glass, New York; there researches the history and techniques of glass; also assists on installation of ancient glass display and initiates museum’s bibliography of Latin American glass; studies glass collections at Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Freer Gallery and Smithsonian Institution; visits glass factories in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Spain, Greece, Egypt and Italy; initial visit to Venice and the Island of Murano, where he tours studios and factories, meets glass masters

1957 First of annual trips to Venice to work with glass as a sculptural medium with Murano maestros; Harry Hershey and Robert Willson, two-person exhibition of paintings and Florida tour to: Barry College Art Gallery, Miami; Hartman Gallery, Sarasota; Florida Gulf Coast Art Center, Clearwater; Norton Gallery, West Palm Beach

1959 First of annual museum research tours through 1976 to England, Germany, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Spain, France, Italy, Mexico, Guatemala and Holland

1960 Visits Colombia no survey art resources; organizes exhibition, writes catalog for 3500 Years of Colombian Art for Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami

1961 Attends conference on glass at Columbia University; meets others interested in the medium, including Dominick Labino and Harvey K. Littleton; writes The Kress Collection, published by the University of Miami

1962 Glassblowing seminar at Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, attended by Littleton and Labino, marks the inception of the American studio glass movement; Willson continues to create glass sculpture in Venice

1963 Honored by City of Murano as contributor of “the first new concept in glass design in several centuries”

1964 Receives University of Miami research grant in glass to continue studies in Venice; first solo exhibition of glass sculpture at Galleria d’Arte dell’Opera Bevilaqua la Masa, San Marco, Venice

1966 Receives first International Research Grant in glass from U.S. Office of Education, with others coming in the next two years; visits Egypt to study ancient glass and its sources; solo exhibition Glass Sculpture by Robert Willson, Harmon Gallery, Naples, Florida, is first American showing of Willson glass art; included in La Fucina degli Angeli Internationale, La Fucina degli Angeli, Venice, and European tour, first of annual appearances through 1988

1967 Writes Art Concept in Clay, published by the University of Miami

1968 Mostra di disegni e sculture in vetro di Robert Willson, solo showing at Museo Correr, Venice. is first in museum’s history dedicated solely to glass sculpture; included in Sculpture in Glass of the Fucina degli Angeli, exhibition of designs executed in glass, with Picasso, Le Corbusier, Leger, Amp, Cocteau, Chagall and others at Adria Gallery, New York, New York: writes College Level Art Curriculum in Glass, published by the U.S. Office of Education and the University of Miami

1969 Consulant/Curator, Peoria Art Museum, Illinois; curates, writes catalogs for Fragments of Egypt and Character of Collecting Modern exhibitions

1970-73 Robert Willson: Glass Sculpture, solo touring exhibition, to: Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida; Norton Art Gallery, West Palm Beach, Florida: Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York: Vizcaya Dade County Art Museum, Miami, Florida: HemisFair, San Antonio Art League, Texas

1971 Receives College Grant for Glass from Shell Company Foundation for work in Venice: Glass Sculpture by Robert Willson, Harmon Gallery, Naples, Florida: takes award in National Painting and Sculpture Exhibition, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco: included in Major Florida Artists, Harmon Gallery, Naples, Florida: and 33 Miami Artists, Miami Art Center, Florida

1972 First of annual appearances in American Masters through 1988 at Harmon Gallery, Naples Florida: included in La Biennale de Venezia, Venice: wins State Grand Medal Award for Sculpture, Executive Square Garden, Miami

1973 Organizes and curates the acclaimed and unprecedented International Glass Sculpture for Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami: Solid Glass Sculpture by Robert Willson, San Antonio Art League

1974 Receives College Grant for Glass from Shell Company Foundation for work in Venice: Robert Willson, glass and watercolors, Brickell Gallery, Miami

1976 Receives Feldman Foundation Research Grant for work in Venice: Robert Willson, Galerie 99, Ray Harbor, Florida: solo exhibition, Harmon Gallery, Naples, Florida

1977 Retires from teaching at University of Miami; devotes himself to painting and sculpture full time: takes first prize in sculpture, 14th Annual Major Florida Artists juried exhibition, Polk Public Museum, Lakeland, Florida: divorces Virginia Willson

1978 Returns to San Antonio; works with glass masters Toso brothers, Barbini and Signoretto on annual visits to Venice through 1984

1979 Establishes Tejas Art Press in San Antonio to publish American Indian poetry and art: first of annual glass sculpture and paperweight work trips to West Virginia studios through 1981: Robert Willson: Sculpture in Glass, Michener Galleries, University of Texas at Austin

1981 Marries noted San Antonio watercolorist and arts activist, Margaret Bosshardt Pace, on May 30; Robert Willson Glass Sculpture, The McNay Art Institute, San Antonio; included in 20 American Masters, Harmon Gallery, Naples, Florida

1982 Included in international invitational at Museum or Modern Art, Mexico City, and in international glass sculpture exhibition and tour, Italy; takes award in Texas Watercolor Society 33rd Annual Exhibition, San Antonio

1983 Establishes new studio for painted and porcelain sculpture on the canals of Texas coast near Gulf of Mexico; solo exhibition of glass and paintings, Foster Harmon Gallery, Sarasota; included in National Glass Sculpture Invitational, curated by Marvin Lipofsky, Matrix Gallery, Austin, Texas

1984 Sculture in Vetro: Robert Willson, Museo d’Arte Moderna Ca’ Pesaro, Venice; solo exhibition, Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ravagnan, San Marco Venice

1985 Solo exhibitions, Tulane University and New Orleans Academy of Fine Art, in conjunction with the Glass Art Society convention, New Orleans

1986 Solo exhibition, Art Institute of the Permian Basin, Odessa, Texas; Robert Willson and Florence Putterman, Foster Harmon Gallery, Sarasota

1988 The Glass Sculpture of Robert Willson, San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas

1989 Solo exhibitions: San Angelo Museum of Art, San Angelo, Texas; Lyons Matrix Gallery, Austin, Texas; The Stein Gallery, Portland, Maine; Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ravagnan, Venice; and Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra-Santa Apollonia, San Marco, Venice; New Orleans Museum of Art acquires 46 glass sculptures and 18 drawings and watercolors for permanent collection

1990 Sculpture in Glass: Works by Robert Willson, glass sculpture and works on paper, New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana

1992 Solo exhibitions: In Vetro, Intaglio and Ink, Lyons Matrix Gallery, Austin, Texas; Robert Willson: Works in Glass, Martin Museum of Art, Baylor University, Waco, Teuas

1993 Solo exhibition, New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe; selection of Willson glass sculpture goes on permanent view in New Orleans Museum of Art’s new Lapin Decorative Arts Center

1994 included in Du fantastique ala visionnaire, Centro di Esposizione della Zitelle, Venice; included in 982 Glass International, Venice

1995 Included in invitational at Jeanine Con Fine Art, Miami, Florida; and in Contemporary Crystal and Glass Sculptures from the 16 Countries of the European Union, Banque Generale du Luxembourg, and Liege, Belgium

1996 Transparencies; Glass Sculpture by Robert Willson, Ellen Noel Art Museum, Odessa, Texas; Robert Willson and Margaret Pace Willson, Judy Youens Gallery, Houston, Texas; solo exhibition, Venezia Aperto Vetro, Venice, Italy

1997 Robert Willson: Glass Sculptor Turning Point Gallery, Miami; Glass and Ceramic Sculpture by Robert Willson, San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, Texas; included in Trial By Fire: Glass as a Sculptural Medium, Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana

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