It doesn’t take much to draw the teacher out of sculptor John Gilbert Luebtow. Just ask him about the shapes that appear in his work — that will get the ball rolling. Like a boulder tumbling down a hill, his answer will develop more and more momentum, and before you know it, he is in the middle of a full-scale lecture on how contemporary abstract art evolved not from the compound theory offered by most historians, but from pioneering European educator Friedrich Froebel and his gift to the modern world, kindergarten. At the end, he’ll even give you a homework assignment: reading Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten, which argues his point in greater detail.
Do not let this tendency fool you, though. A conversation with Luebtow is not like sitting through a PowerPoint presentation from a stodgy old professor in an ascot and monocle. He is, as he is fond of saying of his art, “bifurcated.” At one moment, he can be discussing crystallography and Bauhaus architecture, and at the next insisting the massive, stunning commissions he has created for the likes of ARCO and Scripps Research Institute are just adult versions of the structures he built with Lincoln Logs as a kid.
American Glass, his current exhibit showing at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, is similarly dichotomous. As the title implies, many of the pieces deal with his mixed feelings toward the country, his frustrations pre- and post-9/11 and with the widening gap between rich and poor. But the first thing you see when walking through the door of the gallery is a chair he made of stainless steel, aluminum diamond plating and the main tool of his trade, glass. According to Luebtow, there is no deeper meaning to it — but it is surprisingly comfortable.
Even within his more “political” work, Luebtow says there are two strands of contradictory thought going on. Smattering his glass canvases with stars and stripes, Luebtow manipulates Old Glory in a variety of ways: In some pieces, the flag appears to be melting; in others, it is cracked and smashed; and in one, it appears to draping a prone body. On the surface, the images are gorgeous (one of the things that fascinated Luebtow about glass when he first started working with it decades ago is its interaction with light, and the red, white and blue seem to glow brighter here than they would on any material). But the message behind them is more ambiguous. Is Luebtow criticizing the United States? Or is he celebrating it?
Actually, he is doing both.
“It’s the dichotomy of the beauty of America with the truth of the violence, anger and frustration of those who have nothing,” says Luebtow from his studio in Chatsworth. “It’s a good summation of life.”
Luebtow would know: He has lived on both sides of the have/have-not divide. These days, he is sought after by major multinational corporations, getting paid good money to design large-scale projects for swanky hotels like the Roosevelt in Hollywood and the Takeshiba in Tokyo. Growing up, Luebtow would have been lucky to have just seen the inside of one of those places, let alone stay there. He was born in Milwaukee, Wis., and raised in what he calls a “ghetto.” His family didn’t have much, “but I always had pencils and paper.” At an early age, he learned he had a gift to look at something and sketch an accurate replica from memory. But what truly excited the young artist was the three-dimensionality of sculpture.
“The sculptural thing interested me more than painting,” Luebtow says. “I like three dimensions; I can’t nail down why. I like to build things with my hands, to feel it, to have it be part of the physical environment.”
Back then, however, for a kid coming out of poverty, the dream of making a career as an artist of any kind was not an option. So when it came time to choose a path, Luebtow went the pragmatic route: engineering. But after three years of math courses at UCLA, he hit a wall. “I want to do this for the rest of my life?” Luebtow thought. He switched his major to ceramics. After graduation, he got a job as the Director of the Architectural Ceramics Department for de Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles, one of the oldest earthenware factories in Holland. There, through collaborative commissions with another company, he was introduced to glass. “I saw it and thought, ‘Wow! This is great.’ Besides having three-dimensionality, it also has transparency. It has another level of depth. I also saw how it related to light. Other solids have little interaction with light in the multiple sense. That’s what hooked me.”
Returning to America with his then-wife and son, Luebtow threw himself into the world of glass sculpture. He went to graduate school and earned a degree in glass. He began experimenting with kilns and bending temperatures. And once he built his own 10 foot by 14 foot furnace, he was off and running.
Luebtow’s original intention was to explore the human form using primarily industrial materials: steel, pipes, cables and, of course, glass. The earliest piece on display at the Carnegie, from 1982, features a piece of reflective solar-cooled glass apparently crushing a woman, a pair of porcelain feet and hands peaking out from underneath. It wasn’t until the late ’80s when Luebtow’s work took on a political bent. He began incorporating the flag as a symbol following the Iran Contra scandal, to express his disappointment with the country. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, he created “April 29, 1992,” a roughly 8-foot tall rusted pole wrapped in contorted shards of glass, a visual metaphor for the “tension, turmoil and struggle” brought to light by the civil unrest following the Rodney King verdict. “Ode to Twin Towers,” shown in much of the promotional material for American Glass, is a striking reaction to Sept. 11, the flag seemingly liquefied and dripping down the side of an invisible building.
Not everything in American Glass is politically charged, however. There are several examples of Luebtow’s continuing examination of line and contour as well, multicolored glass bent into luminous waves and arches. Others are chaotic, abstract collisions of his favorite materials. One room of the exhibit offers a step-by-step walkthrough of one of Luebtow’s enormous commission projects, which he says can take up to seven months to complete.
But it is the American flag series that proves the most evocative. In one untitled piece, Luebtow welded a .22 caliber rifle to the inside of an aluminum box, scrawled the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” on the side and Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” (“What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?/Or fester like a sore”) on the window displaying the gun underneath. For Luebtow, the words in both illuminate the duality of America he has meditated on for two decades now.
“When I was in grade school, I had a good voice, so I sang. One song was ‘America the Beautiful.’ When you’re a kid, and you think about singing that song — even as an adult — when you think of those words, you think of how beautiful America is; it’s just a beautiful place,” he says. “But Langston Hughes tells you what it’s about.”
Which side of American life — the beautiful or “the raisin in the sun” — individual viewers decide to focus on when considering Luebtow’s work depends on their own frame of reference. As an artist, he says, it is not his job to tell people what to think, but to give them a canvas on which to reflect their own experiences.
“I don’t want to be overly political,” he says. “I want to work in the system, but I also want to call attention to the problem. I’m not a revolutionary, but I want to make people see. It’s a way to stimulate the mind of a person observing something and ring something inside them to cause reflection, if not politically then in their own life.”