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Jaroslava Brychtova, creator of monumental glass art, dies at 95
She and her husband sought to make glass sculpture that could stand alone without a pedestal. Courtesy of Heller Gallery, New York.

by Steven Kurutz

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jaroslava Brychtova, an internationally acclaimed Czech artist who made large-scale glass sculptures with her husband and collaborator, Stanislav Libensky, pioneering new ways to work with glass, form and light, died April 8 in Jablonec nad Nisou, a town in the Czech Republic. She was 95.

Her death, from what was thought to be heart failure, was confirmed by Katya Heller, whose Heller Gallery in Manhattan represents the couple.

From the late 1950s until 2002, when Libensky died, Brychtova and her husband created an ambitious body of work that could be likened more to painting, sculpture and architecture than to something that rests on a tabletop. Some works topped 13 tons and towered 14 feet. Many featured negative space, like cuts, to allow light to penetrate. The best of them merged art and science through the material of colored glass to profound effect.

“Red Pyramid” (1993), one of several works by the couple in the permanent collection of the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, is a simple pyramidal shape, almost 3 feet tall, that looks to be glowing dramatically from within. It was created using a technique the artists developed called mold melting, whereby chunks of glass are placed in molds and left to slowly melt inside a kiln.

“When you stand in front of one of their works, you feel the power they brought to it,” said Susie J. Silbert, curator of postwar and contemporary glass at the Corning Museum. “The forms are so bold, so strong, and the glass is so expressive.”

Libensky made the paintings and drawings, while Brychtova translated and interpreted his designs into three dimensions, using clay models to perfect the shapes and surfaces.

She played another essential role behind the scenes: She was in charge of the architectural glass studio where their work was produced, in her hometown, Zelezny Brod. While Libensky spent weekdays in Prague teaching at the Academy of Decorative Arts, Brychtova pushed the studio workers under her charge to achieve their vision.

“The sheer will and determination she had to get this all done is remarkable,” Heller said. “Particularly when you see the scale of these pieces.”

In a documentary film about the couple, “The Space of Light,” Brychtova acknowledged that she was “pretty tough within the factory environment,” adding, “I wasn’t very popular because I was always striving for the best.”

She and her husband sought to make glass sculpture that could stand alone without a pedestal. They achieved it with the Vestments, a series made in the late 1990s. On its website, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which owns “Vestment II” (1997), described the sculpture, of muted gray glass, as “reminiscent of a liturgical garment,” appearing “opaque and grandiose but at other times almost weightless.”

Although admirers and critics focused on the massiveness of her work, Brychtova insisted in the documentary that scale was not the biggest challenge.

“It’s ideas that are hard to get to, not size,” she said.

Jaroslava Brychtova was born July 18, 1924, to artistic parents. Her mother, Anna Pekarkova, created hand-woven textiles. Her father, Jaroslav Brychta, was a sculptor and glassmaker who also founded a local school that taught glassmaking techniques as well as design, chemistry and technology. He was a major influence on her life.

Brychtova followed her father into the arts, studying sculpture at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design and at the Academy of Fine Arts, both in Prague, before returning to Zelezny Brod, a small town in north Bohemia with centuries-old glassmaking tradition. She spent nearly all her life there.

It was in Zelezny Brod, in the early 1950s, that Brychtova met Libensky, who was director of the glass school and, like her, married at the time. They divorced their spouses, causing a minor scandal, and embarked on the fruitful partnership that first drew notice at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, where they showed colored glass blocks with reliefs of wild animals.

In Communist Czechoslovakia, where the couple made their seminal work, artists who might have otherwise been censored could hide out in the “minor” art of glass while pursuing ideas like abstraction. The couple’s work was underwritten by the state, at least initially, and they exhibited at World Expos in Montreal in 1967 and Osaka, Japan, in 1970.

They also created many public works in the Czech Republic, including the facade of the National Theater and the stained-glass windows for St. Vitus Cathedral, both in Prague, as well as a relief inside the striking Jested Tower.

After the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Communists cracked down on artists. Brychtova and Libensky were expelled from the party and forbidden to travel abroad together for a time.

Over the decades, as their international reputation grew and their work was displayed at the Met and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a younger generation of female glass artists drew inspiration from Brychtova.

She is survived by two sons, Jaroslav and Milos Zahradnik, and a daughter, Alena Vavrikova, all from her first marriage.

A stylish woman with a distinctive mop top of gray hair, Brychtova retained an “age-defying curiosity” about art and culture to the end of her life, Heller said. But she stopped making glass works after the death of Libensky, telling the Czech News Agency on the occasion of her 90th birthday: “It is impossible without Stanislav. I am used to working in a couple. Without him, it just isn’t right.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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