Flights of Favrile GLASS Quarterly No. 119, Summer 2010. by James Yood Rescued fragments of Louis Comfort Tiffany glass soar into the contemporary moment in John D'Agostino's photographs. It's not uncommon these days for the backstory to get more attention than the work of art itself. Many an author of a museum catalog or art review has been guilty of flipping the age-old saying to read: "Every story tells a picture." However compelling the tale of how unique a set of photographs by John D'Agostino came to be - no matter how rich with accounts of immigrant grandfathers; Louis Comfort Tiffany; the mass dumping of glass into the East River; boxes filled with shards of Favrile glass sitting around in basements for decades, decomposing and getting encrusted with muck - fixating on the story might be less interesting than focusing on the conclusion. These moody, lyrical, imaginative, evocative, swirling, suggestive, exhilarating, and reverie-evoking photographs by John D'Agostino represent a fascinating act of retrieval, rediscovery, and re-articulation. But let's do the story first. At the time of his death in 1933, Louis Comfort Tiffany had fallen far out of fashion, surrounded by a world in love with Art Deco and Art Moderne that had little interest in the outdated remnants of the age of Art Nouveau. In a moment of streamlined abstraction, Tiffany came across as your grandfather's kind of artist: fussy, mannered, and busy. Even the Tiffany firm began to embrace Art Deco, and in effort to purge the studios of Art Nouveau stuff that had accumulated over Tiffany's lifetime, workmen were directed to clear warehouse space of unwanted inventory by taking huge stores of Favrile glass - glass that had been prepared for future use by pouring and swirling colored glass together in large thinnish sheets - smashing them, and then dumping the shards into the East River, where they probably reside today. (Have you heard this story about how low Tiffany's reputation had fallen? In 1936, scrap dealers were breaking the glass out of Tiffany lamp shades so they could melt the metal down for salvage.) A Tiffany enthusiast despite his modest means, Vito D'Agostino, who had emigrated to America from Italy in 1908 at the age of 10, got wind of the iconoclastic wave of destruction and managed to rescue, among other things, about a dozen boxes filled with broken irregular shards of this flat glass, around 5,000 pieces in all, most just inches in area. For more than 70 years, the boxes resided in the basements and back porches of subsequent D'Agostino homes, collecting dust and bits of dirt, the newspaper that wrapped some of the Favrile glass decomposing and binding with the glass, the gold or silver foil backing on much of the material oxidizing and cracking. The colorful and often iridescent shards certainly influenced the abstract paintings of Vito D'Agostino's son, John E. D'Agostino, who has been a professional artist since 1978. And recently they have been the jumping-off point for photographs by Vito's grandson, John D'Agostino, in an ongoing project he calls "Empire of Glass." And what a project! It's in part homage to Louis Comfort Tiffany as a magnificent colorist, who, seen from our vantage point, was a lyrical, painterly expressionist who exulted in the sheer beauty of colors swirling into each other. But D'Agostino is not photographing Tiffany glass. Central to his project is that he is photographing details of the Tiffany raw material that his family preserved. Very little of the material in D'Agostino's images would have seen the light of day in Tiffany's work; his assistants would have harvested these sheets of Favrile glass for the bits they used in their panels, mosaics, and windows. For D'Agostino, though, they are a tribute to his family - found objects of family lore, bearing the vestiges of their age and long history in D'Agostino basements. He enjoys their pitted and stained nature - their almost organic aging, which in many cases turned effervescent chips of colored glass into churning and brooding bits of Abstract Expressionism. Photography creates rectangles, and D'Agostino's work regularizes the sharp cutting edges of the bits of glass and turns them into lovely windows onto a cosmic universe. It's a micro/macro thing; from one or two square inches of nearly century-old glass (we'll never known when these sheets were fabricated, only that they were saved by Vito D'Agostino in 1933), he offers a universe of possibility, the swirling rivulets of translucent color suggesting parallel worlds, the endless vistas of space, or the inner workings of a molecule or cell. D'Agostino decides how to light the bits of lass, what will be articulated as "up" and "down" in the photograph, and uses the digital process to adjust the color when he deems it is necessary. He's always making D'Agostinos, not details for a publication on Tiffany. But the push/pull between the two artists over the generations is compelling, and D'Agostino's efforts are a mix of respect but not deference, of homage but not adulation. From time to time, like all of us, D'Agostino seems to surrender to the sheer optical beauty of Tiffany's Favrile glass, the syrupy conjunction of flowing color, the breathtaking organic intersections, particularly of blue and green. But those kinds of images, which I would see as the easier ones, are in the minority in D'Agostino's work. He's drawn to the shards of glass that bear the ravages and patinas of time: pitted, stained, the color straining to peek through the darkling incrustations, suffering a kind of decomposition, more Anselm Kiefer than Morris Louis, more Mark Rothko than Helen Frankenthaler. He isolates the moments that become compositions in spite of themselves, collaborations of Tiffany, time, and D'Agostino in images that sure and erupt and bubble. And D'Agostino has hundreds and hundreds more shards of glass to turn this way and that, looking for the moment when the exquisite meets the poignant and yesterday meets today. Meanwhile, somewhere at the bottom of the East River . . . . GLASS contributing editor JAMES YOOD heads the New Arts Journalism program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.