Reflective Spaces in the Museum Archive

Ellis Martin

Marvin Lipofsky, Green Glass Free-Form Sculpture, ca. 1965; glass, 7 ½ in. x 4 ¼ in. Collection Mills College Art Museum, Gift of the Artist, Antonio Prieto Memorial Collection of Contemporary Ceramics.

In 1964, Marvin Lipofsky began teaching glass art. Over the next five decades, he would go on to instruct on glass internationally through workshops, visiting professorships, residencies, and long-term teaching positions held at University of California, Berkeley, and California College of the Arts.


In the mid 1960s, still a recent-MFA graduate in his twenties, Lipofsky’s work shifted. He began to obscure the glass materiality of his sculptures, as demonstrated in the above picture. Mirroring complicates the typical transparency of blown glass. The abstract work suggests a human heart or the elongated head of an underwater creature. The distance of glass to the reflective layer below varies throughout the piece. These variations further abstract the surface, and small bubbles speckle the in-between space. The core is hidden by the mirroring, but the eyelet in the center of the piece alludes to it. The negative space along with the mirroring generate a sense of opaque knowing, and include the viewer in their oblique reflection. Lipofsky donated the work to Mills College Art Museum in 1968, and it was accessioned to Mills College Art Museum with the number C.68.21.

Like many objects in an expansive collection, Lipofsky’s sculpture was wrapped archivally and stored away in bankers boxes, moving only at the retrieval request of the occasional interested researcher. I would encounter many of these works in 2015 and 2016 as I assisted in digitizing the museum’s permanent collection. The process involved photographing objects to create digital surrogates so that the collection could be accessible through the museum’s website. The process, monotonous at times, gifted my first inquiry into the archival process. A fellow digitizer instructed me to photograph the objects as if they were floating, devoid of space and context. I was struck by this particular aim: the missing details, the not-so-hidden subjectivity of the process, and the contemporary assertion of a digital surrogate. Those thoughts continued to preoccupy me, building in questions on the role of the institution and the role of the compiler, the photographer, and the documenter, within that institution.


The nature of Lipofsky’s piece provided a subtle moment for me to engage those questions while photographing the work. The reflective quality made it more difficult to obscure the environment and the specific moment in which the surrogate was created. It also became a moment for me to directly insert myself into the otherwise anonymous digitizing process. This photograph would document my involvement in the project through my reflection that is visible in the image.


Two years later, the permanent collection now completely digitized, I return to those questions about the relationship between the institution and the digitizer from a different vantage point. Now I am working with Luke Turner, MCAM’s exhibition and collection’s manager, and Dr. Stephanie Hanor, the director of the museum, to design the next collection project: digitizing the museum’s exhibition archive. My original photographs of Lipofsky’s piece involve a shift in the digitizing process, the insertion of my presence which inevitably changed the image and therefore the representation of the object. That inclusion illustrates my early thinking about how to work within institutional constraints. Now I look away from opportunities to intervene in the process, and direct my attention instead, to moments that illuminate the implicit subjectivity & institutional tellings of the digitizing process and of the archive itself.


To return to Lipofsky, his explanation of his teaching style is reminiscent of many of my conversations with Turner. In addition to excavating information from MCAM’s exhibition history (and eventually objects) and preserving the museum’s institutional knowledge, we are also encouraging new uses for that material. Lipofsky describes his approach to teaching as such:

“My style was confrontational in some respects; I wanted to confront [the students] with not only problems, but with ideas. I filled the walls of the studio with information I had gathered, and anybody could have walked in and discovered everything we knew just by reading the wall; I prided myself that we didn’t keep secrets. My goal was not to explain everything from A to Z, but to encourage them to do their own research and discovery.” [i]

By exposing the archive, institutional material becomes more accessible and its generative potential, perhaps more likely. Lipofsky confronted students with ideas in hopes that they would then turn to their own investigative wanderings.

The container for this essay, Glass Cube, becomes a metaphor for projects within the institutional framework of the academic art museum. When light is conveyed through glass, subtle reflections of the environment, and residue of the viewer become visible. Transparency becomes less of an unmediated idea but a potential source for what-if, tangential, or otherwise lost projects. The insertion of myself into the photograph of Lipofsky’s piece now seems an invocation of memory. Exhibition and object files are two of the largest sets of long-term institutional memory that the museum maintains. Like the embodied reflection of myself in the mirrored glass, I hope to acknowledge the reflection and refractions that occur around the work in increasingly nuanced ways.

[i] Shawn Waggoner, “The Natural Form of Glass: Marvin Lipofsky,” Glass Art 12, no. 4 (May/June 1997), 56.

Glass Cube

Mills College Art Museum Collection Blog

Mills College Art Museum

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Oakland, CA

Glass Cube

Mills College Art Museum Collection Blog

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