TACKED TO THE WALLS on either end of the South Bronx studio where sculptor Kristi Cavataro has lived and worked since graduating from Cooper Union in 2015 are two sets of exploratory drawings. On one side is an array of precise renderings showing complex configurations of three-dimensional geometric forms; on the other, a group of freehand abstractions in watercolor. These seemingly divergent impulses come together in Cavataro’s recent sculptures: suggestively architectonic, at times even machinelike, stained-glass constructions, most standing roughly three feet tall, that are crafted by hand through a laborious process of cutting, wrapping, and soldering individual glass tiles into intricate cylindrical compositions. The drawings (only a small fraction of which are ever fully realized) are a way for Cavataro to work through ideas quickly, examining different possibilities and permutations in order to decide “what’s worth pursuing and what’s physically possible.”
Cavataro created her first glass sculptures in 2018, during a residency at Lighthouse Works on Fishers Island, New York. She had no formal training in glass: up to that point, she had focused primarily on more conventional sculptural processes like mold-making and casting. As a result, she felt free to approach the medium unconventionally, without preconceptions about the “right” way to do things. The process she employs is an adaptation of the method developed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the late nineteenth century—pieces of cut glass are wrapped in copper tape and then soldered, allowing for the creation of volumetric form—but to very different ends. “I think the fact that I’m a sculptor and I see this as a sculptural material,” Cavataro says, “is what allowed me to crack this open and work out something new to do with the technique.”
Indeed, what’s most immediately striking about the sculptures is their confounding structural and material presence: alternately freestanding and wall-mounted, they invoke the association of glass with lightness and fragility, only to push against it, both in the technical complexity of their interpenetrating components and their surprisingly large scale. Among the ten untitled works in Cavataro’s first solo show, at Ramiken in Brooklyn in May 2021—several of which reappeared a few months later in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York”—were a pair of safety orange arches connected by sky-blue rungs and propped up on matching stilts; a vaguely Corbusian cruciform tower in gray, intersected at regular intervals by mauve arms; an armature of conjoined red ovals encasing a checkerboard-patterned base sitting upright on the floor; and a trio of wormlike cylinders inching up the wall, their bodies formed from dazzling green ring-mottled glass.
While critics often assume these works owe a debt to Art Deco, Cavataro cites Minimalist and Post-Minimalist sculpture as a more immediate influence, particularly in her interest in seriality and modular composition: she tends to employ an iterative approach, reusing and reworking particular forms from one sculpture to the next, seeing how a given curve or joint might respond to different situations. “Once I figure something out with form, or shape, or geometry, or material, it opens so many doors and I want to go through all of them,” she says. “There’s a ‘what if this, what if that?’ conversation that happens with the forms, and that is what guides me.”
Because of the pandemic, Cavataro spent much of the past two years alone in her studio, experimenting with materials and refining her process. Accordingly, the works have become increasingly ambitious. When I visited her studio in March, she was at work on a group of new sculptures, tentatively slated for a show at Ramiken in the fall, involving elaborate combinations of intersecting and interlocking components, on a new larger scale.
Though her ranging curiosity about materials has tempted Cavataro in other directions, her work with glass is just beginning. She’s interested in trying out “hot” glass techniques like casting, or making her own colored sheets instead of relying on commercial suppliers; recently, she bought some glass rods, used to make beads, and has been mulling over what to do with them. “It feels very unlimited,” she says. “I have a sense that I could do this for the rest of my life.”
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 52–53.