Museum  October 6, 2020  Chandra Noyes

The Macabre Stained Glass of Judith Schaechter

Carnegie Museum of Art

Judith Schaechter, Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 2004. Stained-glass panel. 32 x 48 in.

When we think of stained glass, what often comes to mind is a vibrant window colorfully illuminating a dark space, perhaps a church. This centuries-old art form has graced mosques, monasteries, palaces, and more since the seventh century. In the past, stained glass was mostly confined to depicting biblical narratives or featuring floral or geometric designs that brought beauty and contemplation to an otherwise gloomy room.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Judith Schaechter, The Birth of Eve, 2013. Stained-glass panel. 57 x 31 in.

Enter artist Judith Schaechter, the subject of a new survey at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), who manages to honor that rich history and tradition while simultaneously turning it on its head. Though stained glass is often associated with gothic rose windows, Schaechter makes the medium more gothic than ever before.

Favoring “dark narratives,” her stained-glass compositions may reference traditional stories from the Old Testament, or more modern themes, like climate change or feminist issues. She is also fond of sampling from art history's greatest hits. Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (2004) references Botticelli's Birth of Venus, while The Battle of Carnival and Lent (2010-2011) conjures the chaos of Hieronymus Bosch.

The forty works in this exhibition show the artist’s prevailing interest in empathy and compassion, bringing literal light to life’s darker moments and the emotions that go with them. Through focusing on these difficult feelings, Schaechter aims to bring hope.

Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY

Judith Schaechter, The Battle of Carnival and Lent, 2010-2011. Stained-glass panel. 56 x 56 in.

“When we despair,” Schaechter has said, “it is beauty that saves us, not reasoning and logical argument. The capacity for beauty in the human brain as it interfaces with nature is a marvelous and life-affirming thing.”

Her Beached Whale (2018) exemplifies the artist's talent in mixing heartbreaking, difficult imagery with profound beauty and an important message. Tapping into a rich history of artists using drapery in paintings, she ties the past with the horrors of our present.

Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery, Harlem, and the artist

Judith Schaechter, Beached Whale, 2018. Stained-glass panel. 27 x 40 in.

Schaechter (b. 1961) studied oil painting at the Rhode Island School of Design before discovering and falling in love with stained glass. Having mastered this traditional craft, Schaechter has continued to push the boundaries of the medium, creating new techniques like using diamond files and sandblasters, and even making her own tools. To create her complex compositions, Schaechter stacks as many as five layers of glass together, their different colors and textures blending to creating stunning depth and richness.

Collection of Claire Oliver

Judith Schaechter, The Floor, 2006. Stained-glass panel, 36 x 34 in.

The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter’s Stained-Glass Art is the first survey and major scholarly assessment of this groundbreaking artist’s thirty-seven-year career.

“Judith Schaechter has redefined the limits of stained glass throughout her career with her highly decorative yet provocative approach to the material,” explained Diane Wright, TMA’s interim director of curatorial affairs and senior curator of glass and decorative arts. “By fusing this historic medium with subversive thought and pure dedication to the exploration of the craft, Schaechter has altered the landscape of contemporary American art.”

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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