Josiah McElheny combines his skills as an expert glassblower, which he honed for many years under the tutelage of European masters, with a playful approach to both the history of his medium and the history of ideas. His objects and installations, often based around historical events, seek to fuse materiality and thought in the experience of looking.
In his early work, such as The Only Known Grave of a Glassblower (1994), McElheny explored specific moments in the history of glass. In recent years, however, he has embarked on a concentrated look into the legacy of modernity. A series of works about a conversation between Isamu Noguchi and Buckminster Fuller, during which they discussed a reflective sculpture in a reflective space, which would therefore cast no shadows and be totally self-enclosed, examines the possibility of realising a perfectly formed utopian environment. One work in this series, Architectural Model for Totally Reflective Landscape (Park) (2006) combines graceful, organic forms that reflect each other and their immediate space in a seemingly endless range of stretched and disoriented depictions of the environment. McElheny aims to explore how “the act of looking at a reflective object could be connected to the mental act of reflecting on an idea”.
An End to Modernity (2005), which was worked out with the cosmologist David Weinberg, is at once a play on the designs of the chandeliers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera house and an expressive diagram of the big bang. “The whole project”, writes McElheny, “exists at the intersection of specific concepts and abstract ones”. The set of ideas that informed this project came to fruition with Island Universe (2008), a large installation of five sculptures, each a model of a hypothetical universe. Island Universe is a fusion of design, science and the history of art, an installation that is at once a manifestation of design and ideas from the mid-1960s and a sculpture infused with contemporary sociology and cosmology. Alongside a major, architectural installation created in collaboration with Chicago architect John Vinci for the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014, the artist’s most recent explorations into modernity have frequently centred on the work of the German architect and writer Paul Scheerbart. To date these include the film The Light Club of Vizcaya (2012), a re-imagining of his 1912 novella about a secret club for bathing in light, and a major reader on Scheerbart, which was published in 2014 by the University of Chicago Press.
Josiah McElheny was born in Boston in 1966 and lives and works in New York. He has exhibited widely, including selected solo exhibitions at Cantor Art Center at Stanford University (2019); Moody Centre for the Arts at Rice University, Houston (2018); Madison Square Park, New York (2017); Museum of Applied Art, Vienna (2016); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2013); The Arts Club of Chicago (2013); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2012); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2011); Palacio de Cristal, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2009); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2007); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2007); Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma (2005); Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Spain (2002); Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2001); The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (1999); School of Art Institute of Chicago (1998); and the Seattle Art Museum (1995).
Selected group exhibitions include National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2022); Hayward Gallery, London (2018); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2018); Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2018); Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri (2017); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2016); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2015); Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University (2015); Centre Georges Pompidou Metz, France (2014); The Drawing Center, New York (2014); Fundament Foundation, Tilburg, Netherlands (2013); Tate Modern, London (2011); Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Germany (2011); Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw (2011); CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale on Hudson, New York (2011); The Power Plant, Toronto (2009); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus (2006); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2006); CCA Watts Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2003); Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2001); Whitney Biennial, New York (2000); and Art Institute of Chicago (1998).