ALWAYS UPPING THE ANTE
Artist Dale Chihuly has, quite rightly, been compared to Merlin and other wizards, magicians, and shamans. Designer Jack Lenor Larsen has introduced him as, "among other things, a pied piper." And critic Barbara Rose has suggested that "he is something like an artistic Superman." But Chihuly has himself likened the role he assumes at his Seattle studio, where he maintains a state-of-the-art hotshop as well as a mock-up studio, archives, library, and photography facility, to that of a ship captain or a movie director.
As he works more and more in the public realm, Chihuly, who will turn sixty this September, is emerging as a glassblower who quite simply—though with the assistance of teams of international artisans—has elevated the status of his art. He is a Benvenuto Cellini for the new millennium. As he ingeniously marries color, glass, and metal to achieve the sort of awesome "Towers," "Moon," spikes of "Green Grass," "Spears," and "Crystal Mountain" that he exhibited from July 1999 through November 2000 at Jerusalem's Tower of David Museum, it is apparent that he thinks like a painter as well as a sculptor. His practice of draftsmanship and design to realize the way he balances, plants, and secures glass elements to steel armatures sets him apart as well. This lifelong resident of Washington State belongs among the creative geniuses who every few centuries defy inherited boundaries and conventions and end up reaching a wider public than usual, one ranging from the heads of state to the man and woman in the street. As curator Jack Cowart pointed out several years ago, "this artist seems always to be upping the ante, continually making things more difficult, both physically and intellectually, in the studio glass movement."
Dale Chihuly is to glass what Alexander Calder is to sculpture. Both men are huge talents who have dominated their areas of expertise. The former has maximized our regard for light; the latter, motion. Neither of these innovators ever rested on his laurels. Calder did more than invent the mobile; throughout a career spanning five decades, he continually introduced all sorts of original series, ranging from wire portraits to gargantuan-sized stabiles. Similarly, since the late 1970s, Chihuly has created one remarkable group of works of beauty and splendor after another, and, in recent years, what he attains has become more and more complex as he focuses on multipart installations. If his "Macchia" series established a new standard for the way color can be expressed in glass, other objects of his reveal equally novel approaches with respect to unprecedented size, unusual shaping, and an astounding variety of textures.
The names Calder and Chihuly often evoke art that might seem fragile. Yet the opposite is true. Their work is much more durable than supposed—many of their pieces have been installed in all sorts of outdoor settings as well as large spaces inside various types of buildings. Both men also came to their careers circuitously via odd jobs and a love of travel—which, much later on, not only enhanced the way they have solved problems, but also led them to hold more expansive attitudes about the world at large. And this leads to their most striking connection: their audience. People who have never visited an art gallery, auction house, or major museum are familiar with work by these two men. They've either encountered it in person in a public place or discovered it by watching a program broadcast over television. Responding to the dazzling and joyful qualities of Calder's sculpture and Chihuly's glass, people often smile broadly. You see this again and again in the videos and DVDs made of Chihuly's installations over Venice and at Israel's Tower of David, and you will see this with visitors to his latest show, being held at New York's Marlborough Gallery. His glasswork has an ebullient tone that today is seldom encountered in other serious art.
When you look at Chihuly's radiant "Chandeliers," it's hard to picture this Tacoma-born and -raised artist as having come of age during the counterculture 1960s. He appears to have been a dropout who absorbed much during his time abroad. By traveling to Renaissance Florence, he set himself in a city where his every step put him in touch with the riches of the past—from piazzas filled with sculpture to checkered marble church facades to rusticated stone palazzi, not to mention the frescoed walls of apses, naves, and chapels, much less the halls of the Uffizi. Chihuly says he left Tuscany and went to Israel because he wasn't learning Italian. These days, it's obvious his eyes mastered the Old Masters of painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts. When he returned to Europe after graduate school, he focused next on how different countries developed their own unique histories of glass. He learned his lessons well. They've stuck with him for decades.
When asked about how he made his art, Dale Chihuly used to talk about sand and fire, the glassblower's basic recipe for success. Lately, he more typically mentions how "I work with four materials: glass, plastic, ice, and water." And he explains why. "These are," he says, "the only materials of any scale that are transparent. When you look at their transparency, what you are looking at is light itself. . . ." Formerly, Chihuly was describing how his "Baskets," "Cylinders," "Seaforms," "Macchia," "Floats," and other more individual series that rest directly on a table, the floor, or some other flat surface got realized at his Boathouse facilities. Now he focuses more intently on how smaller elements are brought together, often attached in some way, and used to create larger compositions.
To realize a Chihuly "Chandelier" or a "Tower," an armature of some sort must be devised. Decisions must be made regarding whether the openings from which the glass elements will be suspended will be wide or narrow. When loosely attached, parts will sway and strike the metal, adding sound to the overall experience of these enchanting structures. The worlds of design and sculpture meet as treelike, pyramidal, or cubic armatures are constructed. And then the light-attracting glass adds its pictorial punch via color and unfamiliar organic shapes that create a play between their exotic imagery and the neutrality of the metal anchoring them.
Chihuly knows his colors—how the properties of, say, cobalt blue will respond to its surroundings differently from, say, the attributes of cadmium yellow. If he mounts a large group of shapes on a circular structure, he realizes that strong, dark work might need to be distributed in a way unlike the one he would devise for paler elements. Depending on their pigmentation, the units might need to be clustered closer together or farther apart. Chihuly probably could have swapped shoptalk with Dan Flavin, who had much to say about his fluorescent light palette. But the Minimalist not only had a much reduced range of hues and tones with which to work; he was limited by where he could install his glass tubes and their containing pans. Chihuly, at this point, can work with a virtual cornucopia of color and, as has become increasingly obvious, he can lean, float, suspend, and in many other ways install his glass art outdoors as well as inside. The settings in which he places his works affect how all of their aspects are perceived.
Listen to Chihuly on the topic of his recent exhibition in Jerusalem: "Most of my installations in the past were designed for museums and indoor applications and rely primarily on artificial lighting. And although we did ship and install some 200 lighting fixtures for night viewing, the primary viewing in the Citadel is of course during daylight hours. The sun is much brighter than any artificial sources so the colors seem much different. Certain colors look fantastic in the bright sun. . . . I chose pieces that would take the strong light . . . many colors won't."
Chihuly also knows how to take advantage of what he does not know. Anyone who has ever watched the video or DVD of "Chihuly Over Venice" has witnessed this facet of his enterprising personality. Wanting to push himself into uncharted waters, Chihuly and his wonderful team traveled to Finland, Ireland, Mexico, and Italy to pool their resources with like-minded teams of glassblowers. Chihuly was willing to temporarily relocate his team with such a vast group because he suspected good things might happen by bringing talented artisans together. Challenge them he did. And they all rose to the occasion. In one shop, he ended up with astonishing shapes and thicker glass than what everyone was accustomed to attaining; elsewhere, he got gorgeous crystal with wonderful etched surfaces; at the third facility, yet other shapes and amazing mirrored surfaces were produced. The visitors from Seattle as well as their hosts found their common language in the fires of the furnaces and the skills they brought to their mutual activity. Chihuly did not know this would happen. Nor did he have any idea how grateful everyone would feel about learning from one another new ways to do things. But he believed something positive would result. After all, glassmaking involves lots of faith in ineffables.
Lines and shapes are the vehicles for conveying Chihuly's sublime color. Yet, on their own, they are of interest and hold our attention independently. Working in the hotshops in Finland, Ireland, and Mexico, the team from Washington State considerably expanded their visual vocabularies. In this instance, travel was truly enlightening. Newly complex forms are now being brought together to realize astonishing aggregates of color—clustered as chandeliers, propped up as diagonal spikes resembling legions of honor guards, arrayed as unusual fields of saguaro-like forms, becoming waving towers that resemble burning bushes. A masterful impresario of color, light, shape, form, balance, composition, and rhythm, Dale Chihuly treats visitors to his exhibitions to mesmerizing images they have never before experienced in life—or art.
Published in Chihuly Marlborough, Portland Press, 2001.