Black is the Color

Barbara Rose
2008

Dale Chihuly’s new series of works in black glass continues his investigations into the potential of glass, which he has expanded to include spectacular installations and mammoth public sculptures. This time, however, rather than emphasizing the transparency of the medium, he examines the possibilities and permutations of black, a color that would seem to contradict the inherent property of transparency.

The ability to give a new interpretation to accepted tradition is among the reasons Chihuly is a remarkable and unique artist. The tradition of glassblowing is so ancient that the task of making it a contemporary idiom, as Chihuly has done, demands a combination of brilliance, talent, and a taste for risk taking. The aesthetics of modernism call for revealing the true characteristics of mediums and materials. Knowing this, Chihuly has focused on the special properties of glass—his chosen medium—to create a body of work that, while depending on the traditional techniques of blown glass, is interpreted in a thoroughly contemporary way.

In the new series of black works, Chihuly, having established his reputation as a colorist, in a sense comes full circle. Bright colors that have been added can be read as linear elements on top of the opaque black glass so that they glow in their own inner brilliance. His fine art background provided this advantage: his point of departure has not been glass but the history of painting and sculpture, whose values he then translated into glass.

Black glass seems like an oxymoron; however, there are historical precedents. Glassmakers in America and Europe produced black glass bottles from the mid-1600s through the latter part of the 1900s. In fact, the term “black glass” actually refers to shades of dark green and amber glass so thick that the resulting color appears black. In the past, “blackness” was a product of impurities or came about as a result of the proportions of the ingredients used, such as iron oxide, which turns the color black. Originally, the reason black glass was developed was strictly practical: the solidity of the glass bottles and containers and their dark color meant less breakage as well as less spoilage of the contents from exposure to light.

Murano was a revelation and where he first came into contact with the most evolved techniques and creations in the history of the art of glass.

Not until the mid-eighteenth century was the term “black glass” used. The first black glass bottles were the free-blown shaft and globe variety, with the vessels’ widely variable capacity hard to judge because of their opacity. At about the same time, hand-blown black glass became popular, especially in Venice, as a striking and inventive material for chandeliers, which had been made of rock crystal. Now Chihuly reinterprets this tradition in his Ebony Gilded Chandelier and Gilded Onyx Chandelier, which recall the sumptuous luxury synonymous with Venice, a city that has played a large part in his life since he first visited the legendary island of Murano as a Fulbright Fellow in 1968. Murano was a revelation and where he first came into contact with the most evolved techniques and creations in the history of the art of glass.

While reinterpreting glass as a medium, Chihuly both emphasizes and takes advantage of those qualities that differentiate it as a material. Because glass changes its state from liquid to solid, it permits—indeed, demands—a scientific knowledge of how light, filtered through its fragile membrane, transforms and illuminates color. Until Chihuly revealed the expanded possibilities of glass—not as a decorative art whose definition depends on usefulness or its relationship to architecture­—glass art was limited by its small scale and its traditional uses in forming bowls, vases, and decorative objects. Although his conception appears novel, Chihuly’s current involvement with black glass is a continuation of his wide-ranging set of ideas. The black series and related Drawings and paintings on paper build on his previous fascination with the mysterious, dark color of the night and his explorations into different types of shapes, including an all-black Chandelier.

Changing the scale of glass art as well as inventing new and original forms, Chihuly has brought the art of glassblowing into line with the most daring assemblages and installations. This has been no easy feat. It has meant long periods of experimentation, as well as forming an atelier of highly skilled colleagues capable of realizing his conceptions.

Chihuly has always worked with the challenges inherent in the material. This time, the challenge is to reinterpret black as a color and to use newly available formulas that permit bright or highly contrasting colors to be applied on black glass so that they will read well and create a different type of jewel-like glow. The “lips” of vessels are lines of color in high-key chartreuse or brilliant blue, which create dramatic contrasts with the black that forms the core of the works. The black pieces have an inner glow rather than reflecting or transmitting light like a prism. The use of black as the solid color helps to focus attention on the shapes and forms. This strengthens the sculptural effect of the works. Solid black masses are a center from which forms as delicate as tendrils can emerge, and their thinness makes the light seem that much stronger. Chihuly’s “Medusa” forms recall stinging sea creatures as well as the frightening tendrils of hair of the ancient Gorgon herself. It is true that Chihuly’s forms refer to nature. But it is an unnatural and imagined nature. It is the fanciful and sometimes menacing nature of Hieronymus Bosch, with its hybrid, sprouting, and mutating plants and flowers. This double reference—to the floral embellishments of Venetian chandeliers and to the nether world of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights—creates a subliminal tension that lends complexity to Chihuly’s “iconography,” a term that would never be used in conjunction with traditional glass objects that had no meaning beyond function.

The shapes of the new series of black works reference various earlier series that Chihuly has explored. Their intense color contrasts and expanded range of color permit startling new combinations such as tangerine and coral with black. These exotic colors, seen against the brilliant sheen of polished black glass, recall the beauty and fascination of Byzantine mosaics. The scale of Chihuly’s new works, which are often two to three feet high, is also that of sculpture rather than of tabletop vessels. Some pieces suggest they can be picked up, but they have spiky and thorny projections. Nature is most directly referenced in works such as Divine Blue Black Macchia with Marigold Lip Wrap, Black Gilded Crab and Lobster on Golden Base, Black Crab Trio Climbing Bamboo atop Golden Vessel, and Black Sea Turtle on Gold-Spotted Base, which recall the fluorescent and gilded shells of tropical sea life. As always with Chihuly’s work, the contrast of organic life preserved in an inorganic material such as glass delights and fascinates us. 

In black works that reinterpret earlier series, such as the Venetians, the Ikebana, and others, jet black is contrasted with colors like lapis and ruby, known for their jewel-like intensity.

Black as a color can transmit or reflect light in ways that exert a fascination different from that of transparent hues or translucent white. The coloristic effects that Chihuly has developed in contrasting black with brilliant high-intensity colors are exotic but not psychedelic. The varieties of black, from blue black to jet black to crimson black, are explored to yield effects that are more exquisite than brash, more luxurious than pop art. In black works that reinterpret earlier series, such as the Venetians, the Ikebana, and others, jet black is contrasted with colors like lapis and ruby, known for their jewel-like intensity.

With the black works, Chihuly returns to some of his earliest experiments that changed our definition of art in glass, especially the Cylinders and the Baskets inspired by Native American art forms. It was Chihuly’s early experiences with the properties of soft, woven baskets that set him on the path to transforming traditional interpretations of glass as rigid vessels or containers. The original impulse to overcome the limitations of utilitarian glass and to create new shapes that were unfamiliar and more related to sculpture than to vases or tableware came from Chihuly’s encounter with Indian baskets in the storerooms of the Washington State Historical Society in 1977. Struck by the grace of their slumped and sagging woven forms, he decided to capture these qualities in glass, a medium that would seem to resist such an interpretation.

According to Chihuly, “The breakthrough for me was recognizing that heat and gravity were the tools to be used to make these forms.” The new black pieces also accentuate and exert their sculptural presence by tilting, skewing, and challenging balance and gravity. The more precious among these new works have fragile projections relating them to his earlier Seaforms and the variety of undersea life that has always inspired Chihuly, who worked as a fisherman early in life and has always been attracted to the ocean. Indeed, his studio on the shore of Lake Union, north of downtown Seattle, is called The Boathouse. 

The decision, made more than thirty years ago, to expand the properties of glass beyond their traditional limits first opened the doors to further experimentation. Now a mature artist with a vast oeuvre and worldwide recognition, Chihuly has again returned to the original impetus that led him to create new forms in glass that were both asymmetrical and hybridized in their forms and colors. The black works, like their predecessors, form a series. He has always envisioned his works in series, through which he explores and modifies a form or concept in a number of related works. His original 1975 cylindrical forms, the Navajo Blanket Cylinders, derived their surface detail from the patterns of Navajo blankets (using glass threads molded onto the glass cylinders). His series of Baskets, which he began in 1977 after his encounter with Native American baskets, resulted in the creation of multiple nested forms whose contours opened into floral “lips” rather than closed bowl shapes.

The collapsed Baskets were the last works for which Chihuly himself would play the role of gaffer, because of a shoulder injury that, compounded by an earlier accident that resulted in the loss of sight in one eye, largely prohibited him from blowing glass. As a result, his activity as a draftsman and painter became intensified, because it was through these mediums that he could most readily invent new forms. 

Today, drawing and painting increasingly preoccupy him, and these works become larger, more complex, and more ambitious as forms of their own. As the size of these paintings on paper (which are often the source for the forms and colors of the glass works) has increased, their larger dimension permits Chihuly to create on a scale that is between the intimacy of individual glass works and the fantastic spectacle of the environmental installations that are uniquely his contribution to contemporary art.

Wishing to increase the scale, Chihuly now works, as Jackson Pollock did, by pouring and splattering paint onto surfaces laid out not on an easel or a table but on the ground, which affords him ample opportunity to record physical movement—something that the permanent forms of glass can accommodate only in translation. Gradually these paintings have taken on a life of their own, as Chihuly finds them to be a more direct and intimate expression.

Chihuly had actually experimented briefly with drawing in glass much earlier at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington (which he cofounded in 1971). He later worked with Native American artists in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he did a “Glass Pour” in the countryside, in which liquid molten glass was poured into the ground to become a cast of the earth’s surface when it hardened. The piece had obvious references to contemporary earthworks and process pieces as well as to Jackson Pollock’s borrowing from the techniques of the Navajo sand painters to pour paint onto canvas.

One of Pollock’s last paintings in the poured or drip technique was a painting on glass. His idea was to render the background transparent to create the illusion that the form was suspended in space. But what is intrinsic to the glass medium is more difficult to achieve in painting. Chihuly’s glass works bear a relationship to the crisis in painting that Pollock’s all-over paintings provoked. In overcoming the miniature flowers and standard streaks of traditional Murano glass in its solid vessel forms, Chihuly has added both fantasy and a reference to the dilemmas of contemporary painting in terms of suspending color in three-dimensional space.

Chihuly’s forms and techniques are transgressive and illusionistic, hybrid and impure. They are everything that modernism, especially in its puritanical American version, associates with decadence and immorality. Within this cultural context, there must be something suspect in an art so expansive and direct, lush and extravagant, excessive and provocatively sensual. In the black series, as in all of his oeuvre, we encounter Chihuly’s unmistakable personal style and palette. From the off-center nested baskets to the dramatic installation at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum that fills an entire interior space, we cognize a specific personal vision.

Chihuly has redefined the medium, using ancient and new technologies to serve the enduring human need for experiences of color and light. 

The realization of these works is necessarily a collaborative project, like motion pictures—but then again, so were medieval cathedrals, where the master mason designed the entire program, which was then carried out by generations of artisans because of its complexity and physical demands. By taking glass into such a dimension, Chihuly has redefined the medium, using ancient and new technologies to serve the enduring human need for experiences of color and light. Chihuly is essentially producer, director, and master of the art he conceives initially through drawings and paintings. Painter Walter Darby Bannard has described the workings of the Chihuly studio: “A Chihuly glassmaking session is like a movie set or football game…Ideas spring from Chihuly, from the workers who move around him as they would around a director or a coach, and from the piece itself as it takes shape.” Chihuly’s taste for collaboration may have come from his awareness of his father’s work as a union organizer and was developed by his own youthful experience when he worked on a kibbutz in Israel in the early 1960s and the kibbutzim were still collectives.

Chihuly’s installations, especially the overhead Chandeliers, are reminiscent of both the stalactites and stalagmites of natural caves and the dazzling decorated ceilings of the Moorish Alhambra. In Western art, only medieval stained glass comes close to the totalizing effect of Mozarabic and Islamic decorations. The hybridized and synthesized qualities as well as the dramatic effect of Chihuly’s art make him the opposite of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who made glass in the medieval tradition of works enclosed in a metal armature—or even, for that matter, of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose glass pieces were exclusively decorative additions to his architecture. Unlike Tiffany, Émile Gallé, and René Lalique, the names associated with the Art Nouveau glass produced by the craft revival movement in the nineteenth century, Chihuly does not use standardized molds that permit reproduction. He depends on spontaneity and on-the-spot decisions. He exhibits the freedom to improvise Surrealist automatism in his drawings, and the result of that free improvisation is then translated into the solid forms of glass. Given how glass is blown and slowly takes on its permanent shape, eccentric elements can be cultivated or added later, accentuating the sense of free invention.

The improvisation that creates Chihuly’s distended and hybrid forms, stretching glass to its physical and formal limits, requires quick reflexes and perfect timing. The spontaneous effects involve a high level of risk. Such a process communicates a sense of freshness and instantaneous creation that the contemporary sensibility, rooted in experiences of speed, appears to require.

The central issue of postmodernism is neither appropriation nor reproduction but an attitude toward styles that is transhistorical as well as transcultural. Chihuly’s excesses and extravagance define his art as aggressively post-minimalist. In place of the severe, geometric, closed gestalt volumes of minimalism, Chihuly proposes the open forms and transparencies of glass blown into isomorphic shapes and liquid patterns. Sheer gorgeousness, absolutely prohibited by the gray academicism of conceptual art, is expressed in the gold and silver iridescence and the luxurious ornamentation of his Venetians, for example.

No one can stop Chihuly’s childlike urge to break the rules. Then, of course, one remembers that the definition of art proposed by the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga was of play. Marcel Duchamp said he proposed to strain the laws of physics as a definition of the art game he was playing. The playful element in Chihuly’s art is certainly part of its attraction. He has said he wants to be a magician, and it is precisely this quality of magic and alchemy turning molten glass into permanent materiality that continues to fascinate. This contradiction makes for a unique piquancy. We never tire of exploring these mutable objects, which change in relationship to the kind of light that passes through them. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were obsessed with the idea of the light source coming from within the painting as opposed to reflecting light from outside the work. Glass makes this literal. Walter Darby Bannard again had it right: “This is glass that has had things done to it no other glass has, glass made on its own terms as viscous liquid which likes to be blown out, attenuated, pressed, slumped, stretched, twisted, perforated, laden with color, fused, and melted. Chihuly has mastered glass by yielding to it, by discovering and accepting what it is rather than deciding what it should be.”

The restoration of feelings of delight, wonder, and amazement to art that has often become dry and conceptual is among Chihuly’s achievements. While dead sharks decay in formaldehyde and diamond skulls make even death banal, Chihuly cheerfully devotes himself to natural forms that celebrate life, energy, and excitement. His forms are neither static nor solid but transparent, translucent, wavy, changeable, and iridescent. Their vital energy expands and explodes the fundamental spherical or cylindrical shapes of blown glass into eccentric and unforeseen new forms. These flickering and incandescent, expanding, permuted forms defy the stasis of geometry, reveling instead in the joyfully life-affirming, dynamic, improbable, flamboyant, and ravishingly beautiful creations. In a timid and terrified time when the freedom of the imagination is curtailed by the boundaries of a standardized, computerized system of quantification, he dares to propose improbable visions, where the spirit floats in an atmosphere of color and light.