DALE CHIHULY AS OF 1993

Henry Geldzahler
CHIHULY FORM FROM FIRE

America has an art glass tradition best known through the work of one of the most admired artists of his day - Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright were the first American artists whose styles and achievements had international influence, both in Europe and in the Orient.

I think it is possible to compare what Dale Chihuly is doing with what Louis Comfort Tiffany did. Tiffany ran a studio, he worked in various styles, often concurrently, and he understood the history of glass (especially the effects that time lent to the metallic surfaces of ancient glass) and was able to bring these recreated innovations into the mainstream. Chihuly, in his own way, working with a team to make one-of-a-kind pieces in series, is doing something similar.

While the techniques that Chihuly uses are not all that different from the way glass has been made historically, bonding sand, human breath and fire, there is a kind of abandon within strictures in his work, a refusal to be timid or to admit to "realistic" boundaries that makes us feel more buoyant and optimistic in its presence. You walk into a gallery with 20 Macchias up on white columns and you see color as you've never seen it before, as if color itself were floating in the air. It is an elevating experience. It makes you walk a bit lighter for the rest of the day.

Chihuly has brought the medium of glass to a growing new audience through his exuberance and through the constantly developing morphology of his work. These works dare to look different from year to year and yet always emanate from a consistently, even insistently personal sensibility. He's brought glass out of the crafts department and into the realm of sculpture. Chihuly's work can be appreciated as sculpture made of glass.

Chihuly's glass is purely about the creation of form, given the reality that glass is liquid when hot and that gravity is a fact of life; when liquid, glass wants to fall, to droop, to sag. Chihuly takes all that and makes it work to his own ends, leaving out all the incidentals that, I think, make much contemporary glass too cute, too "twee," as the English say.

The greatest obstacle to a universal appreciation of his work is that he's inevitably ahead of his audience. Chihuly challenges taste by not being concerned with it. He never asks himself whether his work is in good taste. I don't think he knows the difference between good and bad taste. His sole concerns are color, drawing and form. He does go over the top at times, with pieces about which people say, "This is really too much," but perhaps it's not. Five or 10 years later it's no longer too much.

In 1989 and 1990, Chihuly chiefly concerned himself with his series, the Venetians, inspired in the first instance by his admiration for the venerable glass tradition of Venice, since the Renaissance an acknowledged center for the high art of glass. Working with a master glass blower from Murano, Lino Tagliapietra, Chihuly pays tribute as well to his own Fulbright Year in Venice. Chihuly fully integrated Tagliapietra into his long-standing team of glassworkers, his acknowledged co-heroes, and through his inventive drawings and on site direction, produced. a large body of work, work which is, as I've said, "over the top" and ahead of today's taste.

The Venetians are daring and they challenge us. I have found that over time visitors to my house lose their trepidation at the "shock" and come to find the Venetians an awesome delight. You don't have to convince anyone who is familiar with high art that much of Chihuly's work is beautiful. That's what I mean when I say that taste doesn't interest him. What interests him are the possibilities inherent in the material.

We often look at an artists work and imagine that we can easily read character into it. I used to think I could. In Chihuly's case exuberance shouldn't be confused with happiness. He has his moods, and he especially seems to need to go away and come back.

He's constantly disappearing and reappearing, and I think it is then that he revitalizes himself. Chihuly looks like a pirate and sometimes acts like a pirate - perhaps it's partly a disguise, an attitude, a way of getting through life, a way of taking something negative and making it work for you.

Chihuly lost an eye in an automobile accident in England in 1976, which affected how he makes his work. With one eye he couldn't see properly as gaffer, or head of the team, where he was completely physically involved with the making of the glass. He found he could see the process better and have more control over it when he "turned over the stick" to another gaffer. He has been inspired to run a larger operation, whereas with full sight, he might have been satisfied with one or two assistants.

Chihuly works as the artist, the "only begetter," but he also runs the team, choosing and often training the glass blowers who work with him and some of them have worked with him for nearly 20 years. It takes eight or 10 people, with Chihuly coming in and out, watching, directing, making drawings and paintings to suggest shapes and colors and surface treatments; saying "This is good, let's move in that direction, this is the kind of color I'm looking for." Since the same team works together over a period of weeks, he can direct the team to make another piece similar in color, form or surface to another, or, alternately, he can ring in changes of color and form on a successful piece, altering it to his liking.

Chihuly's originality lies in his refusal to believe that there are fixed rules that must be adhered to. Within the confines of his craft, he sees no boundaries. He is able with each new series to invent work that is conceived in formal terms with all the strictness of an aesthetic that deals uniquely with form, color and surface: yet, at the same time, each series relates back to the real world, the world of nature and civilization, the world of the sea on the one hand and the glass of Venice on the other. In the Persians, the ancient Middle East is invoked and evoked, while Chihuly's Baskets owe a clear debt to the woven baskets of the Native Americans of the Northwest.

I recently saw Chihuly's one-man show at the new Seattle Art Museum. Curated by Patterson Sims, it was well thought out and planned, and it left one with a sense of his achievements to date. But there was one aspect of the show that I think was particularly original. Most large museum shows reassemble work that is out in the world, in private collections, galleries and museums. It is a difficult task, indeed, to convince all these individuals to lend work they cherish for long periods to unfamiliar venues.

Chihuly sees it differently. He doesn't want to rest on his laurels and review the past. And, as there is no such thing as a previous style for him - everything he has done remaining fresh in his armory - he re-makes the work and lends the exhibition himself to the institution. He and his team re-conceive the work, one series or another, and, I have noticed, almost invariably the works grow larger and more colorful in repetition. There is something touching about seeing old Macchia and new together. There is a classical dignity and modesty to the earlier versions that give way to greater confidence and pyrotechnical virtuosity, a kind of baroque exoticism, in the later examples. Indeed, I think we may have discovered an art historical law: work in revival always grows larger the next time. Think of the ancient world and the Renaissance, or more humbly, the way the decorative artists of the 1950s enlarged the forms and details of the Art Deco they were so often inspired by.

Of course, glass can only be stretched so far without breaking. There are controls inherent in the medium. The Niijima Floats of 1991 and I992 are probably as large and as heavy as glass will allow. That doesn't mean that some technique or technology will never come along to refute this, but at this point I can't imagine it. Glass is so very much handmade. That's one aspect of it that we instinctively relate to.

Chihuly's work is American in its apparent vulgarity, its brazenness and its fearlessness to move farther out west even if there is no further west to move to. There's a kind of pioneering spirit to it. And yet, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, in Paris gave Chihuly a very rare one-man show. The exhibition was deemed superb. On an aesthetic level, this work succeeds in Paris as in America, crossing national boundaries as it transcends those artificial barriers between art and craft.

Published in Chihuly: Form From Fire, The Museum of Arts and Sciences, Daytona Beach, Florida in association with The University of Washington Press, 1993