Chihuly at the V&A

Jennifer Hawkins Opie
Chihuly at the V&A

Dale Chihuly is a phenomenon. His importance as a contemporary artist is unassailable, and his work has long been sought after by all major museums and galleries. But other issues about exhibiting his work also arise which are less often addressed in print. He has stepped far outside the normally enclosed parameters of glass. Such is his reputation that any major museum, especially one which counts glass among its core interests, must consider approaching the Chihuly organisation for a show of his work. Yet this is not done lightly. Chihuly himself, and his studio on his behalf, is highly demanding—and rightly so—in terms of display space and facilities, in publicity, presentation, and time. Their bargaining power is considerable, and a museum must be sure it can do him justice.

Significantly, Chihuly's glass—and the man himself—generates an excitement and a degree of attention that most other artists rarely approach. His glass is distinctive and grandly conceived, and his fame has been achieved through his growth as an artist as well as the overwhelming public response to his work. But he also carefully controls every facet of its presentation. The significance of this cannot be overestimated. Like every other material weighed down with the preconceptions of history but seeking to claim contemporary attention, glass needs ambassadors.

Chihuly's artistic success has its roots in a well-grounded academic and practical background and a progressive, consistent growth of ideas. A résumé of his career proves the point.

Born in 1941 in Tacoma, near Seattle, Washington, he is Hungarian, Czech, and Slavic on his father's side, Swedish and Norwegian on his mother's side. At the age of 17, he enrolled at the College of Puget Sound, where he wrote a term paper on Van Gogh and then re-designed his mother's recreation room, discovering in himself a response to colour and space. Chihuly transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle to study interior design and architecture in 1960, and the following year he learnt to melt and fuse glass—a start, but a very long way indeed from glassblowing. He also developed a lifelong passion for travelling.

For the next eight years he alternated between travelling in Ireland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Sweden, Russia and the Middle East and studying at the Universities of Washington and Wisconsin and at the Rhode Island School of Design. He earned three important degrees: a B.A. in interior design, a master's degree in sculpture, and another master's degree in ceramics. He also received two prestigious awards, a Louis C. Tiffany Foundation Grant and a Fulbright Fellowship to study abroad. These provided the opportunity to work and study with glass masters on the Venetian island of Murano. This was three years after he first blew glass, in 1965, an experience that had led him to study under the legendary Harvey Littleton, founder of the first studio glass course in America, at the University of Wisconsin.

Chihuly described his early fascination with his medium: 'I had this little studio in south Seattle . . . [where] I began to learn how glass melted and how you could fuse it together. One night I melted some stained glass between four bricks and put a pipe in there and gathered some glass and blew a bubble. . . . From that point on I wanted to be a glassblower. . . . I was totally infatuated, completely absorbed in the concept of being a glassblower because to see this bubble come out at the end of this blowpipe [was] magical'. [i]

He had finally found his future. Hot glass and the thrill of blowing and manipulating it provided the drama, physical excitement, and camaraderie which have proved to be a lifelong passion.

Chihuly became a charismatic teacher, helped by his talent for establishing partnerships and appreciating and orchestrating parallel skills to his own. Two of his most important achievements were the establishment of the glass program at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969 and co-founding the Pilchuck Glass School, the now famous international school and workshop which started life in 1971 as a rain-soaked, slug-ridden summer camp in woods fifty miles north of Seattle.

The success of Pilchuck, against daunting odds, more than illustrates Chihuly's truly significant role in shaping the development of glassmaking in the United States and internationally over the last thirty years. His well-honed practical skills, an essential creative energy, and sheer determination, combined with his flair for motivating others, refused all possibility of failure. It is hard to believe now that the earliest students had to build their own shelters and the hotshop from wood and materials found locally, and they made many of their own tools.

This was a time of discovery and new awareness of Native American beliefs, natural forces, and spiritual, environmental, and life-style concerns. All of these chimed with the establishment of the Pilchuck camp and the energies put into the skills necessary to make the glass. With hot glass still in its infancy as a studio medium, very few of the people there had much, if any, experience with glassmaking, and even fewer had any reliable technical expertise in terms of mixing and colouring glass. Even those who did, like Chihuly, chose to mix the raw ingredients themselves rather than buy ready-made and re-melted glass.

Chihuly has progressed from these years of an experimental, hippie-like existence to an international stardom which is phenomenal, but he has never stopped testing of the boundaries of established glassmaking. By the 1990s, not only had he received numerous academic degrees and awards, but he could list more than 180 museums housing his works as part of their permanent collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York; the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, Paris; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. His work has been shown in solo exhibitions across North and South America, Europe, the Far East, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, and Iceland. His recent exhibition in Israel at the Tower of David Museum drew a record-breaking attendance of more than 1.2 million visitors in twelve months.

It is not just Chihuly's popularity and the recognition that he has revolutionized how glass is perceived as an art form which provide good reasons for museums to show his work. At the V&A, his work will have a special resonance. His oeuvre owes much to the grand tradition of Venetian glass which this museum represents with international standing. Therefore, the museum offers a splendid context in which Chihuly's work may be seen within a historical continuum. The audience for Chihuly can move from his work in present-day Seattle to Venice in the 1960s and 1970s and then back to the Renaissance—the museum's collections demonstrate how the earlier glass and the techniques for making it inform Chihuly's glass. There is a natural symbiosis. Additionally, the V&A seeks to show the work of artists and designers who are the leaders in their field; who clearly have something to say; who challenge established perceptions. Material and technique are not enough. Physicality, intellect, and tension must be under-pinning the work to bring the promise of a rich, rewarding experience, engaging hearts and minds.

The importance of Chihuly's art both as material and as concept has been well examined by a number of writers. Most notably, critic Donald Kuspit, in his monograph on Chihuly, delivers an analysis which places the work squarely within the avant-garde. He writes that Chihuly, with ambitions (perhaps subliminal at first) to transform and deepen consciousness, must 'find transcendence in the medium itself. He must . . . mythologize glass into the ideal medium of expression'. [ii] Kuspit describes how Chihuly first used landscape as a point of departure at Pilchuck, where it was a vital part of the founding philosophy, and it has remained with him ever since. In the early 1970s, Chihuly was making environmental works in glass, neon, argon, and ice. These were large installations, as the titles suggest: 'Glass Forest' and '20,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon' (which covered six hundred square feet). These were serious attempts at the start of his career to engage with site specificity and performance, mediated by the opportunities and challenges of working with new materials. The materials were challenged and challenging, and the art demanded action and reaction. The ice melted, the glass was stretched, the audience was expected to enter the arena and experience the stridently artificial light. And as he became more intensely involved and skilled in the use of the medium, it was the glass which became all-important. He said later: 'I can sometimes switch over to neon, plastic or ice but only because they connect to the properties of glass . . . '. [iii] This was the first step along the way to mythologizing the material.

As has often been explained, perhaps the most valuable lesson Chihuly learned early on in Venice was the method of teamwork which he saw at the Venini factory on the island of Murano. Collaborative glassmaking in the form of a shared furnace and, probably, an interchangeable team was practised in Venice by the 16th century. By the 20th century, the teamwork Chihuly so admired was a long-established tradition. Three or four people work together in a choreographed performance—each playing a precise part in the gathering of the glass and the making of the object under the direction of the master gaffer, the 'maestro'. At this critical moment in his formative artistic development, Chihuly responded to the skilful manipulation of hot glass—the sheer thrill and physicality, the style, the panache with which Italian makers more than any other do the performance. There is surely no doubt that this aspect was as seductive to Chihuly as the glass itself. It is equally clear that the ripe forms, weighty or probing, now typical of his work convey a writhing sexuality which is very much to do with the way they are blown and manipulated. [iv] Ironically, it is probably the insistent physicality of Chihuly's glass that has led to some accusations of undisciplined opulence—implying intellectual carelessness. But this is where Chihuly is so often misunderstood, and unreasonably so. As he progressed through the great series of forms which are recognisable worldwide as Chihuly glass, each step along the way was grounded in his knowledge of other art forms and other cultures—from Native American blankets and basketry to Japanese ikebana and Venetian art glass of the 1920s and 1930s. His work has become more tender, more expressive, and more frenzied by turns. Once he had made the move from his earliest vessels, the 'Cylinders', to the far more organic 'Baskets', these led on to a wealth of ripe, quivering shapes, subtly textured and coloured. He said, 'In the summer of 1977 I was visiting the Tacoma Historical Society . . . and I remember being struck by a pile of Northwest Coast Indian baskets that were stacked one inside the other. They were dented and misshapen, wonderful forms. I don't really know what made me want to reproduce them in glass, but that was my mission for the summer'.[v] Chihuly was searching for forms and for a means of expressive power. His glass 'Baskets' were shown in groups, stacked one inside the other. They became an environment into which an audience might be drawn, within which, if succumbed to, there was the power to alter consciousness.

The point at which Chihuly's work moved from baskets in glass to the more purely abstract was when he began the series now known as 'Seaforms'—a name attached to them later because of their resemblance to sea creatures like anemones. In the 'Macchia' series, begun in 1981, he experimented with a force which moved well beyond the gentle, somnolent beauty of the earlier works. He had moved away from the specific to the abstract, transforming the subject matter into an exploration of a different world. Textures and colours became more fearless and more challenging. Decoration, so often nervously avoided by others, became not only acceptable in his hands but a vocabulary with which he was skilful enough to manipulate an ever-widening range of emotions. After 'Macchia' came 'Persians', 'Venetians', 'Ikebana', 'Putti', 'Niijima Floats', 'Chandeliers', and the increasingly ambitious environmental installations of 'Towers', 'Reeds', 'Pergolas', 'Windows', and 'Ceilings'.

The V&A had been considering an approach to Chihuly for some years. There are three works by him in the permanent collections, but the museum had not taken the further step of engaging with Chihuly the environmental artist. In 1999, an invitation was formally extended. Practically, the museum wanted a major, unambiguous statement for its main entrance which would confirm the museum's commitment to contemporary art and design. The space and its use at the time suggested a chandelier, and although glass was not essential, no other artist offered the same overwhelming ability to think on the required scale and with the essential imaginative leap. The museum was aware that Chihuly is a rare and unquestionable mix of artist and advocate, a man of complex and curious intellect. It was also aware that the glass which results often challenges but is never irrelevant. And it was this that the museum anticipated with relish.

The sculpture, originally titled 'Ice Blue and Spring Green Chandelier' but now officially known as the 'V&A Chandelier', was designed, blown, and first assembled in Seattle. Over a period of seven months, negotiations and discussions filled the electronic airways, the museum's roof was strengthened, and a new chain was ordered. Finally, the 'Chandelier' was hung in the dome area of the main entrance to the museum in October 1999, to coincide with the opening of the exhibition 'A Grand Design'. The installation, by a team of three from the Chihuly Studio, took place over a period of four days and was a public event in itself. 'A Grand Design', which had travelled to five venues in North America over the previous two years, explored the history of the museum's collecting from its foundation to the present day. Chihuly's 'Chandelier', therefore, celebrated the latest, most contemporary finale to the show. The opening of the exhibition and the 'Chandelier' was marked by a visit by HM The Queen and Prince Phillip.

The 'V&A Chandelier' was the latest in a series of such works, begun in 1992, for which the title 'Chandelier' is something of a misnomer. The works are suspended sculptures, externally or occasionally internally lit, and using the Venetian 18th-century chandelier form merely as a departure point. In Chihuly's hands the form has become a massive artwork, changing the character of the main entrance. The 'V&A Chandelier' presents the newly arrived visitor with an unmistakable contemporary statement, and the interest it generates is obvious. Arriving visitors stop, stare, and take out their cameras. As a reminder of their visit, it is certainly the most photographed single object in the museum. The British press, faced with glass on a scale and of an impact which was previously unheard of in the UK, oscillated between uncertainty and superlatives: 'rather wonderful . . . a fantastical creation' ('The Times') [vi]; 'whether it attracts you or appalls you, Chihuly's work is certainly breathtaking' (London's 'Evening Standard') [vii]; 'a dazzling modern commission' ('Crafts') [viii]; 'Wriggling like a large and glowing creature of the sea, this spectacularly weird glass chandelier . . . [is] the first time Dale's work has been seen on this scale in the UK and he seems sure to gather a few more admirers as a result' ('Homes and Interiors') [ix]; 'the work of Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly is breathtaking—as those who have seen his vast, colourful chandelier newly hung in the V&A Museum will know' ('idFX'). [x]

The critical success of the 'Chandelier' encouraged the V&A to pursue its long-held interest in staging an extended Chihuly exhibition in the form of an 'intervention' throughout the ground floor of the museum and out into the courtyard garden. This exhibition, 'Chihuly at the V&A', will be opened to the public on 21 June 2001 for a period of four months, an unusually long run for the museum. Beginning at the perimeter of the dome area in the main entrance, in a space which is visible through the outside doors to passers-by on the pavement beyond, the powerfully colourful 'Orange Basket Sets' acts as an introduction. Recognising the changes made to the area since its installation and the consequent alteration to the architectural balance, Chihuly has extended the 'Chandelier' in length. Descending the steps into the gallery housing the museum's internationally renowned medieval collections, the exhibition continues with displays of many of Chihuly's glass series: 'Baskets', 'Seaforms', 'Persians', 'Venetians', 'Ikebana', 'Putti', 'Jerusalem Cylinders', 'Macchia', and, overhead, a 'Persian Ceiling'. This uniquely Chihuly concept allows the visitor to walk below a sumptuously coloured assemblage of glass, bathed in the filtered light of a richly experiential, consciousness-altering space. The visual contrast between Chihuly's glass and the medieval treasures in ivory, enamel, silver, and gold beneath German and French stained glass in the surrounding gallery multiplies the experience. Outside the glass display, the exhibition also shows Chihuly's energetic and richly informative drawings, the most important means by which he communicates his ideas to the glassblowing team. Emerging into the Renaissance gallery, the visitor is met by a 'Macchia Forest'. A group of richly colourful and dramatically textured 'Macchia' forms displayed at eye level envelops and enriches the senses even further. Beyond, into the garden, installations of experimental forms lead directly to a nine-metre-high (thirty-foot) 'Tower of Light' over the fountain. And, to add to the intensity of the visual display, all of the courtyard installations are seen directly in front of the museum's original 1860s entrance, with its decorated architectural terra-cotta as a backdrop.

The experience of working with Chihuly and the Chihuly Studio has been demanding but rewarding. Chihuly remains the energetic, charismatic artist in whom the freewheeling student and young teacher with boundless vision are still recognisable, yet he is also now the head of a major studio and a businessman. This metamorphosis is central to understanding Chihuly the man, but it was also the result of one specific event. Chihuly no longer makes the glass himself. A very serious car accident in 1976 deprived him of the sight in one eye, altering his perception of depth. Since then he has become more the conductor of the orchestra, rather than soloist or lead violin in the actual blowing sessions. In many ways this role has freed him. He understands glass entirely, and indeed his early works demonstrate a rare and sensitive skill which now he conveys by drawing, teaching, and engaging directly with the glassblowers as they are working. He will often be there, on the workshop floor, closely orchestrating the performance and demonstrating his own engagement through the media of paint and drawing. But it is equally true that he has no need to be there throughout the making and so he is free to travel, to spread the gospel of glass and constantly to recharge the batteries which keep him always driving forward. His team of makers, most of them artists in their own right, is fully in tune with his ideas and is able to do much of the work without his presence. For his part, Chihuly has developed more systematic ways of working with the studio. Were it necessary for him to be there in the glass workshop daily, perhaps he might never have become the artist and international celebrity he is now. Nevertheless, despite being one step removed from the process, he has said:

'Glass has satisfied my need to really understand the material that I am working with and to comprehend and exploit its unique properties of light and transparency. . . . I need to be assured that I've mastered a medium or material, and glass is the only one that I feel completely at ease in'. [xi] His oneness with the material has produced supreme results and transformed perceptions about his chosen art form.

Dale Chihuly is one of the most honoured and creative contemporary sculptors in glass. The Victoria & Albert Museum is a fitting site to bring the work of this extraordinary artist to an even broader audience.

Notes

  1. Oldknow, Tina, 'Pilchuck: A Glass School', University of Washington, Seattle, and Pilchuck Glass School, p. 38
  2. Kuspit, Donald, 'Chihuly', Portland Press, 1998, p. 33
  3. Oldknow, Tina, 'Pilchuck: A Glass School', p. 23
  4. 'Chihuly Over Venice', video, '. . . is that sexual or not!'
  5. Chihuly, 'Color, Glass and Form', Kodansha International, 1986, pp. 19–20
  6. 'The Times', 13 August 1999
  7. 'Evening Standard', 8 December 1999
  8. 'Crafts', Jan./Feb., 2000
  9. 'Homes and Interiors' No. 14, 1999
  10. 'idFX and FX International', December 1999
  11. Oldknow, interview with Chihuly in 'Pilchuck: A Glass School', p. 23

Published in Chihuly at the V&A, Portland Press, 2001

Also from Chihuly at the V&A:
Chihuly and Venice, Dan Klein
Venetian Traditions, Reino Liefkes

CHIHULY AT THE V&A