On one level, Dale Chihuly can be lauded for moving the Studio Glass movement from its original premise of the solitary artist working in a studio environment to embracing the more established modus operandus within the art world of collaborative endeavors and a division of labor within the creative process. However, Chihuly's contribution to the field extends well beyond this. His practice of putting together teams of artists with exceptional glassblowing skills has led to the development of complex, multipart sculptures of dramatic beauty and scale that place him in the leadership role of moving blown glass out of the confines of the small, precious object and into the realm of large-scale sculpture and environmental art. In fact, Chihuly deserves much of the credit for establishing the blown glass form as an accepted medium for installation art and, hence, for contemporary expression in late twentieth and twenty-first century art generally.
A prodigiously prolific artist whose work balances content with an investigation of the material's properties of translucency and transparency, Chihuly began working with glass at a time when reverence for the medium and for technique was paramount. A student of interior design and architecture in the early 1960s, by 1965 he had become captivated by the process of glassblowing. He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin's hot glass program, the first of its kind in the United States, established by Studio Glass movement founder Harvey K. Littleton. While the literature has always attributed Chihuly’s interest in employing teams of glassblowers to a three-week visit to the Venini glass factory in Murano in 1968, it is now believed that his first collaborations date from his days in Madison where he worked with fellow graduate student and second generation Studio Glass artist Fritz Dreisbach. After receiving a degree in sculpture, Chihuly was admitted to the ceramics program at the Rhode Island School of Design, only to establish its renowned glass program, turning out a generation of recognized artists.
Influenced by an environment that fostered the blurring of boundaries separating all the arts, as early as 1967 Chihuly was using neon, argon, and blown glass forms to create room-sized installations of organic, freestanding, plantlike imagery. He brought this interdisciplinary approach to the arts to the legendary Pilchuck School in Stanwood, Washington, which he cofounded in 1971 and served as its first artistic director until 1989. Under Chihuly's guidance, Pilchuck has become a gathering place for international artists with diverse backgrounds. Over the years his studios, which include an old racing shell factory in Seattle called The Boathouse and now buildings in the Ballard section of the city and Tacoma, have become a mecca for artists, collectors, and museum professionals involved in all media. Beyond being working environments, they house the diverse and massive collections ranging from Pendleton blankets to chalk ware figurines that in their quantities as well as formal qualities may have provided additional inspiration to the artist over time.
Stylistically over the past forty years, Chihuly's sculptures in glass have explored color, line, and assemblage. Although his work ranges from the single vessel to indoor/outdoor site-specific installations, he is best known for his multipart blown compositions. These works fall into categories of mini-environments designed for the tabletop as well as large, often serialized forms that are innovatively displayed in groupings on a wide variety of surfaces ranging from pedestals to bodies of natural water. Masses of these blown forms also have been affixed to specially engineered structures that dominate large exterior or interior spaces. In recent years, Chihuly has experimented with the plastic Polyvitro to create forms that he could not safely have made in glass that are then installed in outdoor environments.
Chihuly and his teams have created a wide vocabulary of blown forms, revisiting and refining earlier shapes while at the same time creating exciting new elements. His Fiori, beginning in the early to mid-1990s, continue to demonstrate his desire to take advantage of the glassblowing skills of his teams, which include gaffers William Morris, Rich Royal, Martin Blank, Joey Kirkpatrick, Flora Mace, Joey DeCamp, Benjamin Moore, Jim Mongrain, Lino Tagliapietra, and Pino Signoretto. The Baskets, Cylinders, Seaforms, Macchia, Persians, Venetians, Niijima Floats, and Chandeliers have now been joined by newer blown elements with exotic names: Reeds, Saguaros, Herons, Seal Pups, and Belugas. The array demonstrates that Chihuly is, first and foremost, a colorist.
While he continues to draw upon all these forms for his more monumental compositions, in 2006 Chihuly returned to the Baskets and Cylinders to explore the color black. Whether black was chosen to enhance the other colors of his palette or has some private meaning for the artist is unclear. Chihuly simply explains it as a response to memory: a reminder of early museum installations of his work and of images of earlier works that were photographed on black Plexiglas. To date, the sculptures of the Black Series utilize much of his established vocabulary of blown forms: broad expanses of black are juxtaposed against vibrant reds, greens, yellows, and white. Even the works on paper reflect this new interest: globs of silver, gold, or iridescent acrylic paint streak or spatter across the black backgrounds.
Beginning with his neon installations, Chihuly’s work has been marked by the prominence of line. His Blanket Cylinders of the mid-1970s, for example, were unique within the history of glass because of the composed glass-thread “drawings” fused into the surface. Later, the Seaforms were blown in optic molds, resulting in surfaces decorated with repeating ribbed motifs. He explored in the Macchia series bold, colorful lip wraps that contrast sharply with the brilliant body colors of the vessels. Finally, beginning with the Venetians of the early 1990s, the elongated, linear blown forms, that are a product of the glassblowing process, became significant parts of his vocabulary. These highly baroque, sometimes writhing elements are especially effective in the more recent Chandeliers, Towers, and Boats. The works on paper, begun in the late 1970s as an activity to occupy his time while working with the teams in the hot shop and as a means of communicating ideas to the team, demonstrate that same linear quality. Whether they are executed with pencil, mixed media or acrylic paint, attenuated lines dominate these compositions.
Chihuly’s work is strongly autobiographical. Recently, the artist has become more forthcoming about the impact of his family on his work. He attributes his success with teamwork to his father, who was a union organizer. His well-documented close relationship with his mother is now understood to have been strengthened by the death of his older brother in 1957 and then his father a year later. One of her most lasting influences has been in his longstanding fascination with abstracted flower forms—an allusion to her lush gardens in Tacoma. Likewise, series such as his Seaforms, Niijima Floats, and even the Chandeliers allude to his childhood in Tacoma, Washington, marked by his love of the sea and his recognition of its importance to the economy of the Pacific Northwest. Even in the few instances in which the artist has chosen to respond to earlier historical decorative arts forms, the imagery has personal significance. The Basket series, for instance, developed out of the woven Northwest Coast Indian baskets that Chihuly saw in 1977 with his late friend the sculptor Italo Scanga and sculptor James Carpenter at the Tacoma Historical Society.
Over the years the artist has created a number of memorable installation exhibitions, including “Chihuly Over Venice” (1995 – 96), “Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000” at the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem (2000), “Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass” at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory (2001 – 2002), and the “Chihuly Bridge of Glass” in Tacoma (2002). These installations confirm the artist’s sensitivity to architectural context and his interest in the interplay of natural light on the glass that exploits its translucency and transparency.
While elements of the earlier installations allude to natural phenomena such as icicles and vegetation, gardens provide the dominant theme in Chihuly’s more recent ones. Sites that include Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory (2001), the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2005), the New York Botanical Garden (2006), and Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (2007) enable the artist to juxtapose monumental, organically shaped sculptural forms with beautiful landscaping, establishing a direct and immediate interaction between nature, art, and environmental light.
Moreover, Chihuly’s installations at the Tacoma Art Museum (2003), at the Kunstmuseum Luzern (2005), and more recently at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (2008) reveal the artist’s progression toward a logical next direction: installations that are gardens themselves. While these gardens have largely been masses of churning forms and vibrant colors, the artist has also executed others that use a more limited single color palette. In a sense, Chihuly has come full circle; now using his mature vocabulary, he captures in these installations the joie de vivre of the plantlike forms of his early neon environments.
A dominant presence in the art world, Dale Chihuly and his work has long provoked considerable controversy as part of the art/craft debate. However, with exhibitions such as his recent show at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, there can be little doubt that his lasting contribution to art of our times is an established fact.
Davira S. Taragin, Independent curator
Formerly Director of Exhibitions, Racine Art Museum;
Curator, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Toledo Museum of Art.