Matthew Kangas

Dale Chihuly’s installation at the American Craft Museum combines a number of issues he has explored over the past two decades: greater scale for glass; organic and marine life-forms; and environmental installations. In addition, it is a culminating triumph of technical skill and aesthetic content for the artist.

The accumulation of globes, spheres, ovals, and egg forms has a distinct link to Chihuly’s early series, the Seaforms (1981), which deformed circular blown bulbs and opened them up into imaginary sea anemones or, what critic Linda Norden called, “shell forms.” The new work continues the maritime analogy, with its brightly colored surfaces, bulging sea-green and blue accents, and basic cellular forms. Unlike the Seaforms, however, the American Craft Museum installation pieces are opaque as well as transparent, and imply mass and volume. They grow out of the artist’s earliest childhood experiences strolling the beaches of Puget Sound. Kelp, seaweed, flotsam and jetsam, all washed up on the shore and prefigured the new works, which resemble Japanese fishing-boat “floats” blown to mark the location of nets.

Chihuly at the American Craft Museum

Surrounded by the detritus of an approximate inland sea, Puget Sound, the young Chihuly formed strong attachments to the shapes and colors of the beach. As we shall see, they have evolved within Chihuly’s energetic studio schedule, developed out of his ceaseless experimentation with the limits of what glass can do, and have been brought into being by his preoccupation with sculptural environments and the pull of the natural environment of sea and land in his beloved Puget Sound area.

This is Chihuly’s second environment at the American Craft Museum. His only prior installation in New York, at the former Museum of Contemporary Crafts, was Glass Environment (1971), in collaboration with James Carpenter. That time, the exhibition occurred in a darkened room in the museum. Blown-glass tubing was illuminated, suspended from the ceiling, and placed on the floor, creating a white glass forest.

Chihuly at the American Craft Museum, 1992

The other significant earlier event leading up to the current installation was the artist’s October 1989 sojourn on the island of Niijima, Japan, the site of a glass school, where the artist took his entire crew to work. Based on that experience and the similarities to Puget Sound of setting and climate, Chihuly calls the new spheres the Niijima series (1991-92). Executed in October, November, and December, 1991, at Chihuly’s main Seattle studio, the “boathouse,” on Lake Union (the converted Pocock racing-shell-company factory site that originally produced rowing sculls for the Olympic-medal-winning University of Washington crew), the glass balls are a tour de force. It took a twelve-man crew, headed by gaffer Richard Royal, to prepare and execute the spheres under the artist’s close guidance.

Varying from fifty to one hundred inches in circumference, the big balls were eventually too large to fit back into the glory hole, so the work had to be done quickly, particularly because of the growing weight on the end of the blowpipe. To my knowledge, these are the largest glass balls ever blown.

With each ball weighing between fifty and sixty pounds, the teamwork Chihuly has perfected with his assistants was crucial. During the height of the activity, in December 1991, on a given day, each ball was planned with a particular color or colors in mind. Once the glass was heated and blown a number of times, it became too heavy for the blowpipe to be comfortably rolled on the stand. In order to accommodate the new weight and its attendant difficulties, Chihuly devised a new tool, the first to be invented in decades within the centuries-old tradition of glassblowing. It is composed of four pairs of metal rollers, two pairs set nearest the blower and two pairs at the other end of the table. Between trips to the oven, the pipe holding the glass can now rest between both sets of rollers and be more easily turned during the blowing that expands the form.

Although the crew initially was skeptical of the master’s invention, they quickly agreed that the rollers both lightened their load and better facilitated the rapid turning necessary during the blowing process. Each time the ball was enlarged or had metallic foil or broken bits of colored glass applied, it had to be returned to the oven for reheating.

Niijima Floats, American Craft Museum, 1992

When maximum desired size was achieved and the ball no longer was able to be reinserted in the oven to keep it hot and pliable, a daring “anatomical” effect was undertaken. The side opposite the blowpipe was heated with a propane torch and the blower then inhaled sharply on the pipe, creating an indentation, or “dimple,” where the glass had been heated.

After cooling several days in the annealing ovens, the balls were removed to a staging area, where Chihuly worked with assistants Parks Anderson and Robbie Miller to create the configuration of the objects seen in the American Craft Museum. The effect is meant to be beachlike, recalling the swept-up Japanese fishing-fleet floats Chihuly saw as a child on Puget Sound.

Enhancing the original transparency of the Japanese models, Chihuly has transformed them into a carnival of color and pattern. Ranging from lemon yellow, gold, white gold, and orange to blue, green, navy, and powder blue, with pink and red in between, the colors of the Niijima series underscore a central preoccupation of Chihuly’s, the fusion of color and form, while also employing variegated surfaces that resemble polka dots, speckles, and a confettilike conglomeration referred to in glass circles as “end-of-the-day.” (Historically, European crews used up all the leftover colored chips of glass to make their pieces at the end of each working day.)

Chihuly has varied the completion techniques on the orifices—smooth and finished; rough and slightly jagged—to illustrate the ongoing process of glassblowing. Viewed without aqueous or shoreline metaphors, the floats are blunt expression of sequential objects and elaborately fashioned surfaces, surrounding the elemental blown-glass shape: the sphere. Seen yet another way, as hand-constructed objects presented unself-consciously in groups, the floats play off Chihuly’s earlier interest in environmental installation—expanding the number of individual elements used, playing down traces of process, and presenting glass as a materially heightened version of the repetitive module common to minimal art.

Chihuly at the American Craft Museum, 1992

With their placement on the floor, Chihuly offers his own response to the “problem” facing the minimalists: How to avoid the pedestal or plinth support for sculpture. Exulting in color, surface, and texture, rather than avoiding them, however, he pays tribute to ornament and decoration, long a valid part of American craft.

These works not only inhabit both an imaginary maritime world and the white-cube space of the museum, they extend visually onto the Fifty-third Street sidewalk space in front of the American Craft Museum building. Separated from pedestrians by the transparent membrane of floor-to-ceiling window, their meaning varies, depending upon the response of the viewers outside as well as inside the museum.

To New Yorkers passing by, Niijima Floats contrasts the gradual liquid process of glassmaking to the complicated and solid architectural setting of the city. Gifts from the sea, they use glass to embody buoyancy and life. They are containers for their original impetus—human breath—the breath of the gaffer on the blowpipe.

Published in Dale Chihuly Niijima Floats: American Craft Museum, January 30, 1992 – August 2, a New Sites installation, American Craft Museum, 1992.

1992 by American Craft Museum