There's a pool in Dale Chihuly's studio in Seattle in which lies submerged, a great bed of Seaform sculptures. Lighted from below, their chromatic luminosity irradiates the water, granting it a plenitude as if one were looking into the tropical deep through a glass-bottomed boat. Alone of the four elements - earth, air, fire and water- only water possesses visible mass and simultaneous mutability. It is inside visible by fluctuation and what it holds in suspension: it feeds life and breeds organisms that in turn purify and enrich it. No doubt Chihuly, who grew up attuned to the ebb and flow of Pacific waters washing over Tacoma beaches, recognized the harmonious coincidence between his native landscape and the undulant richness of these objects. Thus the "sea forms" emerged, unpredictable configurations filled with all implicit pliancy and an air of mobility.
More than any other of Chihuly's sculptures, the Seaforms look like nature's offspring. A vegetal energy radiates from them. They resemble no species of plant, however. And they resist being perceived as containers. Yet their brilliant hues and expanding shapes are directly descended from two previous generations of forms - the erect Blanket Cylinders and the billowing Pilchuck Baskets, the latter inspired by a collection of Northwest Coast Indian baskets whose slumping bodies and supple resiliency affirmed their organic origin. The Baskets declared Chihuly's desire to free form from classical models, but their walls were delicate, their bodies too fragile for more experimental variations.
Chihuly's technical solution to the problem of fragility appeared literally to generate his own species of "sea life". He sought to strengthen glass by forming it in I grooved mold, reinforcing the fabric much as corrugation adds firmness to cardboard. The glass, now traced circumferentially with radial lines, could withstand a more vigorous manipulation, especially shaking and crimping, which introduced longitudinal ripples and pleats. Watching the process of glass blowing and the effect of gravity on the hot and supple materials is like witnessing a time-lapse recording of proliferating sea life, the glass forms germinating like palpable living organisms. The resultant shape of the Seaforms is a whorl of arabesques springing outward from a source, which no longer resembles or conforms to the bottom of a pot. In fact, there is no sense of "ponderation," of weight distributed centrally and securely. Because their shapes are so amorphous and irregular, their walls so convoluted and their contours so elaborate, they refute classical balance, achieving a kind of delicate equipoise.
Chihuly's art is an art born of process. He exploits the spontaneity of the glass-blowing medium and embraces it rather than trying to subjugate it to his will as traditional craftsmen have done. Chihuly approaches the act of drawing in the same manner. He doesn't draw to provide models for his team to replicate but to celebrate the spontaneity of the medium, just as in the process of glass blowing. He sweeps swaths of color on papers laid out like stepping stones on the deck outside his studio, a converted racing scull factory called the Boathouse, on the waters of Lake Union. The glass Seaforms reflect the "gestural mapping" of his drawings and the full-bodied energy that goes into their making. The sculptures, by reaching out to the space around them, infer "fields" and are clearly related to an aquatic sensibility in modern painting in which seemingly unmediated and unpremeditated streams of lines and flows of pigment appear to spring directly from the artist's psychic state. The development of Chihuly's Seaforms partakes of this intuitive procedure, its roots extending back to the primal impulses that emerged in the Surrealists' automatic drawings and paintings in works like André Masson's Battle of the Fishes, Joan Miró's Birth of the World, and the hydromorphic creations of the American painters, Theodore Stamos, William Baziotes and Nassos Daphnis in the early '40s. Unlike many contemporary artists, he is not an avid student of art history, but has responded to formal concerns in ways that recall his aesthetic forebears.
The Seaforms and their offspring, the huge suspended waves of clustered glass that he installs across walls and windows, have their most ambitious antecedents in Claude Monet's water lilies, especially those of such breadth that they reach beyond peripheral vision. The goal for Monet was not to make a work with no boundaries, one that suggested an infinite extension, but to invoke the effect of a great pond, its surface patterns and reflections animated by light and air. And Miró, in his largest murals, summoned whole constellations of sprightly characters in magnetic suspension across glowing skies. Jackson Pollock in One and Blue Poles is closer to prefiguring Chihuly's own gestural approach, through flowing lines and shapes executed in broad body movements over a surface spread out on the floor - a kind of choreographic record of an inspired working state.
But perhaps it is Henri Matisse's Swimming Pool that is closest to Chihuly's achievement in the Seaforms. Matisse loved the Mediterranean, especially for its light. He even went to Tahiti in the South Seas, optimistically anticipating a productive creative period. But finally it was in his studio when he was bedridden in his late years that he conceived of The Swimming Pool, a work of fragmented blue arabesques streaming lengthwise some 54 feet across a continuous white panel. The Swimming Pool was a dream of buoyant immersion, of swimmers' bodies so propulsive and their visibility so elusive that only traces of their emergence made sense of the sensations - both of partaking in and witnessing what the experience is like. The Swimming Pool was made of individually cut pieces of painted paper whose positions were plotted and adjusted intuitively entirely in relation to an overall scenario; an aquatic experience reconvened and reconfigured and installed on four walls in order to transform a room - thus becoming a kind of therapeutic fantasy, aestheticized, idealized and held in permanent suspension.
In the Seaforms, Chihuly succeeds in sustaining an aura of ineluctable transformation. The very process of making reinforces their implicit sense of life. Centrifugal force opens them up, just as a living organism expands with breath. The glass also "remembers" the lines imprinted by the ridged or optical mold, creating longitudinal ribs that reveal the webbed delicacy of their walls. When the bodies become more transparent, their linear infrastructure is exposed like a skeletal network. And the faint films of thinned colors, the lapidary reds, greens, violets, blues and yellows, suggest membranes and tissue.
The individual works have a formal integrity, a sense of wholeness and resolution. There are also families of Seaforms, large vessels with smaller and smaller shapes nestled within them, which can seem as different as night and day. A yolky chrome yellow set whose lips are so densely pigmented that they look like butterscotch, seems charged with heat, its borders framed with a fiery red. Another group in deep cobalt blue seems to draw in and swallow light. Translucent, it nonetheless seems impenetrable as though made of dense shadows, its cool nocturnal quality heightened by the yellow blips with which each rim is traced - like someone moving through darkness carrying a dancing flash-light. Occasionally a Seaform will have a deep tulip-like bowl, but it will be thrown eccentrically off course like a tissue-thin water blossom tugged by a tide.
As self-sufficient and elegant as the Seaforms can be, they are part of the larger scope of Chihuly's vision, which is to alter the environment. His isn't a political agenda, intended to inform us of complex ecological issues. But neither is it resistant to such associations, for it reminds us of how we may feel in the presence of nature and the wonder that stirs us at its evanescence and vulnerability. For in the fragility of glass, there is also a pathos - a projection of our longing for harmony, serenity and, at least, a quotient of spirituality and, at the same time, a forewarning of loss because loss seems integral to the material. It is the essence of glass to forecast its own disappearance and to embody its own immateriality.
The Seaforms call forth associations with water, marine life and movement without depicting them and that's why they so persuasively affect us as art. Certainly as craft they are impressive and intriguing. If they are art it's because something prompts us to probe why they move us so, and therefore to attempt to consider the causes of this influence. Chihuly didn't assign himself the subject of "sea forms." The appellation came forth because their fluidity seemed paramount.
To free glassmaking to this degree, to liberate form to such an extent that it appears to be returning to its own more primitive or organic state - indeed, to be in the process of perpetually evolving within that state is the real achievement. That Chihuly's works seem both impossible and alive is not so much confounding as convincing. Because, of course, they are really at rest and possessed of a clarity of form, they seem to arrest the ineffable. With all their richness of suggestion, they succeed in condensing the transient, the exotic and the intuitive, idealizing, as it were, the phenomenally subliminal and mysterious. (This is not to infer that there's a dark side to the Seaforms. That's a subject due his later series, the Niijima Floats.) The Seaforms are inclusive and outreaching. Their forms, skins and pigmentation seem innocently offered. We see through them. They open up and curl in a kind of voluptuous solicitation, restorative and generous, in a sensuous repose. Their initial seductiveness is more than skin deep. Their concentrated vitality and unvarying accessibility assure us that our delight in their presence offers a deeper awareness of a similar potential in ourselves.
Joan Seeman Robinson is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to Artforum.
Published in Chihuly: Seaforms, Portland Press, 1995.
More essays about Seaforms:
Chihuly and the Sea, Sylvia Earle
Swept Away by a Show of Beauty, William Zimmer
Dale Chihuly: Shell Forms, Linda Norden