The American glass worker Dale Chihuly has been involved with exploring the glassblowing process since the mid-1960s. In 1977, he was fascinated by some stacked, misshapen Northwest Coast Indian baskets he had seen in the Tacoma Historical Society in his native state of Washington. His Pilchuck Baskets became testaments to these relics, forms that served no other function than to contain their own metaphysical associations. In the subsequent Sea Forms the relic was taken back to its living counterpart, as Chihuly found natural analogues for the Native American containers in the shapes found in the sea. The most recent Macchia, a synthesis of the earlier series, however, communicate a purposeful ambiguity: They appear vital but not organic, containers whose primary role is to communicate their own significance as works of art. The Macchia play on the dichotomy that glass can both dematerialize and manifest form. These glass sculptures provide the artist with a way of structuring form through color: a goal that intrigued and defeated 20th-century artists looking for a new equivalent to Cubism. Robert Delaunay, for example, formulated Orphism, but instead of liberating color, he froze it, turning it into a series of static rotary forms. But Chihuly, suspending color in clear glass, solves this formalist problem: Color does not augment form but becomes form. Chihuly's work illustrates the issue of monumentality, an issue that informs many recent efforts in glass art. Ancient vials, vases and figures from Syria, Egypt and Rome, though small, were considered substantial and important. However, by the Renaissance glass had begun to look less like a medium for important ideas and more like a utilitarian container notable for its transparency, fragility and impermanence. This ephemeral quality was highly prized; for example, Venetian goblets seem to have been created with the aim of surviving only a single evening. Glass from the Renaissance through the end of the 19th century is a contradiction: a trifle that can be lasting, a fragile moment that can be permanent.
When glass objects reach the scale of Chihuly's Macchia series, a new identity is achieved. Glass no longer has to pretend to be unassuming, undemanding and fragile, even though it continues to play on ephemerality. In the Macchia, the strength of the glass is suggested with references to geological formations. The colors in the Macchia are related to the colors of stones: Seen under bright light they look like nature caught on fire, nature in molten flux, nature in the process of being created. In this series Chihuly attempts to catch the formulative moment, the time when creation is happening, when it is still fluid. Ruffled edges, whiplash outlines, striations and intense, mottled colors in these large pieces all call to mind living, breathing, pulsating forms of monumental proportions.
By emphasizing volume and scale, Chihuly transforms vases into sculpture. This transmutation leads to a consideration of the bibelot. In our society the white elephant has become a treasured art object. Chihuly plays on this fact, creating new white elephants that appear to have taken flight, that no longer obey the rules of our day-to-day world. In the process they become objects for the imagination true—flights of fantasy.
Physically Chihuly also releases vases from their former static incarnation and makes them appear as if they are gloating. He elicits an ethereal, almost spiritual manifestation that strangely and, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek humor, recalls late Renaissance and Baroque paintings of floating saints and cherubs. He creates an important metaphor of change and transcendence that is exhilarating and liberating.
In the Macchia the forms respond to the tension of inner space. This inner space activates them, giving shape to the entire series. Like a dust devil on the desert, an unpredictable whirlwind capable of great force, the Macchia appear to have reached only a momentary, tentative balance, ready to move on to assume another shape, another metamorphosis. They remind us that glass is a supercooled liquid, a transient sate of matter.
The element of fancy surfaces in photographs of Chihuly's work, interpretations essential to his creative process. For the photographs Chihuly arranges his pieces on black glass so that they seem to float, thus emphasizing their precarious balance, their reponse to unseen forces. In the photographs the glass pieces appear to be even more disembodied than they are: They become suspended and dematerialized colored light, recalling the traditional significance of stained glass that transforms ordinary light into etherealized space. The photographs become an enlightened form of highly theatrical play acting. They do not falsify the glass. They simply exaggerate and play with it.
Chihuly has developed a distinctive style of drawing in order to think about the character of his own glass. To my knowledge no one has created drawings using a handful of differently graded pencils so that a multitude of lines is created at one time, giving the drawing force and delicacy. If one considers Cy Twombly's paintings of the early 1960's, which employ dabs of paint and offhand scribbles, one readily understands that Twombly is involved in picturing the look and function of the various mediums employed, being careful to give each its proper weight and felt tone. In contrast, Chihuly draws in order to describe the forces giving his glass form. In finishing these drawings Chihuly regularly accents his force fields with a few sweeping lines that become openings for the vessels he is creating.
In the glass he emphasizes these orifices that suggest female forms with special outlines that contrast with the colors of the rest of the piece. In the Baskets, Sea Forms and Macchia, Chihuly amasses a virtual collection of elastic orifices. The mystery of these lavish displays appears to derive from the fecundity of nature, and these openings are usually connected to expansive vessels, which serve as lodgings for smaller bowls and nodules. The various glass vessels nestling within each other create a satisfying sense of intimacy and enclosure—they are protective but not defensive; the translucency of glass invites one to look in without feeling that one is invading a private territory. The large vessels that contain smaller vessels appear to be pregnant, nurturing forms that leave the human analogy open and abstract. Chihuly's forms can also be taken as relics piled one inside another (Baskets) or living elements interacting in an ambient fluid (Sea Forms) or as a grand vessel turning into life (Macchia).
Chihuly manages to suggest living relationships of forms rather than mere collections of objects. The internal force of each form and its own individual reaction to gravity appears to be only momentarily suspended by his precarious sculptural arrangement. The conflicting dynamics of the individual pieces making up an ensemble suggests a tentativeness for the whole. And the transitory quality of the ensemble, in turn, reinforces the spontaneity that attended the creation of each individual piece. The accumulated wealth seems to be more a happy coincidence than an overbearing fact. And I think this precarious massing of forms is a characteristic that enlivens the grouping and makes it less a ponderous celebration of materialism and more a testament to the ceaseless change that characterizes modern life.
Published in Dale Chihuly: objets de verre, Museé des Arts Décoratifs, 1986
Also by Robert Hobbs:
Reflections on Chihuly's Macchia, Chihuly alla Macchia, 1993
Dale Chihuly’s Persians: Acts of Survival, Chihuly Persians, 1988