Dale Chihuly 2002

Davira S. Taragin

Dale Chihuly is most frequently lauded for revolutionizing the Studio Glass movement by expanding its original premise of the solitary artist working in a studio environment to encompass the notion of collaborative teams and a division of labor within the creative process. Chihuly's exhibition at Grounds For Sculpture entitled "Dale Chihuly 2002," however, reminds us of this artist's significant aesthetic as well as conceptual contribution to contemporary art. His use of teams has led to the development of complex, multipart sculptures of dramatic beauty 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 contemporary sculpture. In fact, Chihuly deserves credit for establishing the blown glass form as an accepted vehicle for installation and environmental art at the end of the twentieth century.

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. 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 such sculptors as Howard Ben Tré, Roni Horn, and Therman Statom.

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. The Boathouse has particular relevance within his oeuvre because each room represents an installation reflecting both his art and his various interests and preferences in collecting.

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 the categories of mini-environments designed for the tabletop and large, often serialized forms displayed in groupings on pedestals or attached to specially engineered structures that dominate large exterior or interior spaces. The diversity of the installations in this exhibition is indicative of Chihuly's fecund imagination.

Since the early 1980s, all of Chihuly's work has been marked by intense, vibrant color and by subtle linear decoration. At first he achieved patterns by fusing into the surface of his vessels "drawings" composed of prearranged glass threads; he then had his forms blown in optic molds, which created ribbed motifs. He also explored bold, colorful lip wraps that contrasted sharply with the brilliant colors of his vessels--as can be seen in the brilliant array of Macchia in his Macchia Forest (1991 - 2002). Finally, beginning with the Venetians of the early 1990s, elongated, linear blown forms, a product of the glassblowing process, have become part of his vocabulary, resulting in the highly baroque, writhing elements in sculptures such as Boat Installation (2002).

Chihuly has filled the interior spaces and outside gardens of Grounds For Sculpture with approximately thirty-five pieces. Consisting of Chandeliers including one made from "polyvitro" plastic, a Tower, Macchia, Seaforms, Baskets, Persians, Ikebanas, Jerusalem Cylinders, Venetians, Reeds, and works on paper, all are signature Chihuly forms. Together they demonstrate his ongoing refinement of ideas, as in his Teal, Citron, and Amber Chandelier (2002), whose asymmetric arrangement of blown balls represents a fresh direction for the artist. The careful placement of the installations allows for ongoing dialogues among adjacent works. Since much of the museum building is itself glass, the outdoor installations communicate with related forms indoors.

One of the most exciting installations is in the gardens, where Chihuly's Red Reeds (2002) interacts with nature's own, resulting in a dazzling juxtaposition that also reveals the essence of his strongly autobiographical imagery. Chihuly's abstracted flower forms as a response to his mother's garden have been discussed in depth in the literature. 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 included in this exhibition, 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 Historyof 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). The Grounds For Sculpture site is most similar to that of Garfield Park, since both buildings are predominantly glass, allowing the artist to explore the effects of daylight on interior installations. In Garfield Park, however, the conservatory's dense plantings, veil of moisture, and special atmospheric lighting modified the infusion of direct sunlight; at Grounds For Sculpture, the extensive, clear windows permit daylight to flood the interior galleries, emphasizing in novel ways the translucency of the sculptures. At night, specialized lighting produces multiple reflections of the sculptures on the glass walls, transforming the appearance of the entire installation.

A dominant presence in the art world, Chihuly's work has long provoked considerable controversy as part of the art/craft debate. Exhibitions such as this one firmly establish his genius within contemporary art.

Davira S. Taragin
Director of Exhibitions and Programs
Racine Art Museum

From the catalogue of the exhibition Dale Chihuly 2002 at Grounds For Sculpture, Hamilton, New Jersey

More biographies:
Dale Chihuly: A Selective Biography, Tina Oldknow, 2003
Chihuly, Dale, Current Biography, 1995