DALE CHIHULY, GLAZIER OF THE FIRST WATER

Danny Medina
DALE CHIHULY

Dale Chihuly has become one of the best-known glaziers in the country. It is not rare to see his pieces in major museums and collections throughout the country. But even as successful as Dale has become, the old "is-glass-a-craft-or-a-fine-art" stigma still crisscrosses his career and his mind. "There is no question that I have met a certain amount of resistance in my career. My major galleries in New York are considered fine art galleries and I have had major shows in museums where my work was represented as fine art. But yes, I still get that old line that my work might just be a craft. Let me say this to you: I was much more concerned with that subject say ten years ago because ten years ago there was really no place to show your work if you were a craftsman, with the exception of a few crafts galleries—and those galleries were not that great. Unfortunately for all of us, it has remained that way. Most craft galleries around today are not very good. Because of that, everyone wants to show in fine arts galleries. The reason for this is that the galleries have a clientele who are more educated and they get more traffic. I'll give you examples: the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum or the Museum of Modern Art would have a lot more traffic than, say, the American Craft Museum. I want my work to be seen by as many people as possible. After all, if you want to show your work, you should want it shown in what is considered to be the best place. And let's face it: showing in these museums is the pinnacle. I think I have accomplished that.

"Now the issue of what I am—am I a craftsman? A designer? An artist? Or just what am I?—This issue is much less important to me today. Being real honest, I don't care what they call me or my work as long as they look at it.

"My real forte is glass-blowing and that is perhaps why I'll never get into multiple-edition pieces. The way I work, I can't do the same piece twice anyway. Oh, I suppose I could design for a factory where my pieces could be reproduced by hand or by machine; but then I don't like doing that. Artists don't necessarily make good designers. Anyway, I'm a rather prolific artist. I'm in over 100 collections right now. But then you think how many people are still out there and no matter how prolific I am, I am never going to saturate any aspect of the market.

"Publicity is what makes it appear that an artist is or was very prolific. Take Picasso for example: he created tens of thousands of pieces of work and yet how often have you seen a piece in someone's home? And as you must be well aware, there are thousands of personal collections in this Valley alone and yet most of us only know of Picasso because of the tremendous amount of writing that has been done on him and that makes him appear as a very prolific artist… and in this case he was.

"Though I am considered very prolific, I destroy a lot of my own work. If it is not exactly what I am looking for, I reject it. I reject many pieces for many reasons. Sometimes there will be a flaw. In some cased it might be a really good piece—a spectacular piece—but it will have a flaw. The flaw might be that it is too thin in one part and that causes me to worry about it surviving. Something else that is very typical of glass is that it will sometimes get a piece of stone in it, and generally it will then develop a crack, so we invariably destroy it no matter how spectacular the piece might be.

"Yes we can do installations, but they are usually made up of a lot of little pieces. The last two that I have done were three by eight feet and they were for public places. But mostly we work with pieces that are three feet in diameter and that is about as big as you're going to get with blown glass—any larger than that and you lose control. Most of our installations I feel should go indoors…I don't know if you are aware of it, but weather affects glass sculpture a lot less than it affects bronze. Glass is one of the most durable materials there is. They find glass 5,000 years old and tell you exactly how it was made. But it is fragile. But then I don't know if 'fragile' is the right work…but as we all know only too well, it does break! Because my installations and my work in general is usually composed of many pieces, I have found that if all the parts in a piece are good, it doesn't seem to matter how people set them up. I want my works to look like they have been washed up…a random look…and if you think that way, it is hard to arrange them in a way that they will look badly. That is partly because the nature of my work is casual—sort of chaste-oriented. And that starts from the very beginning. When I'm working with the blowing, we set up certain parameters. The glass is blown up symmetrically, and it's at the end that it is heated up again and spun out. You really never know just how it is going to turn out and it all happens rather quickly. But it is hard just to blow glass—not knowing what you want it to do. It is such an immediate process that it makes it vitally impossible to overwork it. So I have found that if you approach glass blowing with some degree of confidence, you usually get much better results.

"As I said earlier, I like to go in knowing what I am going to do, but sometimes it is fun not to know…and there are times when we are working on new things we sort of play and experiment with the glass. If you take the time to notice my work, you will see it is thin and delicate. And there have been times that people have thought that because of this, it was made by a woman! But let me tell you it takes great physical strength to work with glass: some of the big pieces take as many as three people, and they have to know what they are doing at all times. That is why I surround myself with the best people. Most of these people are artists in their own right and have their own shows. I consider myself very lucky to have them. I think it's because I've been a teacher for so long and it has given me the opportunity to pick the best from the people around me.

"Working with glass is not only physically trying and mentally exhausting, but very expensive as well. That is why we do not work all year long. Besides: you don't want to work with that kind of intensity for twelve months. If you saw my video you can see the intense tension that we all work under while we are creating. Most of the artists who work for me are terrific artists in their own right but they can't work for themselves all of the time either because…it's too expensive. People don't realize but it costs me about $2,000 a day to work. Of course, that does include a lot of labor. The expense lies in that it takes about $500 a day just to melt the glass and keep it at the right temperature. That explains why glass is expensive. And it also explains why there are a lot of people working with glass today.

"There are a few very good ones—perhaps the best-known is Harvey Littleton, who started what is now know as the Studio Glass Movement in 1962 at the University of Wisconsin. He has an excellent reputation. There are several other very interesting people working in glass, too, such as Howard Ben Tré, Dan Daily, Marvin Lipofsky. There are a couple dozen well-known artists and another 50 or so that are fairly well known.

"Even though my forte is blowing glass, the people who are working in glass are working in so many other ways, and that seems to be the way glass is moving. For example, Bertil Vallien whom I am having a show with…well you see, he casts his glass: it is not blown at all. So you see, there have been a lot of strides made in the area of glass. In the beginning it was easy doing something new because there were so few individual artists working with this medium. Before that, with one or two exceptions, most of the glass produced had been made in factories and most of that was reproduction. Oh yes, I know we had Tiffany, and Lalique; but even there, most of their glass was made for production—it was more of a design quality. But I think the glass movement will continue to grow.

"I do about two museum shows and about three or four gallery shows in a year, but I think what I would like to see more than anything is a very good cross-section of my work in a small museum—sort of a retrospective. As a matter of fact, I think I would rather have that than a piece here and a piece there, even in major museums. Then it would be twice as nice if that little museum was in a town that I liked, like the Southwest, Seattle, New England…Yes, that would be very nice because I have never aspired to have any great museum have my things…"

Published in Art Talk. (November 1986): 15.