Dale Chihuly: Shell Forms

Linda Norden
Arts Magazine
June 1981

Long a major figure among glass artists, Dale Chihuly may now have to contend with the kind of criticism more familiar to other artists who exhibit in the heavily trafficked galleries at 420 West Broadway. Although many major collections, both here and abroad, contain Chihuly's work, and despite nearly a hundred prior shows, the recent exhibition at the Charles Cowles Gallery was Chihuly's first one-man show in New York, and his audience is rapidly expanding. This will probably present more problems for potential critics than for the artist or his viewers: aside from mere praise, how do we evaluate beautiful objects that demand the same attention as any painting, sculpture, or installation, yet fly in the face of an art critic's need to classify? While Chihuly's show at the Cowles is his best work to date, the new diaphanous shell forms are close relatives to the earlier Pilchuck Basket series. As such, they owe their success to Chihuly's continuing commitment to the exploitation of properties unique to hot glass and the glass-blowing process.

Unlike Peter Voulkos or Ken Price, two other highly respected artists whose work in the traditionally "craft" media of clay is usually located within the context of such established art movements as Abstract Expressionism or Constructivism, Chihuly is not wont to draw on art historical references when describing the evolution of his forms. He tends, instead, to express his concerns as responses and challenges to intrinsic phenomena in glass. Non-glass sources do, indeed catalyze changes in Chihuly's work—they range from American Indian art forms of Chihuly's native Northwest to suggestions from his close friend, painter Italo Scanga—but only when they reinforce possibilities within the glass itself.

In his Blanket Cylinders of the mid-Seventies, for instance, Chihuly tried to surmount problems resulting from the traditional opposition of container and surface; drawing and decoration were at least as important as the cylinder's defining form. Though Chihuly's inspiration for that series derived, in large part, from Navajo blanket designs, by wrapping preconstructed glass thread drawings around the vessels and sandwiching them between layers of different colors, the powerful, symmetrical, flat textile patterns were subjected to the distorting effects of hot, blown glass. In that series, the cylinder retained its fixed, containing form; inside and outside were still distinct.

The single most significant source for almost all of Chihuly's work since 1978 was his exposure to some old and neglected Indian baskets slumping under their own weight. The collapsing baskets, which he saw in a Tacoma, Washington, museum, have been cited so often in writing on Chihuly that their importance is waning as a result of repetition. Nevertheless, Chihuly maintains that they were and continue to be a tremendous influence. Analyzing that influence, on both the Pilchuck Basket series and the newer sea forms at Charles Cowles, enhances a more conceptual understanding of Chihuly's work.

The baskets offered at least two types of inspiration. Their woven construction resulted in a vessel whose form and surface decoration developed simultaneously; more significantly, their disfigured shapes motivated Chihuly to give greater play to gravity in the creation of his pieces. Whereas the baskets had taken years to succumb to gravitational pull, in the glassblowing process, where work time is severely limited by the rapid heat loss of the glass, recreating the baskets' distortions was like speeding up a film from separate stills to 35mm.

Conventionally, glassblowing takes place as an elaborately choreographed tug-of-war between the artist (blowing, spinning rolling, etc.) and gravity. But, like the Venetians, whose glass he so admires, Chihuly has long embraced both aspects of the blowing process. He values asymmetry and distortion as well as delicacy in his pieces. Ultimately, giving greater license to gravity placed new emphasis on spontaneity and the requisite skill or control necessary to capture fleeting forms and to take on more of a director's role in making the pieces, producing, for the first time, preliminary watercolor sketches, and relying heavily on collaborating workers. He has always upheld the importance of collaboration—for many years he worked in close partnership with James Carpenter—but increasingly the collaboration has included many of his students.

First to emerge from the inspiration of the Tacoma baskets was Chihuly's Pilchuck Basket series, ranging from tiny vessels to those nearly two feet in diameter; the slouching and distended bubbles were decidedly glass in their thinness and shiny translucence, but still very much baskets in their tendency toward ambers, and to construct larger groupings that heightened color of shape contrasts or created families of pieces, a practice he's continued and refined in the latest pieces.

In the series at Charles Cowles, the dominant concerns have become more conceptual, more technical, more wholly responsive to the glass, and consequently more abstractly related to the forms they evoke. Spontaneity, says Chihuly, was the primary concern in the new body of work, a statement that renews his stressing the glass-making process, and the resultant pieces offer a far purer declaration of the properties of glass than anything Chihuly has done since his joint project with Carpenter installed at what was then the Contemporary Crafts Museum in 1971.

Those exceedingly tall, squiggly, black and white pulled-glass forms, in their dramatic stage-like setting, declared the elasticity and color potential of glass, while using the unnatural bluish glare of neon lighting to call attention to some specific relationships between glass and light. More importantly, the installation underscored the tremendous kinetic energy inherent to glass making, a radical departure, especially at the time, from the familiar associations of glass with fragility and preciousness.

The delicate, subtle groupings—rippled shell forms in pale, opalescent and translucent pastel tones, that are less color than evidence of light—would seem to be miles apart form those earlier, more overtly spontaneous, aggressive forms of 1971. Yet the earlier pieces were also in colors that represent light and its absence, or light and shadow; and, thanks to some new technical processes, the new pieces, while incredibly thin and fragile in appearance, are actually stronger and sturdier than any of his earlier work.

By blowing the hot glass into an optical mold—a mold with interior ridges—the already tough soda-lime glass Chihuly employs can be pushed to new extremes of thinness. The resulting corrugation of the glass provides both increased structural stability and a new range of potential for surface decoration. When thin glass threads are trailed over the ridges in a continuous motion, they adapt to the unique contours of each form so that, as in the original Tacoma baskets, a fusion of form and decoration occurs, differing markedly from the applied patches of drawing on many of the earlier Pilchuck Baskets.

Sometimes the new forms resemble sea urchins, distended sacks with small openings covered in pinpoints of white that spiral out from the opening. Other forms are more elegantly abstract, such as two gently fluted bowls which look like lace mantillas held up by invisible strings, one minutely striped in white, one in a dark, smokey black, both appearing imminently collapsible were it not for the bold declaration of their rim with a thin, contrasting thread of glass carefully encircling the lip. The inch beneath its rim; just as the form threatens to disappear, the red line calls it back. None of the forms, however, represent anything.

Rather, they are shells and, as such, imply protection and an earlier inhabitation by living forms—a loaded metaphor that again refers to process: fire no longer resides in the cool, translucent shapes. Yet Chihuly describes them as live creatures, moving in the odd way that only things underwater do, their endogenous forms and spiraling surfaces augmenting that liquid sense of asymmetrical movement.

By installing each painstakingly assembled set on an individual base, Chihuly reasserts tensions between individual shapes, colors, patterns, and overall forms that echo the split-second decisions which occur when the pieces are made. A few more intensely colored pieces, resembling tortoise shell or evacuated beehives, stand on taller, narrower pedestals, communing more directly with light from the skylights than with other forms. The large number of separate bases prevents any total effect, unlike an earlier installation in Seattle, where pieces from the Pilchuck Basket series were spilled out onto one long shelf. But the careful, isolated groupings emphasize the subtle resonances that give life to these forms, allowing the viewer to intimately experience each family or set of pieces.


Though Chihuly does not feel that he has fully resolved the problem of presentation and installation, it is encouraging to note that his interest in opportunities for close inspection outweighs any fears he might have of people breaking the work—an attitude that helps to subvert the usual preciousness associated with glass.

That such pieces are precious anyhow is a fact that is better to accept than deny, as did Breton, in his Surrealist romance Nadja, when he elicited the "indefinable reaction at the sight of extremely rare objects," which he equated with facts of:

…quite unverifiable, intrinsic value, which by their absolutely unexpected, violently fortuitous character are a way of transforming gossamer into spiderweb (that is, into what would be the most shimmering, delicate thing in the world were it not for the spider in the corner).

Chihuly is indeed that spider, always ready to spin new gossamer webs and to trap anything that might contribute to future forms. The pieces at Charles Cowles were only his latest testimony to glass as the purest material witness to human breath and light, exquisitely trapped.

©1981 Arts Magazine

More essays about Seaforms:
Chihuly and the Sea
, Sylvia Earle
Chihuly Seaforms, Joan Seeman Robinson
Swept Away by a Show of Beauty, William Zimmer

Also by Linda Norden:
The Life of Forms: On Dale Chihuly's Glass Baskets, Chihuly Baskets, 1994.
Introduction, Chihuly: Glass, 1982.