DALE CHIHULY'S PARADISE REGAINED
Dale Chihuly occupies a unique position in the history of contemporary art. His work is immensely popular with the general public, which usually disdains the avant-garde. At the same time, some of the most important art critics, art historians, and museum curators have acclaimed its brilliance, quality, and inventiveness. His material is glass, which is traditionally associated with the decorative arts, by definition subservient to architecture, and with closed vessels and containers or precious small-scale objects. Yet Chihuly has broken through these limitations and literally changed the definition of glass. He has found ways of creating huge environments and theatrical happenings with this intransigent and fragile material by stretching its unique properties in unprecedented ways.
By now, there is a substantial body of literature covering the three decades of Chihuly's art. Curiously, however, of all of the various appraisals of his work, no two are similar. Indeed, it seems that each critic or writer has his or her own Dale Chihuly. For Matisse scholar Jack Cowart, Chihuly follows Matisse's path of high decoration, as seen in Matisse's brilliantly colored late cutouts and the stained glass of the chapel at Vence. For psychoanalytically oriented critic Donald Kuspit-who has written the most complex and incisive interpretation of the artist's achievement-Chihuly reconciles the reality principle with the pleasure principle. Kuspit sees Chihuly as an artist capable of returning us to the state of innocent wonder of childhood. Other historians cite Chihuly's many layered references to other civilizations, such as the ancient Persian and the Renaissance Venetian traditions, as well as to other cultures, such as those of the Native Americans with whom he has had direct experience. All note his obvious references to nature and to natural processes, which is the inescapable core of his imagery.
Naturally, my Dale Chihuly is different from all of the above, although he shares characteristics with previous descriptions of his means and objectives. My Dale Chihuly is a mischievous, cunning, inspired shaman-a magician, a contemporary Merlin, a Ken Kesey Merry Prankster who produces the psychedelic experience of a magical, glowing, and sparkling, brilliantly alive panorama without drugs. This enchanted glass world has as much to do with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz as it does with the great Renaissance and Baroque festivals that sovereigns arranged to entertain their courts and subjects.I see Chihuly as something like an artistic Superman-capable of crossing boundaries, crashing through barriers, destroying stereotypes, linking continents-a larger-than-life savior who revived an ancient and dying tradition by transplanting it from the Old World to the New. Chihuly is the only artist, outside of Robert Rauschenberg perhaps, who manages actually to live out the sixties dream of making environmental art for the people and of connecting groups in communal situations. He does this by using technology as a tool to take us back to nature. In this sense, Chihuly's work has elements and aspirations in common with those of the artists connected with Experiments in Art and Technology, founded in the 1960s by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver (and also including Claes Oldenburg and Robert Whitman).
While reading the by-now-abundant literature on Chihuly, I was surprised by how many of the writers and curators who had supported his art were people I personally admired, such as Patterson Sims, Walter Darby Bannard, and the late Henry Geldzahler and David Bourdon. All had turned their backs on the narrow academic road of deconstructionist, neo-Marxist, and gender-based criticism now fashionable in the academies. And, of course, Chihuly himself had veered away from his initial conceptual origins in the direction of a bold and generous art that speaks directly to the public in a language that everyone can understand.
The global range of Chihuly's peripatetic activities and his ability to achieve huge and complex projects outside the closed mandarin circle of the official art world parallel that of Christo and Jean Claude. However, unlike their projects, his have no specific political or strategic goals. Like them, he manages his own oeuvre, essentially transcending the petty mechanics of the art world. And like their work, his installations are double-edged and multilayered, capable of being interpreted in a variety of sometimes contradictory ways.
In Chihuly's case, however, one cannot really speak of iconography or political content. The extravagance and theatricality of his site-specific installations are really challenged only by the brilliance and daring of Frank Stella's recent eccentric and clashing architecturally inspired works. Lacking Stella's aggression and confrontational hostility, however, Chihuly's environments, although they share a similar urge to the high decoration characteristic of Islamic and Baroque architecture, are surely more user-friendly. Perhaps because he was trained as an interior designer, Chihuly became accustomed early on to working with rather than against architects.
Like Stella, Chihuly is an immensely successful public artist, capable of filling huge spaces with works of art, produced by teams of collaborators, that provide maximum stimulation and surprise to the public. Both produce sensations of wonder and awe that recall the efforts of the Counter-Reformation to throw off the cold hand of theory-laden Mannerism in order to address the masses directly with a theatrical and spectacular art that had emotional as well as visual impact. However, if Stella aims to be the Michelangelo of postmodernism, Chihuly would just as soon bring Cellini to the people, a more democratic and probably more realizable goal.
Chihuly's environments are intensely present in their colors and dramatic formats. They invite us to surrender to and drown in their weird beauty rather than to stand apart from them. They never demand that their forms or iconography be dissected. If they lack the avant-garde's detachment from the public, they are also devoid of its hostility and indigestibility. In his wildly imaginative fantastic installations, Chihuly creates a total world, a Gesamtkunstwerk, which one enters to be hypnotized and seduced. His is an artificial paradise located somewhere between the languorous, opium-induced synesthesia of Symbolism and the jeweled fairy-tale caves of Ali Baba. It is a world of visions and epiphanies, of illusions and chimera made real and literal. All-encompassing and thoroughly engaging, it is a world of pure sensuous and optical delight, in which one can float and dream.
I do not see Chihuly's exotic environments, however, as related to the transcendence from the material world to any sublime spiritual state, even though there are undeniable echoes of Romanticism in their fantastical quality. Our response to these forms, so frequently evocative of undersea life with its crystalline and coral formations or of the denseness and exoticism of lush tropical forests, is not to transcend them but to drown in them or to be lost and physically disoriented. The reaction is more bodily than spiritual, more like the sense one has of plunging into one of Monet's late Nymphaea paintings to join the banks of water lilies. It is an experience of immersion quite at odds with the subject-object division that characterizes worshiping the aesthetic icons in the ivory tower of the modern museum, where art is cut off from every other kind of experience.
Chihuly's shimmering glass installations create the pleasure and release of a bodily freedom that permits us to feel unanchored, liberated both from gravity and from the familiar boring and colorless shapes and experiences of everyday reality. There is more than a little of the poet in Chihuly. However, the poetry he evokes is the rapturous dreamworld of Coleridge and Blake rather than the nostalgia of Baudelaire and the fin de siècle Symbolists, to whom many writers have linked him. The Symbolists were basically depressed escapists nostalgic for Paradise Lost, never believing it could be regained. In their visionary and ecstatic quality, Chihuly's environments have more to do with the innocence of the epiphany than with the decadence of disappointment and loss. He has the gift of restoring to us what contemporary culture robs us of: delight, wonder, amazement.
One way to see Chihuly is as the anti-Mondrian, the archenemy of Constructivism, with its geometric grids channeling the masses into the productive order of modular repetition. Chihuly's forms are neither static nor solid but transparent, translucent and wavy, changeable and iridescent. They cannot be reduced to gestalts or static images. Their vital energy expands and explodes the fundamental spherical or cylindrical shapes of blown glass into eccentric and unforeseen new forms. These flickering and incandescent, expanding, permuted forms defy the limitations of geometry and stasis and of stable immutable structure.
Engulfed in Chihuly's glowing, effervescent, intensely patterned environments streaming with colored light, we find ourselves inside Kublai Khan's pleasure dome, ecstatically disoriented and hypnotically deranged citizens of Xanadu. We are returned to that state of primeval bliss from which man was expelled for eating the apple of knowledge. For a moment, we may regain the pagan innocence of the Golden Age, the inexperienced innocence also associated with preverbal childhood.
Unlike the underlying utopian political ideology of geometric Constructivism, there is no program for progress in Chihuly's work, no apology for luxury, no moralistic reformist diatribe, no progressive agenda. His is an art of the here and now, an incredibly generous and spectacular public art that can delight and amaze, transport and stimulate millions of people. Perhaps because of the anti-idealistic and anti-moralizing quality of his art, Chihuly's admirers often seem desperate to save him from being seen as vulgar and guilty of embracing what modernism discards as impure. Chihuly rejects purity as much as he attacks the traditional hierarchy that divides the arts into major and minor-with the decorative arts at the bottom of the order, because they serve architecture as embellishment.
By freeing glass installations from architecture, making the medium do more than it ever has before, Chihuly effectively negates such distinctions and proclaims the autonomy of glass as a fine-art medium. To save Chihuly from the "sin" of being a purely decorative artist, or worse yet, a mere artisan, writers who would be his apologists stress that he is an original and personally expressive artist not bound by the strictures of the glassblowing tradition. This emphasis on individuality and originality is typical of the Renaissance view of the artist. It dates back to Leonardo da Vinci's creation of a hierarchy of the arts, with painting at the top of the pyramid because the painter is above all an intellectual, a thinker, not a mere craftsman. It is a hierarchy that Chihuly in his anarchic nonconformity has by this time effectively destroyed.
Chihuly's forms and techniques are transgressive and illusionistic, hybrid and impure. They are everything that modernism, especially in its puritanical American version, associates with decadence and immorality. Within this cultural context, there must be something suspect in an art so expansive and direct, lush and extravagant, excessive and provocatively sensual. In other words, Dale Chihuly is the art world's bad boy. He has proved that he does not need the approbation of the high priests of the art world to survive and prosper. And that is what accounts for the unique appeal as well as the charm and seductiveness of his works, qualities that high modernism associates with the vulgarity of kitsch.
His eccentric swelling and swollen forms are as buoyant as balloons; his colors as mouthwatering as candy, as luxurious as sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. High modernism associates such direct delight, unmediated by criticism, with the entertainment values of popular culture. And here is where high modernism is mistaken and fails to understand what Chihuly intends and with brilliance and mastery has accomplished, which is to make an art that is glamorous and enticing without compromising its essential properties and qualities or cynically appealing to the lowest common denominator as an artist such as Jeff Koons does. There is a huge difference between popular culture, which has inspired both great music and art, and the stale, recycled, and reproduced images of mass media or the deliberate sentimentality and nostalgia of kitsch.
Chihuly's work is genuinely popular, as are jazz, rock music, Pop Art, and, above all, the movies. Like the best work in these forms, Chihuly's art does not devolve into purely escapist diversion or mindless entertainment. His work exhibits not only a sufficient degree of self-consciousness but also a high level of discipline, experience, and knowledge, not to mention a direct connection to a historic tradition, and that defines fine art. At the same time, however, it has more in common with a synthetic and collaborative art such as cinema than it does with the discrete, individualistic traditions of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Film at its best is a totalizing, all-encompassing, optically, physically, and emotionally involving experience from which the viewer cannot be distanced because of the degree of personal identification and synesthestic experience.
Given this, it is not surprising that Chihuly has referred to his role in the team production of the art he conceives in drawings and paintings as that of a movie director. A description by Walter Darby Bannard of how the atelier works gives a vivid picture of the collaborative effort: "A Chihuly glassmaking session is like a movie set or a football game. The participants know what they want more or less, but they are not exactly sure how they are going to get there. Ideas spring from Chihuly, from the workers who move around him as they would around a director or a coach, and from the piece itself as it takes shape."
The way his role evolved and the kind of art he makes are a result of Chihuly's personal experience and history. Born in 1941 in Tacoma, Washington, he was the younger son of a butcher, whose profession he celebrated in a work involving images of the cutting process. Coming from such a modest background, he had nothing given to him on a silver platter and had to be practical, ingenious, and hardworking to acquire the means to study, learn, and perfect his craft. Fortunately, he had the energy and discipline necessary to do so.
Chihuly's early life was touched with tragedy, which may explain why his art gradually evolved into a resistant paean to joy as an antidote to giving in to the pain of suffering. When he was fifteen, Chihuly's older brother died in an airplane crash, and the following year his father died. The auto accident that took the sight of his left eye in 1976 explains the pirate's patch he wears, which has become a kind of personal trademark. It also accounts for why he had to change his way of working, to become the director of a team effort rather than an individual glassblower, because his impaired eyesight did not permit him to accurately see the forms being blown.
Throughout his extraordinary life, Dale Chihuly has been able to turn liabilities into assets. His extroverted personality attracts gifted collaborators. From the outset, he has been both teacher and student, working with others, whose contributions he is always careful to acknowledge. Rather than being a victim of provincialism, he drew on his early experiences in the forests and abundant nature in the remote Northwest to provide rich subject matter for his art. In 1961, he began melting and fusing glass in his basement. As Henry Geldzahler, who acquired works by Chihuly for the Metropolitan Museum of Art early in the artist's career, observed, despite its five-thousand-year history, glass became a fine-art medium only in the 1960s, when universities established small glassblowing studios.
For the restless and adventurous Chihuly, whose life seems to imitate the style of a road movie, the 1960s was a decade of learning, traveling, experimenting, and expanding his knowledge of the ancient medium he would transform. In the early sixties, he toured Europe and worked on a kibbutz in Israel, as well as studying interior design and architecture at the University of Washington. In a weaving class there, he incorporated glass into the warp and woof of tapestry. By doing so, he exhibited knowledge of the theoretical basis of stained color field abstraction, which demanded that surface and support be fused and that the intrinsic material qualities be declared as such. No wonder, then, that color field painter Walter Darby Bannard praised Chihuly for emphasizing in a highly conscious manner the glassness of glass.
By now known as an award-winning weaver, Chihuly blew glass for the first time in 1965. He took the following year off from his studies to work as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, to earn money for graduate studies in glassblowing at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master of science degree in 1967. Adding to this technical experience, he continued his studies at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned an M.F.A., became a member of the faculty, and later founded its renowned glass department. At RISD, he met the inspirational and nonconformist sculptor Italo Scanga and made his first large-scale environmental sculptures, incorporating neon and plastic.
By the end of the sixties, Chihuly was beginning to be recognized as a uniquely gifted artist. In 1969, he received both a Tiffany Foundation grant and a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Venice. There he became the first American glassblower to work in Murano at the legendary Venini factory. Back in Providence, Rhode Island, at RISD, he met James Carpenter, a student with whom he began a four-year collaboration, making conceptual and environmental site-specific outdoor works.
One such work, Dry Ice, Bent Glass and Neon, was an experiment to see how far molten glass could be stretched. Its theme was the Crystal Palace, the steel-and-glass pavilion in London designed to house the great nineteenth-century international exhibition that launched the Arts and Crafts movement. The later destruction of the Crystal Palace by fiery meltdown is symbolic of the liberation of glass from the tight geometric strictures of the metal girdle needed to keep it in place in a framework and context determined by the needs of architecture. It was a fantasy Chihuly would realize fully in his own revolutionary work.
In 1971, Chihuly returned to his home state of Washington to start the Pilchuck Glass School north of Seattle, where he did his first environmental installation. Later that year, back at RISD, he continued installation work including Glass Forest #1, a huge collaborative project using glass, neon, and argon. Cast Glass Door, another dramatic installation consisting of parallelograms of blue toned glass arranged in space, was completed at Pilchuck the following year. During this period, Chihuly spent some time in Venice blowing glass at the Venini factory and working on architectural glass projects. At a glass factory near Philadelphia, he created new site-specific works such as Mitla (1973). The title refers to a pre-Columbian site near Oaxaca, Mexico, because he glued together sheets of plate glass in a pyramid form that referred back to the architecture of Mesoamerica.
In 1974, he began experimenting with drawing in glass at Pilchuck. Then, in a surprise move, he accepted an invitation to build a glass studio at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to teach Native Americans the ancient craft. In the country outside Santa Fe, he did Glass Pour, in which liquid molten glass was poured into the ground to become a cast of the earth's surface when it hardened. The piece had obvious reference to contemporary earthworks and process pieces, as well as to Jackson Pollock's borrowing from the technique of the Navajo sand painters to pour paint onto canvas.
During the mid-1970s, conceptual installations continued to occupy Chihuly's attention even as he pursued learning more about glass and its properties as a medium. At Artpark in Lewiston, New York, in 1975, he set transparent colored glass panes precariously on rock ledges in the shadows of a nearby river. That year he also received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which permitted him to develop the work he had begun in Santa Fe. He had used the inspiration of Navajo blanket weaving to create glass cylinders decorated with woven-patch design patterns. In these, he laid out shards and threads of colored glass on a flat surface and then rolled a molten glass cylinder over them, fusing them into its surface. The result was a hybrid, a glass object that suggested the texture of woven blankets.
In the summer of 1977, Native American art once more inspired an important series of works. The Navajo Blanket Cylinders led to the series of Pilchuck Baskets, influenced by Northwest Coast Indian baskets. Chihuly recalls, "The Baskets turned out to be one of the best ideas I have ever had. I had seen some beautiful Indian baskets at the Washington State Historical Society, and I was struck by the grace of the slumped, sagging forms. I wanted to capture this grace in glass. The breakthrough for me was recognizing that heat was the tool to be used with gravity to make these forms . . . sagging under their own weight."
Like many artists with roots in the sixties, Chihuly works in series and uses permutations to add variety. The step from hard to soft cylinders was an obvious one to take next. The collapsed cylinders of the Pilchuck Baskets parallel Eva Hesse's work in fiberglass. They are vulnerable and humanized forms. The Pilchuck Baskets were exhibited at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1978. They were the last works Chihuly would make by himself. That year he dislocated his shoulder and could no longer be the gaffer, who holds the long pipe through which the glass is blown into a hollow shape. In 1980, Chihuly began the extended series of Seaforms, which brought a new dimension of complexity and creativity to his growing repertoire. He also made large-scale, acid-etched, handblown stained-glass windows for the Shaare Emeth Synagogue in St. Louis, his last conventionally armatured works.
In the Seaforms, Chihuly's attraction to bizarre candy-cane swirling patterns begins to take over and introduce a baroque and expansive element to the work. The embedded glass wraps expand in ripples suggesting a shell or flower that could be indefinitely distended. The object loses its sense as a vessel and begins to spread and enlarge into swelling open surfaces, rather than the closed contained vessels associated with traditional glass works.
In 1981, Chihuly began the Macchia series. Macchia is the Italian word for spot, and the works were enlivened by brilliant patches of color pressed or laid into glass in an Impressionist fashion. As the series of Macchia developed, the forms grew larger and more colorful, as well as more elaborate and extended.
In 1986 he began the extended series known as the Persians, because of the richly patterned decorative effects reminiscent of Persian carpets and manuscripts. These were eccentrically shaped objects encrusted with color, which he thought of as excavated ancient treasures. The series was shown at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, at the Louvre in Paris, adding luster to Chihuly's growing European reputation. At first, the Persians involved the contrast between two colors and between open and closed forms. They were striped and stippled with color as rich and intense as that of Fabergé eggs, whose luxuriousness they echoed.
Important commissions, such as the 1987 Rainbow Room Frieze at Rockefeller Center, followed. With growing confidence and experience as well as expertise and skill, Chihuly returned to Murano again in 1988. In a blow at his new VandeKamp hotshop he began the series of Venetians with master glassblower Lino Tagliapietra. The Venetians were originally inspired by a private collection of exquisite Venetian art deco vases. The series was continued into the following year when Chihuly collaborated with Pino Signoretto, who enlivened the pieces by adding putti and other figurative and filigree elements to the Venetians.
The success of these and other works gave Chihuly the means to purchase and renovate the Pocock Building - known to one and all as The Boathouse - on Lake Union, realizing his lifelong dream of having a studio on the water in Seattle. The work at The Boathouse is difficult and demanding, and Chihuly is up at 5:00 a.m. to oversee his state-of-the-art glassblowing facility. There any fantasy can be realized.
Transformations began to occur with the placement of all of Chihuly's pieces. The first Persian groups were removed from pedestals and placed on shelves. Then came wall pieces. In later versions of the Persians, the forms became room-size installations. David Bourdon saw these as flamboyant corsages with "ornate edges all but alive with potential movement." Chihuly has said that he is as interested in the way his art works in a space as in the art itself. In 1988, an installation at Chancellor Park in La Jolla combined shelf groupings with wall-mounted pieces.
Gradually the smaller pieces disappeared, and the groupings became more and more expansive and fantastical. In a 1992 wall-collage installation at Union Bank Center in Seattle, the original elements were enlarged, hybridized, and permuted as if they were evolving and growing like living organisms. The Persians had first moved to the floor for a 1991 Kyoto, Japan, installation and then extended to the windows and a ceiling for Chihuly's one-man exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in 1992. Eventually, that same year, the Persians were transformed into site-specific window collages, sixteen by sixteen feet in size, for the Little Caesar's corporate world headquarters in Detroit.
The move from the object to the environment was inevitable for Chihuly, given his early experiments in site-specific installations. The tension of the contradiction between the fragile material and the exigencies of the public project became a dramatic encounter. His glass installations began to have a life of their own, like radiating tropical foliage or exotic flowers. Chihuly made dizzying varieties of Persians. Gradually they became room-size installations. Their shaded and expansive lips suggested vulval and erotic shell forms enhanced by the psychedelic rippling effects implicit in Murano techniques of striation. The 1994 window piece in Tacoma's Union Station, titled Monarch Window, acknowledges this inspiration.
In his uninterrupted creativity, Chihuly seems completely unself-conscious, permitting creation to flow with Dionysian abandon. The later environments make us feel we are lost in the repetitive elements. The psychedelic perceptual overload induces the hypnotic delirium of Persian and Islamic art. The butterfly wing striations become persistent repeated patterns like the tiles in the Turkish mosque of Hagia Sofia. In 1995, the Persians grew into an overhead pergola, as if the carpet had been decontextualized to become a ceiling. A cross between a chandelier and an Islamic carved ceiling decoration, the work is wildly extravagant and disorienting.
Matisse, of course, was inspired by the lush sensual decorativeness of Persian miniatures, but his wish to return to the world of luxe, calme, and volupté was doomed by the modernist consciousness that paradise was forever lost, doomed by the industrialism that is only now beginning to challenge the far woods of the American Northwest. Thus, Manet's Luncheon on the Grass is a picture not of an innocent picnic but of an already lost paradise. The men in business suits are uncomfortably and self-consciously aware that the naked ladies are a momentary diversion, not part of a timeless ride to the island of Cythera, where pleasure is permanent.
We are reminded in Chihuly's installations, and especially in the overhead Chandeliers, of both the stalactites and stalagmites of natural caves, as well as of the dazzling decorated ceilings of the Moorish Alhambra. In Western art, only medieval stained glass comes close to the totalizing effect of Mozarabic and Islamic decorations. The decorative effects of Islamic art, which break up light and space on ceiling, domes, and corners and use tile and plaster to create totally encompassing physical environments, are clearly the inspiration for the Persians.
Because of the hybridized and synthesized quality as well as the totalizing effect of his art, it is a mistake to see Chihuly as a continuation of the tradition of French or American art nouveau glass. Actually, he is the opposite of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who made glass in the medieval tradition enclosed in a metal armature, or even for that matter of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose glass pieces were exclusively decorative additions to his architecture. Both used glass in flat planes. The small-scale domestic objects produced by the Arts and Crafts movement were in fact quite the contrary of Chihuly's extravagant spectacles and theatrical pageants. In the end, his work has little to do with the history of glass, everything to do with the crisis in avant-garde art after the death of Jackson Pollock.
We have remarked that the modernist emphasis on the process of making was one of Chihuly's initial preoccupations. Chihuly, however, takes the intrinsic properties of glass-its change of state from hot liquid to cold solid, its molten liquidity and its fragility that normally require it to be small in scale, and its history as a useful vessel-and subverts them. The molten and liquid character of glass is preserved in the forms he creates, which are not the perfect molds of vessels but rather records of what glass has undergone in its making. The unpredictable, distorted, and asymmetrically irregular forms are a reaction of the material to the conditions of its production. When the spontaneous extrusion is solidified, it becomes like the action painter's brushstroke, caught in media res. The cooling and hardening into form parallel the process by means of which the liquidity of the paint dries on the canvas, fixing gesture into permanent form.
The improvisation that creates these distended and hybrid forms, stretching glass to its physical and formal limits as well, requires quick reflexes and perfect timing. The spontaneous effects involve a high level of risk. This means that, as in Pollock's poured paintings, mistakes result in lost works, which cannot be retrieved through correction. Such a process communicates a sense of freshness and instantaneous creation that the contemporary sensibility, rooted in experiences of speed, appears to require.
Chihuly's glass works bear a curious relationship to the crisis in painting that Pollock's allover paintings provoked. Pollock's wish to render the ground transparent so that the image appeared to hover in space eventually led him to paint on glass. Pollock's use of aluminum paint and glass shards in his paintings (which dramatized and emphasized the literal qualities of reflective surfaces) ultimately led artists such as Donald Judd and Larry Bell to abandon painting in favor of three-dimensional objects in which color, form, and material were married as they are in Chihuly's pieces.
The path to a new kind of public art that addresses viewers directly without critical intervention and outside the museum context begins with earthworks, which got art out of the museums into the landscape, and with Pop Art, which spoke in the language of the people. Pop Art avoided elitist art theory, a mannerist activity embraced by conceptual art that aspired to the approbation of the academy to confer prestige and status. Like the best public artists, Chihuly has a healthy disdain for the arcane meandering of art theory and its pretentious "discourse" that excludes the uninitiated. His attitude is reminiscent of that of the sixteenth-century Spanish artist Diego de Hollanda, who returned from Italy to describe the obscurity of mannerist art theory as an activity that "quebrantan las cabezas"-gives you a headache.
The failure of most public art is that it speaks in a subjective and elitist language the public does not understand and to which, as a consequence, it is overtly hostile. Chihuly's art shares the most basic concerns of abstraction - color, light, form, and space. However, its subliminal references to shells, coral and crystal formations, butterflies, birds, and undersea marine life make it more accessible to the public than abstraction.
The inclusive relationship of Chihuly's art to historical style and form may well identify it with postmodernism, as Donald Kuspit persuasively argues. The central issue of postmodernism is neither appropriation nor reproduction but an attitude toward styles that is transhistorical as well as transcultural. Certainly its excess and extravagance define it as aggressively post-minimalist. Against the severe, geometric, closed gestalt volumes of minimal art, Chihuly pits the open forms and transparencies of glass blown into isomorphic shapes and liquid patterns. Gorgeousness is involved in the gold and silver iridescence and the luxurious ornamentation of the Venetians.
As several critics have pointed out, however, the exotic forms sometimes portend danger; the strangeness suggests the uncanny or the perverse. Chihuly's forms pushed to their most bizarre extremes remind us of the overripe lushness of the vegetation in the opening scene of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, because their color is artificial rather than natural and their size is colossal. The large-scale Macchia, like unnatural giant flowers, are as artificial and oversized as American agricultural produce when they are scattered across lawns.
The gorgeousness and luxurious ornamentation of the Venetians can go so far as to be over the top. According to Jack Cowart, "One cannot enjoy his opulent Seaform shells of color, bulbous Chandeliers or exquisite extrusions and tendrils without a subliminal recollection of a floating world of stinging nettles, poisonous Portuguese men-of-war and other otherworldly dangers." The exaggerated voluptuousness of these forms may become deadly and turn them into repulsive Flowers of Evil.
Despite his directorial role, Chihuly has a one-to-one relationship with what he creates. These are his forms, created by him in drawings and paintings and then translated into glass by the team he oversees. Unlike Tiffany, Gallé, and Lalique, the names associated with the art nouveau glass produced by the craft revival movement in the nineteenth century, Chihuly does not use standardized molds that permit reproduction. His creations depend on spontaneity and on-the-spot decisions. They are created with the freedom to improvise of Surrealist automatic drawings and are also perverse and precarious, given the way glass is blown and takes on its permanent shape, changing from molten liquid into hard, transparent substance. His wildly imaginative assemblages are not dysfunctional objects, they are nonfunctional-in other words, useless. And this is precisely why they are art, not craft.
Henry Geldzahler was right to see Chihuly's work as distinctively "American in its vulgarity, its brazenness, and its fearlessness to move farther out west even if there is no further west to move to." Chihuly's modernism expresses itself not as hostility but as perverse subversion. His strategies of subversion are as brilliant as his ability to keep pace in a parallel way with the essential changes in fine art, while rejecting the narrow academic theoretical concerns that alienate the broad public. His is the bravura of the virtuoso, the rare talent of the prodigy.
Chihuly is constantly searching for new challenges. In 1993, he received an important commission to do the sets for the Debussy opera Pelléas and Mélisande, to be performed in Seattle. The project became an impressionistic installation of rippling fabric sheets appropriate to Debussy's score. In 1996, the tour de force Chihuly Over Venice installation of weighty Chandeliers suspended at various sites throughout the canal-dotted city was a celebration of unprecedented daring and accomplishment. Kuspit describes the huge celebratory installation as a "grand recapitulative climax of his works . . . a self-apotheosis, a Venetian orgasm."
Chihuly seems bedeviled by a drive to push both his material and himself to extremes. One project involves four colossal sculptures for the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The Crystal Gate, a twenty-foot-high glass tower that defies gravity, consists of more than three thousand handblown crystals magically fused together. The Temple of the Sun, made of brilliant hot yellow, orange, and red elements, forms one side. It is flanked by the Temple of the Moon, which is colored cobalt blue and opalescent white. Nearby hangs the Atlantis Chandelier, an immense glass assemblage of writhing tentacles reminiscent of the jellyfish and sea anemones that live in the waters of the Caribbean below.
Walter Darby Bannard had it right when he described Chihuly's achievement: "Like most good art objects, Chihuly's works are often liked or disliked for the wrong reasons. So take them for what they are; take them as glass. This is glass that has had things done to it no other glass has, glass made on its own terms as viscous liquid which likes to be blown out, attenuated, pressed, slumped, stretched, twisted, perforated, laden with color, fused, and melted. Chihuly has mastered glass by yielding to it, by discovering and accepting what it is rather than deciding what it should be."
Unique in that he transcends the narrowness of the avant-garde without totally ignoring where it is going and where it has been, Dale Chihuly speaks directly to people in a vernacular they understand without interpretation. Yet his work is neither simplistic nor condescending. Its aesthetic sophistication equal to its technical mastery, his work stands as an example of art that does not sacrifice quality for popularity.
Published in Chihuly Projects, Portland Press, 2000
Also from Chihuly Projects:
The Public Voice, Dale Lanzone
Also by Barbara Rose: The Earthly Delights of the Garden of Glass, Chihuly Gardens & Glass, 2002.