Michael W. Monroe

Looking retrospectively through two decades of Dale Chihuly's daring, delicate, and sensuous glasswork, one becomes aware that the dual dominant themes are line and motion. Through his energetic and masterful use of gestural line as a formal element, Chihuly gives us both two- and three-dimensional calligraphic expressions of his unique visual experiences. Chihuly's role as a superb American craftsman is well documented. However, it is his skill as a draftsman that emerges here as a subject for examination.

Even in Chihuly's first glassworks - Glass Weaving, 1964, in his mother's dining-room window - we find the antecedent. Here, seemingly incompatible mediums, glass and thread, are innovatively woven together on a loom and permanently fused by the natural light passing brightly through them, creating a translucent linear grid. Later, in his prototype lamp design for Venini, executed in 1968-69, Chihuly already explores to the fullest the gestural qualities of glass and light. Continuous tubes of neon writhe and twist upward to support a glass sphere resting in a supportive ellipse.

These early vigorous experiments with the fluidity of glass and neon at Venini influenced Chihuly's collaborative efforts with James Carpenter that resulted in the large Glass Environment. Here, through the use of twisting corkscrew gestures, Chihuly and Carpenter capture the essence of molten milk glass. The liquid pools record in a frozen moment their history of intense heat, while the spiraling and pulled threads of animated glass loop wildly against each other, enlivening the spaces they fill.

Additional architectural pieces made in collaboration with Carpenter include a series of glass doors and walls. A strong linear presence is projected in the Corning Wall and is communicated through these transparent panes of glass fixed in the asymmetrical lines of lead tracery. As a stone thrown into a pond produces concentric radiating circles, so the panes of flat blown glass encompass a fertile nucleus toward which swim subtle calligraphic squiggles of color. Several of the linear elements found in these two-dimensional glass walls reappear later in three-dimensional form. The leaded linear tracery surrounding the concentric rings of glass anticipate Chihuly's future fascination with distorted ellipses that are the dominant features of the Basket, Seaforms, and Macchia series. The concentric rings find their counterparts on the lips of the Blanket and Pilchuck Cylinders, while the extended squiggles become a major life-giving theme throughout the work.

The inspiration of Navajo Indian weavings for the linear patterns of his 1975 Blanket series is only a natural extension of Chihuly's earlier interest in textiles. Using glass threads to weave, Chihuly's collaborators, Kate Elliott and later Flora Mace, capture the essence of the individual warp and weft threads, meshing them in a more open graphic emblem than is found in the source. More than mere reproductions of Navajo patterns, the emblems capture the vitality and richness of movement that result from flexible fibers draped on a human form. These delicate and deft totemic images become a "second skin" on the surface of the solid and thickly walled cylinder, much like the fiber blanket becomes a "second skin" for the Navajo wearing it. The cylinder serves as a piece of curved drawing paper, while the proportions of the cylinders are carefully manipulated to match the proportions of the woven image. Most of the blanket designs are presented frontally and centrally, surrounded by an open space that serves to mat and frame the image. But these are not static totems. The miniature designs take on expressive life of their own when the molten glass marries them to the cylinder's surface. The individual thread lines express a gesture, motion, and direction, in contrast to the neutral and stable cylinder.

The inherent possibilities of this contrast continue to intrigue Chihuly a decade later when he embarks on the larger-scale and dramatic Pilchuck Cylinders. Although the woven image continues to act as a source of inspiration, we are not as conscious of the specific design origin. Here the warp and weft threads explode with an unprecedented emotional vitality. The graphic imagery is no longer relegated to a staid frontal and confined position. Glass threads are assertively thrust helter-skelter. Boldly colored lip wraps on the cylinder's top edge become necessary to cap this energy from expanding vertically, while the warp and weft threads grasp the entire cylinder, totally integrating the surface calligraphy with the ground. The drawings on the Pilchuck Cylinders divulge new and greater degrees of complexity and control, aggressive images that are considerably more spontaneous than before.

There is no surface decoration here. The larger linear imagery has penetrated the glass, creating an animated interior layer that complements and intensifies the expressive mood of these pieces.

The influence of textile art emerges once again in 1977 when Chihuly is inspired by the three-dimensional woven baskets of the Northwest Coast Indians. In this Pilchuck Basket series, Chihuly captures the flexible qualities of a woven form and translates them into an even more fragile material, glass. Throughout the basket series, Chihuly consistently resorts to subtle use of color and restraint in his description of the shapes through the use of line. Often the linear element is limited to a lip wrap of a contrasting but closely related color to emphasize the uneven ellipse of the glass baskets. In other pieces, a delicate tracery of several parallel lines circumscribes the form. Always there is a total fusion of the threadlike lines with the forms they describe. Chihuly's lines establish a visual theme, a discernible pattern that enhances and describes the light and heavy stresses that result from the unique character of molten glass. Those stresses and gentle volumetric curves give the image an overall dynamic force of directional movement throughout the Pilchuck Basket series.

In contrast to the simpler swelling forms of the basket pieces, described and enhanced with an economy of line, the subsequent Sea Form groups are considerably more asymmetric and complex. Using a vastly increased amount of linear information on each piece, Chihuly perpetually describes both the volume and the expressive directional movement of these diaphanous shapes. Similar to a cartographer who charts lines on a map in an attempt to describe a three-dimensional earth feature, Chihuly uses lines to enhance our ability to appraise each subtle swell on the surface of these exquisitely animated forms.

Chihuly is always engaged in a subtle dynamic as well as a volume-informing activity. The Sea Form series is dramatically different from all others in that he simultaneously shows us both the hidden and visible aspects of an object. This is best illustrated in the Sea Form group in which several smaller units nest in a single larger form. The transparency of the glass allows us to focus on numerous striations that concurrently emphasize either the volume of the individual pieces in the nest or the complex composite of the complete grouping. The layering effect of several superimposed linear patterns crossing at an infinite variety of angles produces a dramatic and continually shifting moire pattern. This pattern, when seen in combination with the three-dimensional volumetric linear striations, suggests a coexistence of ethereal yet vigorous movements through space. Chihuly is interested in capturing fleeting actions and motions by direct means. He seeks the sensual, gestural qualities of the forms he creates. In the Sea Forms in particular, it is not the shapes that he studies but rather it is their animating principle, their living essence. In these pieces we see the lines and volumes that are concurrently engaged in establishing the design and the mood, as well as the forms in space.

The Macchia series courageously distinguishes itself from the refined and serene Sea Form groupings by its riotously bold spirals drawn on the surface of the glass with surprising juxtapositions of raucous color. Brazen lip wraps are applied with a high level of spontaneous and emotional intensity. The immodest blotches and lines continuously undulate over the surfaces, enacting and evoking the character of the object, thus bringing it to life.

Throughout his career, Chihuly has worked as a collaborator as well as the leader of a team of artists and technicians to produce the peerless vocabulary of forms that have resulted in his distinctive style. In an attempt to more effectively communicate with team members, Chihuly began to illustrate his thoughts with graphite on paper. As an increasingly important aspect of his creative efforts, his large-scale drawings reveal a releasing of energy in his daring and sensuous search for the "spirit of an action." Using a single piece of paper and multiple pencils simultaneously, he most often presents several images hurtling through space in a whirling dervish of linear activity, an activity not unlike that of the individual team members as they pirouette to his carefully choreographed dance.

From his early experimental lamp designs for Venini to his latest Macchia series, capturing the gesture of movement through line has been a consistent feature of all of Chihuly's work. His drawings on paper combine small vibratory marks charged with nervous energy with large, expansive, sweeping movements projecting speed and velocity.

In both his drawings on paper and on his pieces of glass, the ellipse is emphasized. His boldest marks on paper are reserved for the irregular ellipse, often brightly colored for emphasis on an otherwise black-and-white surface. The immediacy of his multiple images is due partly to the shallow picture space he uses to emphasize their presence and partly to the gestural strokes with which he defines volume and tone.

There are poignant and striking parallels between the early two-dimensional glass weaving in Viola Chihuly's dining-room window and the most recent large-scale drawings on paper. The brilliant light shining through the window is the bright white of the blank drawing paper facing the artist. The linear warp and the weft of the early woven fibers mesh the disparate patches of colored glass into a unified whole, while on paper the multiple graphite lines glide over a bed of equally disparate materials that often tear through the surface, fusing in a single image responses to those experiences that have deeply affected this artist.

Through the use of line on his blown-glass forms, Dale Chihuly demonstrates that the act of drawing is not limited to paper. More than diagrams for glass vessels, his energetic drawings on paper serve as metaphors for their dimensional functions in space. On glass or paper, Chihuly reveals to us his dedication to capturing the concept of motion through drawings that are executed with the immediacy and expressive intensity of a master draftsman.

Michael W. Monroe is a former Curator, Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution

Published in Chihuly: Color, Glass, and Form, Kodansha International Ltd., 1986.

Also from Chihuly: Color, Glass and Form:
On the Road, Dale Chihuly
With the Team, Karen Chambers

More essays about drawing:
Gesture As Image, Nathan Kernan
Dale Chihuly: Works on Paper, Mary Murray
Chihuly: Works on Paper, Patricia Failing