Drawing into Space: Chihuly Drawing Revisited

Nathan Kernan

Drawing holds a unique place in the art of Dale Chihuly. What may have begun for him as a pragmatic tool of communication in response to particular circumstances in the studio became and has remained much more than that: an ongoing process of discovery and a form of thought symbiotically connected to his sculpture and his person. Chihuly’s drawings, like his glass sculptures, are about the process of their own creation. “Drawing is a fluid process, like the glassblowing is a fluid process,”1 he says. In circular fashion, discoveries made through drawing are incorporated into sculpture and vice versa. Yet the two remain distinct. Chihuly’s drawings over the past thirty-five years constitute a parallel visual world as compelling and original as that of his amazing sculptures.

Sculptors’ drawings are different from those by other artists. There is often a strong sense of “thingness” to sculptors’ drawings, in addition to what, for want of a better word, I’ll call materiality—meaning a particular attention to the sheet itself and how the drawing materials meld into it. One or both qualities can be seen, for example, in David Smith’s silhouette drawings, made by laying shapes on paper and spray-painting around them; in Eva Hesse’s “windows” of layered luminous color; or in Joseph Beuys’s paint-impregnated sheets. Chihuly’s drawings exhibit these qualities in various ways. Most obviously, virtually all of his drawings are, or should I say start as, representations of objects, singly or in groups, more or less centered in a surrounding space. Buoyant and untethered, they command and create the space around them, space made material through Chihuly’s intense engagement with innovative graphic media and techniques.

Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, Chihuly studied at the University of Washington, where he earned a BA in interior design in 1965, followed by graduate degrees in sculpture at the University of Wisconsin in 1967 and in ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1968. Beginning in 1969, Chihuly taught at RISD for eleven years, and he continued to return there periodically as artist-in-residence through the 1980s. In 1971, he cofounded the innovative Pilchuck Glass School in the woods an hour north of Seattle. Chihuly moved back to northwestern Washington full-time in 1983, and he maintains studios in Tacoma and Seattle.

Dale Chihuly’s sculptural and drawing practice is of a piece with his historical position as a member of the postminimalist generation of sculptors, a diverse group of artists that includes Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Lynda Benglis, Alan Saret, Robert Morris, Barry Le Va, and others, known for their improvisational processes such as pouring, scattering, accumulating, and making arrangements of similar discrete elements; for their use of malleable materials such as latex, rubber, fabric, rope, and others; and for work that hangs suspended or lies directly on the floor.

Chihuly became familiar with the collaborative working methods of Venetian glass studios, a tradition he has carried on in his own practice.

Chihuly blew his first glass bubble in Seattle in 1965, and he studied glassblowing in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in 1966. There he was already pushing the medium in innovative ways: pouring molten glass from a height, blowing glass around metal and other objects, and combining it with plastic and with neon light. In 1968, he was accepted as a Fulbright fellow at the Venini factory in Murano, Italy, where he worked on an architectural installation (never realized). In Murano, Chihuly became familiar with the collaborative working methods of Venetian glass studios, a tradition he has carried on in his own practice.

Chihuly’s early installation pieces, dating from 1968 to 1972—Haystack Projects, Pilchuck Pond, 20,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon, Glass Forest, and Dry Ice, Bent Glass and Neon, some executed in collaboration with James Carpenter—firmly align him with other postminimalist sculptors of his generation. It appears that his turn in the mid-1970s to a—seemingly—more conventional kind of glassblowing, the creation of sumptuously beautiful, domestic-scaled individual vessels, came about partly through drawing. Among the earliest small-scale individual works in his mature oeuvre are the Cylinders, which he created beginning in 1974, when he discovered that he could “draw” in glass by placing glass threads on the steel marvering table and picking them up with molten glass rolled across them. The result: a drawing embedded in a glass cylinder. Shortly after this, Chihuly began to blow the Baskets, Seaforms, Macchia, Persians, and other series that established his reputation. Even in these, however, Chihuly has not been content simply to make beautiful individual objects, but rather nests or clusters them in groups, again in sympathy with postminimalist practices of Hesse, Le Va, Morris, and others, although the seductive, jewel-like beauty of the glass vessels, not to mention their all-too-easy commodification, has tended to obscure the relationship.

Drawing has been important to Chihuly since his days as a design student. As he has said, “I always drew.”2 In his early years as an installation artist and glassblower, he ceased for a while to draw much, although, arguably, the glassblowing, and particularly the pouring and forming of long, tendril-like strands in some of his early pieces such as Glass Forest, functioned as drawing in space. Certainly, that was the case semantically, if we give the verb “draw” one of its other meanings: “to pull” or “to change shape by pulling or stretching.”

In the two-dimensional rectangle of drawing, Chihuly has found it possible to experience and manipulate a sculptural sense of space.

Chihuly’s relationship to drawing on paper changed after 1976, when he lost the sight in his left eye due to an automobile accident. Eventually he decided to delegate most of the actual glassblowing on his projects to others, and drawing then became an important tool for communicating his ideas. But I think there was also another reason why drawing came back so strongly into his work at this time. Here is an experiment: Go to a museum and stand in front of a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting, preferably by Jacob van Ruisdael. Close one eye and notice how, magically, the landscape springs into three dimensions. Although perception in three dimensions is lost to monocular vision in real space, the illusion of three-dimensional space in a flat two-dimensional image is paradoxically enhanced when viewed with one eye. Now look at one of Chihuly’s drawings with one eye closed, and notice how gestures of paint jump forward, as though one had donned 3-D glasses. In the two-dimensional rectangle of drawing, Chihuly has found it possible to experience and manipulate a sculptural sense of space.

Chihuly’s earliest drawings of glass objects, from 1977, show the influence of his years as a design student at the University of Washington, where he learned to make meticulous pencil and wash renderings. Basket Drawing (1977) [77.1704.d1; vol. 1, pp. 14–15], by deceptively simple means of tonal watercolor washes combined with delicate, understated line and bold use of unpainted areas, gives an almost uncanny sense of the lightness, thinness, fragility, and translucency of the glass objects, while the “wetness” of the washes helps convey the slick reflectivity of the surface. In drawings from the next couple of years, Chihuly used an even more deceptively “casual” and reductive approach, to render with but a few quick lines an uncanny sense of transparency, translucency, and volume. Particularly beautiful is Pencil Baskets Drawing (1980) [80.1872.d1; vol. 1, pp. 32–33]. Five glass vessels of graduated sizes are each rendered in what seems a single rapid loop, describing simultaneously the outside form and the mouth, volume and elevation, inside and outside, movement and stasis. The lines intersect, overlap, and interpenetrate, reinforcing the conception of the glass piece as a single work consisting of multiple parts. The result is a beautifully spare, almost abstract drawing, a fluid image of organic, incremental growth, like that of a fantastic lobed plant. The drawing has the minimalist authority of one of Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings, minus the preciosity. The overlapping, closed forms are also slightly reminiscent of John Cage’s drawings based on Zen Buddhist meditation and chance operations.

As the visual activity (the drawing, one might say) of waves, striations, and spots within the glass Baskets, Seaforms, Macchia, and Persians of the 1970s and 1980s became more pronounced, Chihuly began to experiment with radical new ways to suggest their visual textures in drawings. Glass—transparency—is in any case a particular challenge to draw, but Chihuly has not only risen to the difficulty but exploited it, as it were, in drawings that push the boundaries of the medium to make process their underlying, or implicit, subject. He clutched handfuls of pencils or pens and drew multiple lines with a single motion—a kind of painting with line. The effect suggests the evanescence, the insubstantiality and aliveness, of glass, its mirage-like qualities and the way its contours can be ambiguous as they capture and reflect light, shape-shift, deceive the eye. Carrying his experiments further, Chihuly drew on paper placed directly on the marvering board, where small pieces of glass underneath left impressions on the page in the manner of Surrealist frottage or rubbings. Sometimes he pulled gobs or strings of molten glass across the paper, which skittered over the surface and left in their wake a variety of marks, from delicate sepia wash effects to, occasionally, a charred hole: drawing literally with fire. In addition he has used other unconventional materials as drawing media, including tea, fruit juice, wine, coffee, bitters, even mercurochrome, which allies his work not only with that of his friend Italo Scanga, whom he credits as an influence, but also that of Joseph Beuys, with whom, as Donald Kuspit has observed, he shares, at times, a somewhat shamanistic approach to art making. As different in appearance as these two sculptors’ work is, their shared concerns include a performative approach to the creation of sculpture, as well as abiding interest in what Ann Temkin, describing Beuys’s drawings, calls “the interchange between solidity and fluidity” and “the theme of creation and metamorphosis.”3

As much as a tool to communicate with others, drawing has always been a means for Chihuly to communicate with himself. “The drawings really help me think about things,” he has said, understating the case significantly, I believe.4 As his longtime associate Barry Rosen has observed, Chihuly’s graphite drawings “don’t have rules, but they chart something.”5 What they chart is the process of their own making, along with a visual readout of the mind-hand synapse in real time. With the later graphite drawings, such as Seaform/Basket Drawing (1989) [89.1388.d1; vol. 1, pp. 136–37], this aspect overtakes their purely descriptive function, to the point that the images become nearly all “process” and sometimes nearly unidentifiable as vessels.

In Seaform/Basket Drawing (1989) [89.1389.d1; vol. 1, pp. 148–49], the original impulse to describe multiple glass vessels on the sheet is overtaken by the artist’s engagement with the process of mark making. The emphatically rendered tops and sides of the bowls override descriptive intentions and become powerful black scissoring arcs and radii, full of swinging motion and noise. The array of nine tilted abstract circumflexes carries the imagination far from the original vessels—they seem more like phases of a strange moon, perhaps, or mysterious glyphs. Kinetic gesture takes over the drawing and creates a striking image, almost in spite of itself.

In 1988, Chihuly invited the master Venetian glassblower Lino Tagliapietra to work with him in his then-new hotshop at the Van de Kamp Building in Seattle. The two artists were not fluent in each other’s spoken languages, and the series of drawings known as Venetians started out, again, as a tool of communication. There is a traditional exuberance to Venetian glass, a spirit of fantasy allied with an ancient vocabulary of techniques and technical bravura that found a ready echo in Chihuly’s sensibility and inspired him to further flights of his own. In his first designs for Tagliapietra, Chihuly was specifically inspired by Venetian Art Deco glass vases, with their inventive but relatively restrained and sophisticated elegance, to which he responded in drawings such as Venetian Drawing (1989) [89.1489.d1; vol. 2, pp. 80–81] and Venetian Drawing (1988) [88.2119.d1; vol. 2, pp. 10–11]. Especially at the beginning of the series, there is a strong focus on the actual vessel—a practical matter, of course, since these are drawings intended as diagrams, but perhaps also a deliberate reaction against the increasingly process-dominated graphite drawings that had preceded them. After the near-insubstantiality of the late Seaform Drawings, one is struck by a sense of “thingness” reasserting itself in these works.

And fantasy! The series of Venetians that began in collaboration with Tagliapietra marked a turning point in Chihuly’s work. He was clearly more than inspired—turned around—by the untrammeled sense of fantastic form in Venetian glass from all periods. Venetian glass, and specific techniques learned from Tagliapietra, gave Chihuly expertise and permission to explore outlandish “impossible” effects: vessels with purposeless horns and spikes (prunts), serpentine handles far too big for their bodies; vases tottering on spiked-heel bases, sporting froufrou skirts or fins to rival a 1959 Edsel; vessels transformed by creatively incongruous applied decoration—to an almost Hitchcockian degree in one Venetian Drawing (1988) [88.2129.d1; vol. 2, pp. 42–43], in which a flock of birdlike prunts has completely overwhelmed a bowl.

Over the course of the sessions with Tagliapietra, the Venetian drawings became more about pure drawing and less about—or less directly or exclusively about—the objects they refer to. The process of drawing again overtook the imagery, and it is hard—and delightful—to imagine how some Venetian drawings, such as Venetian Drawing (1990) [90.1169.d; vol. 2, pp. 110–11] or Seoul Venetian Drawing (1990) [90.967.d; vol. 2, pp. 132–33], in which the immediacy and passion of the moment of visual invention are so vividly caught in the quick thrusts of black charcoal and paint, might have been realized as glass works. One technical aspect of the Venetians, the adhering of extraneous projecting prunts or other “add-ons” to the basic glass form, brought a new iconography into Chihuly’s drawn and painted work—or actually a physical motion: not circular and self-contained like a bowl or vessel, but upswept, open-ended, suggestive of birds, wings, leaves, or flames, which through the following decades would alternate with and complement the older, circular form. (In a sense, the two are combined in the Ikebana imagery.)

He values the exchange of energy that results: ideas, images, and creative energy flow from his drawing into the glassmaking, and from the glassmaking back to his drawing.

Chihuly often draws in the glass studio, simultaneously with the blow in progress, and drawing has become very much a part of his glassblowing process. He values the exchange of energy that results: ideas, images, and creative energy flow from his drawing into the glassmaking, and from the glassmaking back to his drawing. “The drawings have to do with releasing energy,” Chihuly says,6 but it is energy that is also replenished, it seems, from his collaboration with others, whether he is drawing in the hotshop during a blow or in front of children in a workshop, or even when, in a collaboration with the world at large, he draws outdoors on the deck of his Lake Union boathouse, with boats and seabirds circling by, traffic on the nearby bridges whizzing past, and the city and mountains visible in the distance.

Sometime around 1989, Chihuly discovered Golden liquid acrylics, and he has developed a full, personal repertory of drawing actions using this paint. At first, he simply brushed it on the paper; then he began using his hands to smear it. Needing to make a larger swath, he painted with brooms or mops on ever larger sheets of paper, or multiple sheets. After he discovered that the paint was also sold in plastic squeeze bottles, he began squeezing, spraying, dribbling, and extruding it in long, thread-like strands from the bottle, most often while standing above the sheet. Paint in these drawings travels across the paper under the influence of gravity to pool or puddle; explodes in splashes of droplets; builds into dense balls of line through repeated circular motions; coagulates on the surface to react with previous and subsequent layers, creating “blooms” like the effect of oxidation on metal. The natural forces and phenomena that Chihuly exploits to make the drawings are simultaneously depicted “as themselves” on the paper, just as natural forces have been both a subject and a collaborator of Chihuly’s glass art from his early installation works.

Repetition, too, is a process of nature and of regeneration, and the use of repetition as a visual strategy is a point of connection between Chihuly and other postminimalist sculptors, particularly Eva Hesse. Since the mid-1990s, Chihuly has been making acrylic drawings that repeatedly restate, even as they transform, archetypes drawn from a selected repertory of glass forms, most prominently Floats, Baskets, Ikebana, and Chandeliers. The drawings are sometimes gathered into vast assemblages and installations, grids of drawings covering long walls. The large-scale repetition becomes an action in itself, and it rebounds to enrich each drawing individually.

The difficulty in repeating an image or a theme is to make it fully experienced to oneself every time. The seemingly ceaseless repetition of similar imagery—although individual sheets are, miraculously, always fresh, always new—can be seen as an expression of the protean, regenerative nature of Chihuly’s energy and output, or, conversely (simultaneously), as the result of a kind of Sisyphean desperation that I think is felt by many artists, who, even with all they have accomplished, still wake every morning with the sense that it all needs to be done anew, if only to validate that which has gone before. At the same time, the fact that the image archetype is not “new” but is the repetition and reinterpretation of a kind of Platonic ideal frees it from being the result of a conscious act of design at the moment of creation. The act of being fully engaged in the process, which never plays out the same way twice, allows the artist to disengage his consciousness from the image itself at that moment. Hand and eye do the “thinking” and make the image new again.

Chihuly’s responsiveness to the moment makes his art a high-wire act. The first of his astonishing and brilliant Chandelier series was invented just before the opening of his 1992 exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, when he felt that an area of the installation was not working. Chihuly quickly had the glassblowers make hundreds of balloon-like glass bulbs, brought them to the museum, and hung them up together in a single mass. “It was a little risky, but I was very confident,” he recalled.7 Since then, the Chandeliers, each consisting of up to hundreds of individual glass elements suspended in a centripetal cluster from a height, have proven one of his most potent images: embodying drama, suspense (literally), danger, and accumulation, with a connotation of time perpetually suspended (the inverted cone shape echoes that of sand waiting in the top half of an hourglass). Both the overall work and the individual closed shapes of which they consist can be suggestive of chrysalises. In Chandelier drawings, the aggregation of discrete objects becomes one of brushstrokes and/or splatters of paint, and it acquires a new sense of urgency and movement. The inverted cone becomes a vortex, or the instant of a star’s implosion, “turning and turning in the widening gyre.”

For Chihuly, the open flower-like bowl is answered by the closed Float, a form that originally came about through his attempts to make the largest possible blown-glass object, a sphere or bubble. While it originated as pure process, the human habit of seeking a narrative attributes to the still, self-contained Float form, too, a pregnant, chrysalis-like aspect. In drawings such as Black Float Drawing (2008) [08.169.d1; vol. 3, pp. 116–17] or the magnificent Float Quad Drawing (2012) [12.43.d4; vol. 3, pp. 158–59], the Float most often becomes a circle—a deceptively simple image, of course, with multiple and rich associations. In Chihuly’s hands, it is both vessel and eye; moon and ovum; universe and grain of sand; a narrative of regeneration or of enclosure. It may suggest fiery suns in the gaseous process of metamorphosis, planets rushing through space, or a single eye roaming the universe, like the disembodied but animate eyes in drawings by Odilon Redon.

Works like the Chandelier and Float drawings, dominated by strong central imagery made of accumulations of gestural marks on a lighter background, posit a figure-ground relationship so elemental as to be almost artless. Yet on closer look, these spatial relationships can be no less ambiguous than those seen in some of the early graphite drawings, in which contour becomes volume, inside conflates with outside. Somehow, perhaps because of the actively material nature of the painted surface in which it floats, the central form can appear to pull the background into itself, or recede into the surrounding space. The drawings are alive with pulsing, whirling motion, apparently only just arrested when we weren’t looking, or actually seeming to continue.

After working all day with the literalness of sculpture, sculptors must often hunger for the two-dimensional picture plane, with its exciting ambiguities of space and calls upon the imagination. Paradoxically, despite the public and collaborative nature of his art, including his work on paper much of the time, and as closely as Chihuly’s drawings are allied to his sculpture, on some level I feel that they actually lead away from it—if only in the sense that they are their own complete form of sculptural expression. At one moment, they are explorations of a private pictorial space and assertions of a personal cosmology and identity (as the overscaled “Chihuly” signature in many of the drawings reminds us). In the same moment, they are merely beautiful, brave objects upon which egoless, unmediated natural forces have operated and left their marks, or seem to be leaving them still.

  1.   Dale Chihuly, “The Venetians,” unpublished statement, 1991.
  2.   Dale Chihuly, March 15, 1998. From unpublished “Kitchen Sessions Interviews” with Mark McDonnell, 1998.
  3.   Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose, Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1993), p. 35.
  4.   Dale Chihuly, from the video Chihuly at Bellagio.
  5.   Barry Rosen, conversation with the author, February 2003.
  6.   Dale Chihuly, quoted in Patricia Failing, Chihuly: Works on Paper, November 2, 1991–January 26, 1992, exhibition brochure (Tacoma: Tacoma Art Museum, 1991).
  7.   Dale Chihuly, quoted in Donald Kuspit, Chihuly (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997, 1998), p. 226.