ECSTASIES OF THE MIND AND SENSES

Jack Cowart
Ecstasies of the Mind and Senses

Nature is a temple, in which living pillars Sometimes utter a babel of words; man traverses it through forests of symbols, that watch him with knowing eyes. Like prolonged echoes which merge far away in an opaque, deep oneness, as vast as darkness, as vast as light, perfumes, colors, and sounds answer each to each. There are perfumes fresh and cool as the bodies of children, mellow as oboes, green as fields; -and others that are perverse, rich and triumphant, That have the infinite expansion of infinite things, such as amber, musk, benjamin, and incense, which chant the ecstasies of the mind and senses. Charles Baudelaire, “Correspondances,” Les Fleurs du mal, 1857

In the vast bulk of literature on Dale Chihuly, almost every known active and interactive verb and evocative poetic adjective has been used. Further, a great deal of analytical energy has been spent trying to reconcile his effervescent behavior with our more sober need for adult comprehension. I have contributed my own share of these verbs, adjectives, exhibitions, and images over the last fifteen years, since my first visit to his seductive Pilchuck commune in the early 1980s. Yet this artist seems always to be upping the ante, continually making things more difficult, both physically and intellectually, in the studio glass movement. I am now not so sure we will be able to encompass fully maestro Chihuly as he and his high-performance teams blow, spin, shape, and daringly reinvent glass art, pushing out into ever-larger spaces with a heavy rock music backbeat. Perhaps this is the way it should be, in the perverse spirit of life’s incompatibilities and things unresolvable. We have been counseled about this existential truism long ago in Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” (“Correlatives”), in which he wrote, “There are perfumes fresh and cool/…/That have the infinite expansion of infinite things/…/ which chant the ecstasies of the mind and senses.

This monograph offers the most complete visual outline of Chihuly’s lifelong fascination with glass and his use of it to produce a wide range of dramatic visual and emotional effects. It also documents a profound acceptance of Chihuly by the general public and artist’s energetic and unabashed pushing of glass into that public domain. Supported through numerous gallery and museum exhibitions, videos, large public commissions, and art magazine and news media pieces, Chihuly emerges as a phenomenon, an extravagant artist who aggressively enhances our daily lives and surroundings. His work seems part of our modern hyperactive and vanguard extension of the beauties found in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s turn-of-the-century iridescent Favrile glass for stained-glass windows, vases, and art nouveau lamps.

We may supply the adulation, attention, and communal love needed by the artist. For his part of the bargain, Chihuly meets our needs to connect with an ecumenical, gregarious, yet vulnerable creator, one who is open and risk-taking, avoiding the intricate, esoteric strategies pursued by so many contemporary artists. Chihuly’s manifest joy and enthusiasm for life and the world around him offer more accessible and attractive alternatives.

Chihuly, the driven and willful American, absorbs the two-thousand-year history of blown glass and transforms it. He exploits technologies and sensitivities and upsets purists by his excess of gesture, mannerist/baroque form, enormous scale, and simultaneously industrious, combative, friendly, and promotional behavior. Even working with others in his glass factory setting has not hindered the evolution of the personal Chihuly signature “style.” It is at all times gestural, expressive, overloaded, engaging, and cherished. It should also be noted that his acceptance by critics and connoisseurs is not yet unanimous. There may indeed be jealousy and resistance to his bold crossover to grandiose installations, endless variations of his impossibly lush and organic objects, public relations sense, and his eloquent and touching recombinant raiding of world cultures.

How should we approach Chihuly’s phenomenal rise in the art scene? His early installations are prescient but essentially parallel to contemporary, reactionary experiments with new materials and expansive siting. His subsequent small and tidy early works don’t declare the revolution. What does he give us that others haven’t, can’t, or won’t? Donald Kuspit’s essay in this book provides an engaging array of proposals. But to begin, I suggest a return to Baudelaire’s poem about Nature’s “correlatives” that, like Chihuly, proceed from a “forest of symbols” to “prolonged echoes” merging in “an opaque, deep oneness, as vast as darkness, as vast as light, perfumes, colors, and sounds answer each to each.” Chihuly’s Glass Environments (1967-68), Pilchuck Pond (1971), and notably, his Glass Forest (1971) exude just such vast light, perfumes, and colors. Now, in his more current work, profound beauties are mixed with intonations of the sinister. 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 otherworldly underwater dangers. We know that nature’s most seductive and mesmerizing colors are reserved to attract prey to its most dangerous and deadly species. Glass, especially enormous disks and stacks of nested shapes, signals fearful caution of wounding and breakage. Regardless, we are irresistibly drawn in by the effects of Chihuly’s works. We are held captive by the spell of this new contradictory world where hot colors are frozen in impossibly thin fused silica reanimated by strong light and shimmering reflection. Therefore, it may be that Chihuly is simply the best at plugging into our needs, being an extravagantly extroverted introvert who brilliantly subverts glass to enter the public psyche.

Chihuly is a luminist. He uses glass as a literal and metaphorical prism through which he projects both ambient and intense theatrical light to produce sublime, luminous effects. This connects him to the long history of art in which light is cherished, “otherworldly,” and implies divine presence. It is the transporting elements for spirits, grace, godly presence, and ineffable mystery. From the beginning of human time we see all cultures worshiping light, a critical by-product of the life-giving sun. Later, the shimmering gold ground of medieval illuminated manuscripts and iconostases and the great Gothic rose windows fracture light into myriad animate sparkles to dazzle the eye and mind. Later still, the luminous wonder captured by J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, American Hudson River painters, French impressionists, and fauves have set the stage for the art of our time.

Henri Matisse may be a modern prism for viewing Chihuly’s contemporary pursuit of luminous effects and beautiful organic form. Matisse found an attraction to the hot colors, sensuality, and transcendent light of the Mediterranean. He would spend more than half of his artistic life in Nice sanctifying his art, in both secular and nonsecular ways, through infusions of spirit-giving light. His thirty-five years on the Cote d’Azur were fundamental to this path. Yet it was the artist’s brief trip to Tahiti in 1930 that provided the critical shock when Matisse personally experienced the effects of nature viewed through water. There, looking first down into the clear lagoons and then up through levels of water toward the sky, Matisse discovered the spectral shimmer of new underwater worlds. He saw marine creatures with strange colors and fanciful shapes. This exoticism and newly structured crystalline world would never leave Matisse’s art. Chihuly’s transparent sculptural organisms recall just such an Oceania.

In both artists, theatrical commissions provided defining moments: Matisse’s remarkable sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo’s Rouge et Noir (1938) and Chihuly’s for Pelleas et Melisande (1993).For each artist these works enforced a unique synthesis of collaboration and the interplay between total visual effect and the role of physical form and action. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, Matisse, severely hindered by physical ailments, developed his system of gouaches decoupees, highly inventive color-cuttings which could be put in place by his assistants. These, like Chihuly’s environments of today, were additive, endlessly expansive decorative suites of cut and colored forms, floating in worlds of light. For example, Matisse’s grandest room-size cutout, the Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952), is ablaze with flat colored leaf, coral, fruit, and animal shapes upon a vast white ground. Chihuly’s carving and shaping of light and color in his Seaforms, Macchia, Persians, Venetians, and Floats make them all seem clear sculptural offspring. Further, Matisse’s famous Chapel of the Rosary in Vence is a rich artistic and spiritual jewel, where the blues, greens, and yellows of his great stained-glass windows flicker with even more colors created by their visual blending in the air and upon all the chapel’s exquisite tile surfaces. As our contemporary approximations, Chihuly’s environmental gestalt of sexy, colored glass and hot light propel these qualities into our own lives and real space, whether we are in Seattle, Washington, D.C., or Venice, where visitors were most recently enthralled by his Chandeliers.

Finally, not unlike Matisse’s severe medical problems after 1940, Chihuly’s loss of the sight in his left eye in 1976 obliged him to find new ways of working, since his vision was “flattened.” Chihuly moved to intermediary processes of drawing and a kind of orchestral choreography. This would allow him to objectify his art and to direct others. These others transform his two-dimensional schemes into a full visualization of the three-dimensional surround of space. The artist and workers also engage in the fourth dimension: duration. There is a literal passage of creative time and dynamic interrelationship. Chihuly’s large, broadly gestural, high-color painted drawings start the process. These energetic renderings are his way of showing the glass teams, succinctly and provocatively, what he has in mind. Not mechanical blueprints, they are rough, two-dimensional versions of hoped-for three-dimensional creations. They communicate at most a need that the finished glass objects should actively diffuse, “paint,” and flood areas with expansive veils of evanescent colored light.

Chihuly uses his sense of light to create abstracted expressions. He has a distinct, painterly approach. His light carves out the object and its reflection to create new kinds of space: physical, psychic, and visual. Chihuly has always been a sculptor of environmental spaces. He has made complex site-specific constructions from his earliest days, including experiments with neon and ice. He hit upon glass as a newly curious medium to carry on his interests. Chihuly perfected ways to build accumulative environments of any dimension. He broke the bounds of the conventional hand-blown glass object by creating installations in which hundreds of glass parts are spread over all the available space. Such additive, scaleless work is a characteristic of vanguard modern art, and Chihuly’s aggressive use of unconventional materials has added yet another dimension and potential to its continued development.

His works seem made to delight our eyes, to dazzle with their visual effects and their evident tenuous hold on permanence. Glass inherently displays much of its creative history, recording both the improvised and calculated energies of its makers. We know that every one of these objects has been shaped by split-second decisions, with little room for error. The molten materials are quickly pulled from the furnace, inflated, spun, shaped, trimmed, manipulated, and fused onto other glass elements-and even if a work makes it through this birthing, it still might not live through the artist’s selection process.

Chihuly and his workers are virtuosos. Aside from the usual meanings of virtuoso, in which great skill, bravura, ingenuity, and talent are manifest, other attributes pertain. For example, the root of virtuoso is virtue or vertu: goodness, power, and right action. By these right actions we have been freed from our inhibitions just as Chihuly has helped other artists break their own conventions to enter his world, one that runs on a parallel kinetic synesthesia reminiscent of Fantasia.

A keen observer, employing an unencumbered enthusiasm for the world around him Chihuly easily converts others to his cause. His colleagues (visiting artists and resident gaffers, assistants, archivists, administrators, packers, and installers) passionately engage in the artistic mission to create a profusion of things unexpected. They all challenge their conductor-choreographer Chihuly to do his best by doing their best. Mutually inspired, the collaborative troupe engages in a remarkable and surreal display of daring skill and beauty. By pushing the limits of glass, these powerful artists embody the passion and anxiety of their medium. They are a locus of joy and

ECSTASIES OF THE MIND AND SENSES

wonder, in which More is More. I’ve never seen anyone look at a Chihuly who didn’t respond, smile and appear buoyed by the experience. Viewers and collectors alike appear to have found a place of sincere personal refuge from our sometimes joyless and threatened lives. Chihuly has reflexively seized and directed these qualities into surprisingly new and persuasive dimensions.

Published in Chihuly. Portland Press, 1997.