Chihuly Under Glass

Mark McDonnell
Gardens and Glass

This exhibition at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago gives us another context in which to consider Dale Chihuly's installations. He has increasingly challenged preconceived notions of how and where art can be exhibited. Long a veteran of exhibiting in the “white boxes of the museum world,” he has increasingly sought opportunities to take his work outside, into the realm of public art spaces, and out into the landscape.

I want my work to look like it just happened, as if it was made by nature.
-Dale Chihuly

Chihuly has installed his work on the wall, on the floor, overhead, on roofs, and in courtyards, and he has hung his work from every place imaginable. He has worked in the Jacobean garden of a castle in Lismore, Ireland; the bucolic gardens at LongHouse on Long Island, New York; a country estate in Vianne, France; and even the vineyards of Napa Valley, California. He has worked in the rivers and forests of Finland, the deserts of Mexico, the beaches and mountains of Japan, and the snow of his native Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Major projects have included chandelier installations sited in and around the canals of Venice, and a monumental site-specific installation inside the stone walls of the ancient Citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem. He has set his glass underwater, in lap pools, in fountains, and frozen in blocks of ice, and he has worked with plant materials in dozens of situations. On occasion he has simply thrown his objects into the water, leaving them to float away (to be gathered later). It seems that no place escapes him as he tirelessly continues to search out new possibilities.

Without a glass palace, life becomes a burden.
-Paul Scheerbart

Chihuly has a lifelong fascination with transparency in architecture and has a thorough knowledge of glasshouse history and glass architecture. As a young professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, he immersed himself in the library's rare-book collection. There he noticed a first edition of Raymond McGrath and A.C. Frost's 1937 classic, 'Glass in Architecture and Decoration', which illustrates clearly and concisely the origins and development of the glasshouse through essays and extraordinary photographs. Both 'Glass Architecture' by the German poet Paul Scheerbart (1914) and 'Alpine Architecture' by the visionary architect Bruno Taut (1919) also caught Chihuly's attention. Scheerbart and Taut shared the dream of living in a world of glass architecture in which cities encapsulated by glass domes contained glass houses and public palaces appointed with glass furniture. Taut eventually founded the Glass Chain, a secret society of Germany's leading architects. Using pen names, they shared their utopian vision of the future, corresponding with one another and passing around their sketches of glass architecture. They regarded the nineteenth-century iron-and-glass horticultural and exhibition buildings as ideal for human habitation. They truly believed that through this new glass architecture, they could elevate culture. They dreamed of living in crystalline structures, employing air balloons to aid in their construction. They called for the end of the window, as buildings from now on were to be completely clad in glass.

The prophetic ideals of a glass culture as proposed by Scheerbart, Taut, and others, illustrating the true potential of the glass medium, have inspired Chihuly and subsequently an entire generation of his students. Chihuly has visited notable glasshouses and glass buildings in Europe and North America during his frequent travels. He possesses an extensive collection of books, photographs, and vintage hand-colored postcards of glasshouses, some of which appear in this publication.

Chihuly has created installations in conservatories other than Garfield. In 1995 he placed cut-crystal shapes in the vinery that Joseph Paxton designed in the 1860s for the duke of Devonshire's hunting estate at Lismore Castle in Ireland. Later that year, Chihuly installed a more ambitious project at the restored Curvilinear Range, one of the glasshouses at the National Botanical Gardens in Glasnevin, Ireland. This lacelike architectural jewel was designed and built by William Turner in 1843. In 2000, Chihuly went to Australia to work at various sites including the Palm House, which was designed by the architect Gustav Runge; built in Bremen, Germany, in 1875; and then shipped and erected at the Adelaide Botanical Gardens.

Exuberance is beauty.
-William Blake

This brings us to Garfield Park Conservatory. Designed by the landscape architect Jens Jensen in 1908, it remains the largest extant glasshouse in North America. His design for the building is said to mimic haystacks seen in the flat landscape of rural Illinois. Garfield hosts a world-class plant collection. This venue presents an opportunity to see Chihuly's work in this inspired setting.

The separate reality of the glasshouse allows the visitor to interact casually, refocus, and have some time for introspection. Its tranquil environment includes warmth, moisture, the sweet smell of soil, the sound of water movement, and atmospheric light. Chihuly—always the keen observer of light—has fully exploited its transience. Special lighting in the conservatory and extended hours provide a different experience at night. No two visits are ever the same.

Few artists would choose to work within a dense environment of competing plants or in a conservatory, much less succeed so effectively. The plants and glass enjoy a comfortable symbiosis, remaining equals. Chihuly has exploited the close relationship of the off-center liquid organic quality of glass and the nature of the plants in this collection. He introduced contrasting colors, bold and deliberate, and magnified the scale of his work to meet the largess of the building. Sensual organic glass forms are casually installed among complementing growing forms. Shortly after his initial installation, Chihuly's excitement about the exhibition led to his return, bringing back with him more glass to add to the space.

Chihuly is a most eloquent, evenhanded director and editor, leaving us to discover a new indigenous species—glass. This exhibition, Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass, offers a special opportunity to see Chihuly's thoughtful and joyful exploration of glass among exuberant plants, in a building worthy of his attention, in what is the most sublime environment possible . . . under glass.

Published in Chihuly Gardens & Glass, Portland Press, 2002

Also from Chihuly Gardens & Glass:
The Earthly Delights of the Garden of Glass, Barbara Rose
A Garden of Glass, Lisa C. Roberts

CHIHULY IN THE PARK: A GARDEN OF GLASS