Toward a New Language of Forms
Much has been written about Dale Chihuly as a child of the Pacific Northwest. Throughout his childhood, Chihuly was touched by nature. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington, in a house distinguished by his mother’s garden, which featured a lawn surrounded by azaleas and rhododendrons. He has fond memories of family outings to the beach, searching for beach glass and glass fishing floats that had blown across the Pacific. Late in the afternoon, he and his mother, Viola, would often dash up the hill behind their house in time to catch the sunset. On special holidays, the family would visit the Seymour Conservatory in Wright Park to see seasonal flower shows. Still, Chihuly’s interest in working in nature doesn’t come solely from a deep-seated appreciation of the natural world. Other seemingly unrelated interests and discoveries over the course of his career helped set the artist on a path toward working in the grand world of conservatories and gardens.
Chihuly received a master’s degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1968—a transformative period in the art world when everything was being questioned and challenged. Minimalism was de rigueur, but performance art, happenings, conceptual art, land art, and earthworks had also emerged as viable art movements. Many renegade artists opposed the commodification of art. They rejected the idea that museums and galleries were the only places to display and experience art. Artists were working in nature with materials often found on-site, and at times photographs were the only documentation of their work. The notion of impermanence in art, and the role of photography in documentation, resonated deeply with Chihuly.
This approach to glassblowing places very difficult demands on glassblowers, obliging them to take their craft right to the edge, where success and failure are mere seconds apart.
While in England in 1976, Chihuly was in a devastating automobile accident, which cost him the sight in his left eye. Remarkably, he turned his loss of depth perception into a positive. Chihuly, a very skilled glassblower, began questioning why glass objects needed to be symmetrical as they had been for the past 2,000 years, since their invention. Glassmakers often have to push, if not actually force, molten glass to make it symmetrical. Instead, using centrifugal force and the heat of the furnace, Chihuly began making forms that deliberately allowed glass to spin off-center. He invented a mode of working with the molten material that let it find its final shape in its own organic way. This approach to glassblowing places very difficult demands on glassblowers, obliging them to take their craft right to the edge, where success and failure are mere seconds apart. But Chihuly is not at all concerned with losing a piece if it creates an opportunity for something new to happen.
Starting in 1977, Chihuly spent the next fifteen years single-mindedly developing about a dozen new series, such as Baskets, Seaforms, Macchia, and Persians, that apply his asymmetrical mode of glassblowing. Many artists would have made an entire career out of just one of these vessel-based series. In Chihuly’s case, the result has been some of the most beautiful glass objects ever made.
In 1992, a major exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum allowed Chihuly to reconsider his environmental installations from the early 1970s, which he had stopped making some twenty years earlier while focusing on the vessel-based series. An important development in that exhibition was the inclusion of his first Chandelier. The term “chandelier” is somewhat of a misnomer, since Chihuly’s sculpture was not internally lit. It was a sculpture composed of hundreds of yellow glass elements attached to an armature hung from the ceiling much like a traditional chandelier, but at eye level. Chihuly was taken with the potential of this idea.
That same year, Chihuly had an exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in Hawaii, for which he created some new environmental installations. Chihuly massed Niijima Floats on one courtyard lawn and Macchia on another. This was the first time he took work from his vessel-based series and made outdoor installations. Chihuly also re-created an ice-and-neon installation based on his 1971 20,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon, but in a more linear configuration. In addition, he installed his second Chandelier, a variant of the first yellow one, this time with a blue, pod-like stem.
Chihuly’s interest in temporary, site-specific installations continued the following year with 100,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon, a massive work placed on an ice-skating rink in the Tacoma Dome and open to the public for three days. Ice shaped like blocks and balls, with neon tubes frozen inside, were configured at one end of the rink and left to melt; at the other end was an installation of neon that Chihuly called Tumbleweeds.
Chihuly was now fully committed to pursuing opportunities to create installations. To this day, he actively continues the exploration of vessel-based forms that he started in the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, Chihuly began developing a new body of work—indeed, a new language of forms—to be used in large-scale installations.
Chihuly Over Venice
In 1995, Chihuly embarked on the first of three career-defining epic projects, Chihuly Over Venice, which came to life in multiple venues on two continents. Chihuly explored the glassmaking cultures of Finland, Ireland, Mexico, and Italy, and the project culminated in the installation of fourteen enormous Chandeliers, made in these countries and mixed with glass from Chihuly’s own studio, over and near the canals of Venice. Imagine someone from outside the guarded world of Venetian glassmakers creating this big event and thereby publicly redefining the chandelier, a commodity the Venetians have been mass-producing for centuries on the island of Murano. This was a bold move on his part—especially considering that up to this point, his Chandeliers had not met with any critical success.
Chihuly Over Venice began at the glass factory in the picturesque village of Nuutajärvi, Finland, north of Helsinki, a factory that had been established in 1793. It was able to make exciting colors; perhaps even more important, it had a continuous-belt lehr, or long oven, which allowed Chihuly to execute handblown glass objects of unprecedented size. He worked in the facility for ten days in mid-June 1995, making a suite of Chandeliers as well as other forms for future works. Although the factory was fully staffed, Chihuly deployed his own team of forty people from the United States: glassblowers, installers, a registrar, a photographer, and two film crews, all coordinated by project manager Leslie Jackson.
While the first Chandelier was being hung in the factory, Chihuly’s team built small glass installations in the village. As more and more glass was produced, the excitement grew. The summer solstice, together with increased interest in new possibilities, created a wave of energy that pushed the artist in new directions. While looking for sites, he discovered a new footbridge across the Nuutajoki. Chihuly conceived the idea of using the river as a location for temporary environmental installations.
Partially for fun and partially as a photo op, Chihuly threw some of the new glass forms off the footbridge and watched them float downstream while rowboats chased them. Seeing the boats return with the glass piled high, stacked like treasure, gave Chihuly further ideas. Thinking about his upcoming Venice exhibition, he installed a Chandelier under the town bridge. Once this was done and photographed, the Chandelier was dismantled and tossed into the water. While floating downstream, it was collected and hung from a tree in a new configuration. This process continued for the rest of the week with the creation of more new glass Chandeliers, boat installations, and small installations along the banks of the river. Back in the factory, fueled by loud rock and roll, glassblowers worked as fast as they could, trying to keep up with a rapid flow of new ideas.
Later in the year, Chihuly took his team to the Waterford Crystal chandelier factory in Waterford, Ireland—a factory renowned for its optically pure lead crystal and arguably the best glass cutters in the world. Chihuly focused on making Chandeliers for the Venice exhibition, even as new opportunities arose for other installations. On the grounds of Lismore Castle, owned by the 12th Duke of Devonshire and located overlooking the Blackwater River, Chihuly installed works in both the Upper Garden and the Lower Garden. He placed a particularly interesting piece in the Vinery, a small glass conservatory for growing grapes that was designed by the renowned architect Sir Joseph Paxton, best known for London’s Crystal Palace in 1851.
Chihuly had long been interested in the great nineteenth-century glass palaces, once he discovered they were clad entirely in sheets of handblown glass. He has made a point of seeking out these buildings during his travels around Europe and North America. He is particularly keen on the work of Lord & Burnham, which designed and built many of the greatest conservatories in the United States: the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx, New York; Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the United States Botanic Garden, Washington D.C.; and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California.
In Dublin in 1995, Chihuly constructed his first exhibition inside a major conservatory—the Curvilinear Range at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, designed by Richard Turner. Together with Decimus Burton, Turner also designed the famous Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which Chihuly has described as his favorite conservatory. Glasnevin’s filigree architectural jewel had just undergone a complete restoration, bringing it back to the pristine condition of opening day in 1848. With this installation, Chihuly realized the full potential for exhibiting work in an all-glass building.
The following year, Chihuly and his team traveled to Monterrey, Mexico, to work at the enormous industrial facility, Vitrocrisa. There he made Chandeliers and glass for future installations in bold new colors. In addition, he experimented with having glass forms silvered in their interior. Pleased with the dramatic results, Chihuly has continued incorporating silvered glass, to great effect, in subsequent installations. While in Mexico, he also constructed works in and around the factory as well as in the desert beside the foothills of the Sierra Madre.
Chihuly Over Venice was ultimately the artist’s gift to a city that had shared some of its glass secrets with him when he was a young man.
Chihuly Over Venice took place during the first two weeks of September 1996. A mind-boggling logistical operation was devised to move the glass and installation crews in a flotilla of various-sized boats that were needed to navigate Venice’s waterways. The authorities never issued any permits, but work proceeded and all fourteen Chandeliers were installed as planned. It was a huge success, with an overwhelmingly positive response to the installations. Chihuly Over Venice was ultimately the artist’s gift to a city that had shared some of its glass secrets with him when he was a young man.
A Sense of Place
Energized by the success in Venice, Chihuly moved ahead with a relentless exhibition schedule. Turned upside down, Chandeliers became Towers, their colors evolving from monochromatic to polychromatic. Other new works employed reflective gold leaf applied to the surface of glass. Chihuly also worked with optic molds to manipulate and increase the refraction of light through his glass.
Over the next five years, Chihuly executed numerous projects around the world, including an exhibition at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, New York, and a commission at Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth, Washington.
In 1997, he and his team blew glass and created installations both on the island of Niijima, off the coast of Japan, and at a glass factory in Vianne, France. He had an exhibition at the Ukai Museum in Hakone, Japan, and placed an informal installation in front of the Portland Japanese Garden, in Oregon.
Three years later, Chihuly participated in the Contemporary American Sculpture exhibition in Monte Carlo, Monaco, and created installations in Napa Valley, California, and at various sites in Australia, including the wonderful Palm House at Adelaide Botanic Garden.
In 2001, Chihuly had a major exhibition at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London. At the entrance to the museum, under the main rotunda, he installed what may be his most sublime Chandelier, as well as the largest he had ever executed. It has undoubtedly been seen by more people than any other work by Chihuly in a cultural institution. Along with the exhibition in the museum’s Medieval Treasury, he also placed various outdoor installations in what was then called the Pirelli Garden.
The success of Chihuly’s installations, whether temporary or permanent, depends in great part on the tremendous care he takes to ensure that they are well conceived and sited. Generally, his installations are initially mocked up full scale in the studio. This is done with the assistance of a large team of project managers, architects, engineers, fabricators, lighting designers, installers, packers, and shippers. Such initial preparation plays a vital role in the success of an exhibition.
In the Light of Jerusalem
During this energetic period of exhibitions and installations, Chihuly embarked upon his second epic project, at the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem in Israel. Next to the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, the museum is housed in a monumental 700-year-old restored stone citadel originally built more than 2,000 years ago. Partially a ruin and partially reconstructed, the fortress is a daunting multilevel site with many vantage points from which to visualize the artwork. Chihuly visited Jerusalem five times in 1999 before deciding exactly how to approach the project. Initially, he conceived of three glass towers, each one representing one of the monotheistic religions laying claim to the Holy Land. By the time the exhibition opened, however, his concept had grown into sixteen site-specific works. Installing the work required a team of forty people from the artist’s studio, along with a local one of a hundred Arabs and Jews, working together for a month.
Chihuly also created an installation with glass made in nearby Hebron, at a small Palestinian-owned factory that had been in continuous use for 500 years.
In this exhibition, Chihuly mixed large installations with smaller, more subtle works in and around the Citadel. The glass was made in the United States, France, Finland, Japan, and the Czech Republic. Chihuly also created an installation with glass made in nearby Hebron, at a small Palestinian-owned factory that had been in continuous use for 500 years. The furnaces, tools, and techniques that the glass workers used were unchanged from those employed when the factory was first founded. Chihuly decided to make the installation an homage to the birthplace of the art of glassblowing.
The extreme brightness of Jerusalem light, and the way it intensifies when reflected off the Citadel’s stone walls, obliged Chihuly to take great care in selecting his colors. For the large installations, he chose white, pink, blue, and silver. Red and yellow were employed in the Spears and black in the Saguaros.
Two of the Jerusalem installations were particularly ambitious. The fifty-foot-high Crystal Mountain took more than six weeks to erect. Its 2,000 large pink crystals, made of a polymer that Chihuly calls Polyvitro, were particularly stunning both at sunrise and at sunset. This installation was a nod to Bruno Taut and the Crystal Chain, a little-known and short-lived German Expressionist architectural movement in 1920 that believed society could be changed if everyone lived in all-glass buildings. Chihuly returned later that year to install the Jerusalem Wall of Ice. For this piece, he used sixty-four tons of ice that had been shipped halfway around the world from Fairbanks, Alaska. The ice was cut and stacked like the huge blocks of stone in the Citadel walls. The installation was twelve feet high and forty feet long. Its fast-melting ice was backlit by forty stage lights with a number of different-colored gels. The work lasted only three days, due to an intense heat wave.
One of the many aspects of this project that resonated deeply with the artist was that it took place where glass was first created, almost 5,000 years ago. It is also thought to be where glassblowing began, 2,000 years ago. At the time, Chihuly considered this his most rewarding project ever.
The Garden Cycle, the third and most ambitious of Chihuly’s epic projects, builds on the strongest aspects of the first two. It consists of a group of exhibitions at a number of different sites: the extraordinary Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in England, and ten of the greatest gardens in the United States. When he began in 2001, Chihuly focused on working within glass conservatories. Then he moved on to botanic gardens with conservatories and finally to venues chosen by garden type: a tropical garden, a desert garden, a sculpture garden, and estate gardens. The cycle format was a brilliant way to go about reworking the original set of ideas that Chihuly established in the first exhibition, inside Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. Subsequent exhibitions expanded on that central theme and included new works developed for each garden, resulting in a different experience each time. It is important to note that these glass forms were not directly based on examples found in nature; they came more from the natural process of glassblowing that Chihuly and his team have explored and perfected in the hotshop.
It is not easy to work in a dialogue with nature. Plants grow, bloom, and otherwise follow their natural cycles over the course of an exhibition. Garden exhibitions can look like an afterthought when not successfully integrated with the plants. Planning these installations required lengthy discussions about plantings and their colors. For some venues, Chihuly’s studio installed lighting for very popular night viewings. His glass installations were so responsive to light and the surroundings that many visitors felt as if no two visits to an exhibition produced the same experience.
Nature and natural processes do not progress in an idealized manner. In gardens and conservatories, plants are pruned, shaped, and espaliered into submission in much the same way that molten glass has been made to assume symmetrical shapes. Chihuly may have intuitively understood this when he made his own break with history and encouraged glass to drift off-center. There would almost seem to be a synergy in the way that Chihuly’s forms evolve and how nature grows when left to its own devices. I suspect this helps to explain why his installations integrate seamlessly with their natural surroundings.
Former Chairman of the Glass Department,
California College of the Arts