Perhaps at forty, after almost twenty years of pushing forward,
Dale Chihuly can afford to satisfy a bit of the retrospective
urge by taking stock and examining the evolution of his
work. The paradox that is Chihuly - an ardent proponent
of collaboration who must, in the end, direct; a worker
whose greatest luxury consists in the freedom to travel
where and when he wishes; a hard-driving man, generous
and honest, yet disarmingly inaccessible - can only be
understood as a complex amalgam, as elusive as his forms
Whereas in the past each new Chihuly series was heralded
for some distinct innovation, the more recent work, the
sea and shell forms, resonates with echoes of earlier
concerns. If only because of its persistent quality,
Chihuly's work begs for some sort of chronological assessment,
some acknowledgment of both consistency and development.
One could point out that shells have long symbolized a capacity
for synthesis and renewal, but Chihuly has never been
one to use his pieces as conscious symbols or allegories.
Still, his new work achieves more completely what has
always been present to some degree - the bringing together
of a number of concerns deriving from both his early
training in architecture and weaving and his later explorations
of the properties unique to glass.
As it happened, Chihuly's first encounters with glass took
place within the context of a weaving assignment at the
University of Washington. Asked to incorporate some non-fiber
material in a work, Chihuly, with his proclivity for
challenge, chose glass because it was the "material most
foreign to fiber." Setting out to control the brittle
glass threads, he began testing and improvising, consulting
with whatever experts on glass he could scout out. This
pattern, of immersing himself in a project and coupling
trial-and-error testing with a willingness to seek out
and accept the expertise of others, remains as much a
Chihuly hallmark as his interest in glass.
Doris Brockway, the professor who gave Chihuly that weaving
assignment, compares him to the textile designer Jack
Lenor Larsen, another Brockway student and native Washingtonian,
who has long championed Chihuly. "Once started on a track," says
"both of them knew exactly what to do, where they needed
to go next."
Chihuly was born in September of 1941 in Tacoma-a major Washington
seaport and railroad depot in full sight of Mt. Ranier.
His father George Chihuly was a butcher and an international
organizer for the meat cutter's union; his mother, Viola,
had an equal facility with people and gardening. A brother,
George, six years older than Dale and greatly admired
by him, completed the Chihuly family.
Within his first two years of high school, Chihuly lost both
his father and his brother. His brother was killed in
a Naval aviation practice flight in Florida when Chihuly
was fifteen; little more than a year later, his father
died of a heart attack.
Understandably, after these losses, Chihuly and his mother
grew increasingly close and this relationship remains
at the center of his life. At her urging, he enrolled
in the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Within one
year, however, he decided to transfer to the University
of Washington in Seattle, spending the intervening summer
(as he had previous summers) working at a local meat-packing
factory. After a year at the University of Washington,
he entirely remodeled his mother's basement, a project
that gave him a first notion that interior design should
be his field.
At the end of the summer, says his mother, "he just decided
he was going to Europe, and that was that." Quitting his
position as rush chairman for the D.K.E. fraternity and selling
the Austin Healy left to him by his brother, Chihuly sailed
for Europe on the SS France.
Chihuly based himself in Paris for the first few months,
faithfully keeping a journal and a sketchbook, and then
traveled to Israel to work for a month on a kibbutz in
the Negev Desert. When he returned to the United States,
it was with new resolve and direction. To this day, Chihuly
considers that year "paramount," and says he came back "completely
From this point on, the pace of Chihuly's life accelerated,
as if he were making up for lost time. He re-entered
the University of Washington as a major in interior design,
studying under Hope Foote and Warren Hill. Weaving became
a major focus of his efforts, and he soon introduced
the element of glass into his work. Since his work in
glass at this period, during 1964 and 1965, predated
by several years the explosive development of the studio
glass movement, Chihuly had to be particularly resourceful
in order to obtain both advice and materials. Despite
these difficulties, pieces such as the window weaving
that hangs in his mother's home attest to both his technical
innovation and his concern, even at this early stage,
with fusing such disparate elements as metal, glass and
fiber into a fluid construction.
Chihuly still considered himself primarily a designer and
weaver, however, and after receiving his degree in 1965,
he began working as a designer for John Graham Architects
in Seattle. Both his interest in glass and his desire
to travel seemed to increase rather than diminish after
taking a position with the firm, and he left John Graham
after nine months.
Determined to further his studies in glass, Chihuly earned
money for school by working as a commercial fisherman,
catching salmon off the Alaskan coast. He used the proceeds
of this labor to enroll in Harvey Littleton's program
at the University of Wisconsin. Littleton, the "father" of
American studio glass, had set up an MA. program in glass
at the University and it was a natural choice for Chihuly.
At Wisconsin, the flow of information from student to student
was at least as important as the formal teaching. While
much of that ambience was due to the experimental nature
of working in glass, especially in 1966, a good part
of the exchange took place with artists in other media
as well. Wisconsin was probably the first place, in fact,
where Chihuly experienced the life of an artist.
Completion of Wisconsin's M.F.A. program required two years,
but after only one year, Chihuly decided to take an M.S.
degree from the University in order to accept both a
place in the M.F.A. program and a teaching assistantship
for the coming year at the Rhode Island School of Design
Providence is an industrial city on the ocean, and RISD was
a dynamic art school with the potential for interdisciplinary
sharing of ideas. Despite the fact that the School's
glass department was still in its infancy, the prospect
of building his own equipment and the opportunity to
consult with experts in related industries and arts excited
In Providence, Chihuly set himself a specific work goal:
to introduce neon into his projects in glass. John Landon,
an Alaskan lumberjack and close friend of Chihuly's,
remembers those early pieces as "kind of amoebic forms,
filled with neon and placed on a pedestal that housed
a transformer, so that they lit up when you walked by." Injecting
neon into anything other than standardized glass components
presented a technical challenge, and Chihuly's second
priority in Providence was to develop a network of contacts,
consultants and friends.
Chihuly's knack for locating complementary personalities
and talents, which in Wisconsin had led to productive
artistic relationships, continued to develop in Providence
into a lifestyle that merged friendship with artistic
partnership and led him to espouse what may be his one
At about this time, painter Italo Scanga, who had taught
at RISD a few years earlier, returned to give a guest
lecture. Chihuly was completely taken with Scanga's presence,
art, and ideas, and made it his business to get acquainted,
thus initiating his most enduring friendship. Scanga
increased Chihuly's willingness to take the same kind
of risks with artistic ideas as he had been taking with
technical innovation. Later, as the blanket cylinders
began to take shape, Scanga urged Chihuly to "let loose
on the glass. Scanga says, however, that while he may have
given Chihuly a greater sense of what it is to be an artist, "somehow,
whatever it is he wants to do, he gets it done."
In late fall of 1968, Chihuly received news that he had been
awarded a Fulbright grant to study glassblowing at the
Venini Factory on the island of Murano in Venice. This
was, in fact, his second Fulbright award, for he had
received but did not make use of a grant to study weaving
in Finland prior to entering Harvey Littleton's program
at Wisconsin. Not long after receiving the 1968 Fulbright,
he got a Tiffany Foundation grant for independent work
in glass. That summer, before leaving for Venice, he
taught for the first time at the Haystack School, in
Deer Isle, Maine. Haystack is a summer school for artist-craftsmen
organized into a series of intensive three-week work-shops
and Chihuly had been recommended to Francis Merritt,
then Haystack's director, by Jack Lenor Larsen.
Chihuly was extremely taken with Haystack. The School offered
an idyllically beautiful setting and an intimate but
active environment that fostered a vital exchange of
ideas and skills. Chihuly was already beginning to envision
the perfect art school for glass, and three years later,
when he founded the Pilchuck School, he incorporated
many of the best attributes of RISD and Haystack.
The year in Venice provided Chihuly with a respite from his
previous dedication to prolific output. At the Venini
Factory he spent many hours watching the workers' practiced
orchestration of glass production and he won the respect
and friendship of Santillana, its director. While Chihuly
had much to learn from the collaborative expertise of
the Venini workers, he was able in turn to offer them
an introduction to the more unified approach to design
and fabrication taken by most American studio glass artists.
Chihuly may have been influenced more by the ambience at
Venini - including such informal habits as the constant
presence of a boiling pot of water for pasta -than by
the specific pieces being produced there. The only piece
he actually constructed while in Venice was a prototype
for a large-scale lamp design - an object more akin to
his own previous work than to the forms he'd observed
That spring, Chihuly visited the Libenskys, in Czechoslovakia,
whose workshop produced heavy cast glass which differed
radically from the Venetian work he had studied during
the year. From Czechoslovakia he went to Germany to visit
Erwin Eisch, one of his favorite glass artists, before
spending a month on the west coast of Ireland.
Once back in Providence, Chihuly assumed a full-time teaching
position at RISD and began a ten-year stint as Chairman
of the Glass Department. He set to work building equipment
and gathering students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
His main objective was to generate a high-energy program
capable of attracting the best possible students. Foremost
among the students that Chihuly's glass program attracted
that fall was James Carpenter.
Having just completed his first year as an illustration major,
with a specialty in botanical drawings, Carpenter quickly
established a friendship with Chihuly, and the two began
working together less as teacher and student than, to
quote John Landon again, as "a twin-engine vehicle -
they both got where they were going faster."
In the years between 1969 and 1971, Chihuly and Carpenter
produced a number of large-scale environments, mostly
in glass and neon, that brought both of them into the
public eye and set new directions for the glass movement
throughout this country and abroad. In fact, much of
the work that came out of RISD's glass shop during the
early Seventies tended toward large-scale site and conceptual
pieces moving away from the Sixties emphasis on smaller
scale objects inspired by ceramics.
In 1971, with a $2000 grant from the Union of Independent
Colleges of Art, Pilchuck became a reality when Chihuly
with a crew of friends and Students set up the first
school solely dedicated to glass on a tree farm north
of Seattle. The land had been donated by John Hauberg
and by Anne Gould Hauberg, influential art patrons in
Washington. Jack Lenor Larsen, a friend of the Haubergs,
had introduced them to Chihuly and throughout the following
years, the Haubergs continued to contribute essential
funds and direction to Pilchuck.
Chihuly joined Jamie Carpenter in Venice in the spring of
1972, after Carpenter had completed a year at Venini.
When the pair returned to the United States, they began
a series of architectural glass projects at Pilchuck
which united blown, cast, and surface-treated elements
to create wall and window works. Barbara Vaessen, a Dutch
flat glass artist then married to Carpenter, also contributed
to this collaboration. However, the intensity of the
earlier collaborative efforts was abating, for Chihuly's
priorities were shifting more towards teaching, and Carpenter
was spending more and more time on his own conceptual
and design projects.
In the fall of 1972, Chihuly visited Mayan sites in the Yucatan
and throughout Mexico. The month following the Mexican
trip he spent alone on the Caribbean island of Virgin
Gorda. On Virgin Gorda Chihuly made the decision to return
to RISD in order to develop the glass program further.
He intended to devote only the summers to Pilchuck. Although
he had toyed with the idea of moving out West permanently,
he feared it was too early to abandon the East Coast
art world completely and he was too restless to establish
himself in only one spot.
It was not until late in the summer of 1974 that Chihuly,
Carpenter, Scanga, and Kate Elliott, a young glass student
who had been assisting Chihuly over the past two years,
began pulling thin threads from the richly colored Kugler
rods they had been using to pigment glass in an effort
to find a means of drawing on glass. Chihuly later that
fall put the newly devised "glass pick-up technique"
to work, beginning his first important systematic series,
the blanket cylinders, and initiating the work that would
lead to his first critical acclaim as an independent artist.
More than ever, with the cylinders, collaboration became
essential. For the early cylinders, Kate Elliott executed
many of the glass patterns that Chihuly had derived from
actual Navajo Indian blankets, while two or three other
assistants aided in the process of blowing, then rolling
the cylinder on the marver to pick up the surface color
and drawing, and finally reheating it to fuse the layers.
Because Chihuly was so actively engaged in teaching,
his students became one of his natural sources for assistants.
In the summer of 1975, while helping to set up a glass program
at the University of Utah's Snowbird Art School, Chihuly
met glass artist Flora Mace, who became an important
collaborator. Mace came to RISD and developed the blanket
drawings to their highest technical level. Chihuly spent
most of that summer with Seaver Leslie, another RISD
collaborator, organizing the first major museum shows
of the cylinders - at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt
Lake City and the Institute of American Indian Art, Santa
Fe. Chihuly and Leslie also worked at Pilchuck, and then
collaborated on a project at Artpark, Lewiston, New York,
Later that fall, Mace and Leslie worked with Chihuly on two
series of cylinders, a "Ulysses" series drawing upon
images from Joyce's novel and an "Irish" series based
on Irish folklore. With the intention to lecture on these "literary" cylinders
at several English and Irish universities, late in the
fall of 1975 Leslie and Chihuly took off on a tour through
England and Ireland. Before they reached Ireland, while
still en route to British painter Peter Blake's country
home, they had a devastating automobile accident that
left Chihuly both badly scarred and minus the sight of
Recuperating first in England and then at his home in Providence,
Chihuly blew no glass for several months. He did, however,
organize an important one-man show of the cylinders,
at Brown University's Bell Gallery, where he juxtaposed
the cylinders with Navajo blankets that had provided
the inspiration for the drawings on their surface. He
also agreed to head the Sculpture Department at RISD
for a year.
If prior to the accident Chihuly's commitment to collaboration
had served to create a dynamic and effective working
method, now it became a necessity. Maneuvering the blowpipe
requires accurate depth perception, and while Chihuly
had sufficient experience to manage intuitively much
of what he could no longer actually perceive, there is
no denying the extent of his dependence on others for
at least some of the operations. In many ways, the accident
propelled Chihuly into a new kind of collaboration. Paul
Hollister, a New York painter and writer specializing
in glass, observed, "What Chihuly couldn't see [after
the accident] because of his eye problem, he couldn't
see before, because he was too close to the piece."
Devising a means to work around his injury and relying on
a new objectivity about the glassblowing process, Chihuly
initiated a shift in his working methods to develop a
form of collaboration quite different from the earlier
tandem work with Carpenter or Seaver Leslie. Greater
financial independence from the sale of his work now
allowed him to hire and pay assistants for particular
blowing sessions. And, as he distanced himself somewhat
from the physical aspects of forming the glass, he gave
new emphasis to the creative phases preceding and following
the blowing, that is, to drawing and photography.
With the preliminary drawings, the mark of Chihuly's hand
is more directly present than in the glass itself. Chihuly's
lines on paper, often worked with a handful of pencils
at a time, reveal a probing for forms that precedes their
achievement in glass. Sometimes the graphite actually
rips through the paper, exposing an aggressive kind of
energy often lost in translation to the smooth shiny
surface of glass.
The drawings are never merely designs. Instead, they offer
gestural maps for working moves, acting both as a vent
for spontaneous expression and a surprisingly specific
series of working drawings. Billy Morris - a master glassblower
currently working with Chihuly and capable of sensing
intuitively what Chihuly wants to accomplish through
the drawings - actually checks off drawings that correspond
to pieces he's blown, yet Chihuly still manages to avoid
rigidly predetermining the forms before they are begun
Photographing the finished pieces, by contrast, provides
an analogue to the raw energy of both the drawing and
the actual work in hot glass. Instead of serving merely
- or primarily - as a document, the photographs take
on a new equivalence with the glass. Chihuly has said
the photography "dematerializes the object so that I
feel I'm looking at its real spirit, its other dimension."
Chihuly's ability to distance himself from the blowing process
and the visual lessons he learned from photographs of
his glass helped to catapult his work into a new phase,
leading to a more complex exploration of his medium.
Thus, in the summer of 1977, when he spotted the Indian
baskets on the shelves of the Tacoma Historical Society,
he was ready to abandon his cylinder series for one more
organic and responsive to the gravitational pull on hot
Almost three years ago, Rose Slivka, then editor of Craft
Horizons, contrasted Chihuly's "opaque and heavy cylinders"
with his new "crumpled, wrinkled baskets," calling the baskets
his most grasslike work" to date.1 This observation rang
truer with each evolution of the basket series, until, in
the sea forms exhibited last year at the Tacoma Art Museum,
the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York and the Clarck-Benton
Gallery in Santa Fe, Chihuly had come so close to the essence
of "pure" glass that the Venetian glass produced at Venini
which had inspired much of his recent work looked almost
heavy by comparison.
More importantly, while the Venetian glassblowers accept
elegance as an end in itself, Chihuly feels uncomfortable
when his forms become too exquisite. Referring to the
sea forms, he says: "This series has reached a point
of elegance that I may not be able to take any further,
so I'm introducing more complexity and a grotesque quality.
The contrast will make you look for beauty. One of the
really good macchia pieces [an expressive Italian
term meaning spotted, mottled, or sketched-in] makes
you want to look inside it."
Chihuly has said that his early interest in neon stemmed
from a desire to animate the glass, to move from solid,
sculptural statements to more energized environments
that invited human participation and response. Given
his technical developments in blowing the glass, he can
now achieve the same effect without the insertion of
a foreign substance.
For instance, many of Chihuly's forms take on anthropomorphic
associations he finds natural to the glassblowing process.
Pointing to the fact that, while his sea forms do have
openings, they are not traditional containers, he says: "One
thing I like about the association with sea creatures
is the importance that gives to an opening or orifice.
The process of blowing wants to leave a hole to account
for the original entry, where the air first came in."
By evoking living forms, Chihuly's move from graceful to
more awkward objects becomes plausible in a way that
could never be if his only motive were to fashion ever
purer vessels. For Chihuly is no formalist; he needs
to imply movement and growth. His technical innovations
and refinements serve only to provide more options -relating
to what he can make glass do and what associations he
can suggest to natural phenomena.
Most of the pieces since mid-1980 have been blown into an
optical mold, giving the tough soda-lima glass Chihuly
employs a ridged surface that can be stretched extremely
thin. When glass threads are trailed over the ridges
in a continuous motion, they adapt to the specific contours
of each vessel, so that, as in the Indian baskets that
inspired them, form and surface decoration occur simultaneously.
This is in marked contrast to the applied blanket weavings
on the earlier cylinders. Evolved as a means toward approximating
that fusion of surface and support in the Indian baskets,
Chihuly's innovative adaptations of essentially Venetian
methods unleashed a range of new possibilities that had
little to do with attempting a more direct approximation
of basket forms. While the blanket cylinders limited
variations on the original theme to color and drawing,
the Indian basket series offered a far greater potential
for formal exploration.
As already noted, Chihuly is strongly driven by a visual
sensibility. It was necessary for him to see the woven,
warping baskets in the Tacoma Historical Society's shelf
in order to visualize similar effects, transformed by
the glass. And Carpenter has said that when he and Chihuly
first began pulling glass threads at Pilchuck, Chihuly
immediately made a visual connection between the threads
and woven fibers, linking his experience of weaving to
options for form-ideas in glass.
Chihuly has a profound interest in objects whose functional
and aesthetic identities cannot be separated. This is
not to imply that Chihuly has ever really made, or wanted
to make, functional wares. His interest is more akin
to the type of aesthetic concern expressed in the work
of German artist Erwin Eisch, whose glass forms depicted,
in Chihuly's words, "simple functional forms that he
made non-functional," such as a beer stein filled with
permanent foam, or a flower pot with a little cactus, "so
you couldn't put anything into it." But Chihuly takes
the overt references in Eisch's work one step further
toward abstraction and gesture.
Chihuly devises a technical means to replicate not a visual
source itself, but its gestural equivalent in glass.
As his control over the glass grows, the original form
becomes more poetically abstract and implied. The blankets
retained their blanketness, and the Pilchuck baskets
were, at first, simply glass imitations of the Indian
prototypes, submitting to gravity more rapidly, perhaps,
but maintaining direct reference to their source. With
the sea and shell forms, however, Chihuly is moving increasingly
away from the specific toward the abstract. While he
obviously had in mind such characteristically Venetian
concerns as lightness, freedom of shape, and infatuation
with color, Chihuly's recent forms emerge from the depths
of an independent, vital imagination.
He did not set out to base a series on sea creatures; the
name came up because the association was inescapable.
Mesmerized by the perpetual, liquid movement of real
underwater flora and fauna, Chihuly recalls their slow,
somnambulant motion in his gelatinous, tinted forms.
The purity achieved in these works by late 1980 and early
1981 could easily have represented the apex of a lifelong
artistic endeavor - the creation of glass forms so thinly
spun and subtly colored that, as we move around them,
they flicker and vanish, becoming evidence more of light
than of matter. By darkening the glass, so to speak,
as he did in the macchia pieces immediately following
the sea forms, Chihuly reveals his willingness to dive
back under the beauty and into his imagination.
Scanga has likened the macchia pieces to some of Jackson
Pollock's paintings of the late Forties. As always with
Chihuly, any connection should not be discussed as intentional.
In writing about Pollock, Bryan Robertson pointed out
that Pollock's "search for images of the widest possible
reference and implication exactly coincided with his
parallel search for an abstract statement of the utmost
potency and tension ... an abstraction informed and regulated
by the banished imagery... derived from the earlier presence
of the imagery and its movement in space." 2 The statement
could apply equally to Chihuly's current transformations
of "subject matter."
Jamie Carpenter, who is as conceptual an artist as Chihuly
is has said quite simply of Chihuly: "Dale's real forte
is in sensing the value of an idea and executing it In
all its permutations. He has a very good interior sense
of things, so that, intuitively, in setting up an idea
for a form, he develops an idea for its space as well....
He has a sense of the way color changes an environment."
In discussing Chihuly's current work, Carpenter speaks of
"ultimate understanding and continued respect for the vessel....
Dale sees the vessel not as a container, but as an incredible
sort of environment." Like American Indian baskets, especially
those made before their creators had any contact with white
men, Chihuly's vessels exhibit "the patterning and surface
treatment that embodies concept., as opposed to decoration-
that is, objects produced as emblematic totems in which form
and use become indistinguishable .... "
Chihuly, of course, never spells out these relationships.
So in looking at his work, especially as it becomes more
abstract, one either projects personal associations-as
Larsen had done in reading film-like translucent drapery
folds into the ripples -or searches within Chihuly's
own expressed interests for buried sources, whose ultimate
role is to locate the solution of a formal concern in
some real experience.
In his most recent work, Chihuly's primary concern is again
with movement, but the visual expression of this movement
seems as much architectural as organic. In their glaring
brilliance, these pieces suggest the boldest achievements
in the millefiori tradition, but it is a fleeting reference
and not a derivation. Laying color on and within transparent
glass almost sticky wet in appearance, in formations
resembling the rippling striations of some spidery seaweed
or loose skeins of uncarded fiber, Chihuly creates "windows" into
pieces where he had earlier placed surface patterning.
The colors remain intensely saturated, but are transparent
as well. Especially in the white-speckled pieces, much
like exotic eggs, the achievement of a pigment both opaque
and translucent is remarkable and Chihuly is able to
render his forms at once impenetrable and accessible.
There is a sense in these works of the excitement and
magic of a discovery that is as yet to be fully grasped
by its creator.
Perhaps it is the unexplained magic of his work that brings
to mind the words of the Surrealists in trying to describe
Chihuly's art. But it is the Surrealism of Picasso which
best encompasses Chihuly, for Picasso, "... by the recklessness
with which he views art and by the lyric frenzy in which
he works, exemplifies the surrealist precept that art
is not so much the production of an object ... as the
expression of an attitude." 3 As Charles Cowles, Chihuly's
New York dealer, has pointed out, it is in this reliance
on work as the arena for discovery that Chihuly resembles
Picasso. Chihuly's unequivocal commitment to work, his
chronic need to set up "sessions" and to stay in motion,
under- scores Cowles' observation. He is rare among his
peers in doing so much of his experimentation and analysis
in the material, and not the conceptual realm. "The way
I begin to work has to do with setting up circumstances
- the right atmosphere, the right attitudes, the right
people - so that something exciting can happen and you'll
be ready for it. I have to be prolific, because it is
continual output that allows work to develop or change."
Chihuly draws on the inherent power of glass to condition
light so as to envelop the forms and the space they enclose
with an atmosphere that transforms the object from static
representation into an evocative intimation of some phenomenon
sensed in nature or daily life. The "blankets" on the
cylinders wrap around the glass, the Pilchuck baskets
succumb to the same gravitational forces as their time-warped
Indian prototypes, the sea forms alternately ripple,
reflect, and absorb the surrounding air, as jellyfish
swimming in water appear to dissolve into their liquid
surround. Chihuly manages to create entirely different
atmospheric qualities as the pieces themselves change
in color, form, and illusionistic association.
Chihuly plays upon forms, throws out possibilities, until
he lands on some shape, some effect, some moment in the
forming that feels right. Since glass lends itself to
this sort of "stop-action"
or "freezing," that moment translates into an object physically
stopped, but possessed of the illusion of movement that was
Later, when Chihuly assembles groupings or "families" of
pieces, he recalls the seemingly random, unpredictable groupings
of islands in an archipelago or ancient standing stones like
those forming the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney Isles, one
of the haunting monuments which overwhelmed Chihuly when
he first saw them. In these groupings, the precise location
of individual elements derives, not from aesthetic design,
but from geological or spiritual forces that endow the whole
with a meaning, unspecific yet powerfully sensed. Chihuly's
assemblages seem to suggest the same internal necessity.
In his long-standing emphasis on the documentation of both
process and piece, Chihuly participates in a contemporary
concern - one that he shares with artists as opposed
in intention as Robert Smithson, whose site/non-site
analogues often incorporated photo, and later film documentation,
and Christo, who incorporates both pre- and post-event
drawings and documentary films in his artistic endeavors.
Chihuly also has a willingness to embrace the social and
economic realities surrounding the production and dissemination
of his art that counters the stereotypical view of the
artist in opposition to the outside world. He is genuinely
pleased when people like his work. Yet Chihuly's personal
integrity is never in doubt and above all, there is the
integrity of the work itself.
Chihuly never makes work for a specific audience or function,
but once produced, he wants it out, seen, in the hands
of others. Like Houdini, a favorite of his, Chihuly loves
The photographs of Chihuly's glass not only promote his work,
but he also uses his "chromes'," as he calls them in
a more personal way, as a sort of memory. As Fran Merritt
described to Chihuly in a letter, "Where it would be
almost impossible to reproduce the kind of forms you
create, or the conditions in space you arrange for them,
the photo record can theoretically be replicated forever
and ever, extending the original energy and idea to eternal
It does indeed seem that Chihuly, who has never rooted
himself to any one place, uses his photos as a portable history,
extending the time-space of his work for himself, as well
as for others.
The potential for transformation without loss of sensory
impact is one of the marvelous properties of glass. And
Chihuly is a master of transformation, but never of distortion.
Even the new macchia works, no matter how distended in
form or garish in color, always manage to be beautiful
-and not simply because, as Rose Slivka put it, "Beauty
is the nature of the (glass) beast." Yet Chihuly's vessels
- by always maintaining the biological and architectural
association inherent to vessels-are never "merely" beautiful.
Van Gogh observed of Japanese artists that "they live in
nature as though they themselves were flowers."5 Chihuly
is likewise of nature, blowing forms that "suffer a sea-change
into something rich and strange," as Jackson Pollock said
of the foreign objects he placed in a painting on glass.6
Or perhaps, Chihuly is like the lucky mollusk, and his glass
like its shell, once idealized by the French poet Paul
Valéry as "justifying its absolute value by the beauty
and solidity of its form, while remaining unconcerned
with the simple matter of protecting its substance."7
Slivka, Rosa, "A Touch of Glass," Gallery/79, Quest,
September, 1979, p. 84.
Robertson, Bryan, Jackson Pollock London, 1960,
as quoted in Busignani, Alberto, Pollock, Hamlyn
Publishing Group, London., 1970.
Fowlie, Wallace, Age of Surrealism, Indiana University
Press, p. 161. Bréton passage from introduction to Nadja also
partially quoted in Fowlie, but I have used the English
translation of Nadja, published by Grove Press,
Merritt, Fran, Letter to Chihuly written in September,
Van Gogh, Vincent, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
to His Brother: The Complete Letters, Vol.3, p.55,
Johnson, Ellen, Modern Art and the Object, Harper & Row,
Valéry, Paul, as quoted in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics
of Space, Beacon Press, 1969 edition, p.106.
Published in Chihuly: Glass, 1982.
Also by Linda Norden:
Life of Forms: On Dale Chihuly's Glass Baskets, Chihuly
Chihuly: Shell Forms, Arts Magazine, June