The Earthly Delights of the Garden of Glass

Barbara Rose
Gardens and Glass

The greatest living master of the ancient medium of glass, Dale Chihuly has breathed new life into a traditional art form, ensuring its future by creating a third-millennium fine-art expression for an artisanal form invented before the first millennium began. This is a unique accomplishment, which is the result of the unusual mix of talents, risk taking, experimentation, organization, and social interaction that characterizes this visionary artist. Chihuly has the perceptive blend of precision and nonchalance, control and nerve, not only to find new solutions, but also to conceptualize new problems. His obsession with technical innovation, together with a healthy respect for the achievement of past masters, permits him to make a singular contribution to his chosen medium.

Chihuly has single-handedly elevated glass from craft to art. At the same time, he has reconciled glassblowing with the demands of contemporary avant-garde concerns and aesthetics. Emphasizing the inherent characteristics of solid yet transparent glass, he extends its capacity to transmit and reflect vibrant color. Chihuly has observed, and remains true to the fact, that glass is one of the few materials that transmit light and radiate color. Constantly experimenting with the properties and potential of his material, he has developed an extended and novel palette with a broad range and complexity at precisely the moment that color field painting seems to be in decline. His daring permits him to achieve stunning visual effects—indeed, the very optical effects to which recent abstract painting aspires, but which its physical characteristics fail to deliver. The inescapable conclusion is that the transparent, delicate, watercolor-like effects that staining color into canvas achieved, Chihuly delivers in a more immediate and powerful way in glass.

There is a degree of subversion, one must admit, if not perversity, in this unprecedented metamorphosis of glass from handheld, small-scale, liquid-bearing vessels to immense architectural installations of extravagant proportions so enormous we may actually enter them. Mies van der Rohe may have conceived of the glass house as a minimalist transparent box, but there is something intrinsically absurd and fantastic in Chihuly's idea of glass towers, temples, and bridges that reminds one of the architectural extravaganzas of Ludwig, the mad, imaginative king of Bavaria.

Chihuly actively seeks new challenges to stimulate his creativity and imagination. During the 1960s, he first experimented with installations incorporating plate glass, along with ice and neon, in outdoor settings. Much later, again wanting to use glass out-of-doors, as part of nature, he designed a project centered on a river and involving artificial nature, with glass forms hanging from trees or floating in water. Recently he extended the artificial-paradise metaphor to its fullest development in the Garfield Park Conservatory installation in Chicago. Designing this installation was yet another opportunity to push his own limits and those of his medium. One suspects that the great irony of putting a glass garden inside a glass house must also have appealed to his contrarian sense of the bizarre and whimsical.

Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory, a two-acre-long, glassed-in tropical garden, is one of the largest conservatories in the United States. In November 2001, Chihuly created more than thirty glass installations dispersed among the exotic plants, entwined in their branches and trunks, suspended in space, or floating in artificial ponds. Scattered throughout the hothouse, they were identified as Peacock Blue Tower, Persian Pond, Macchia Forest, Basket Forest, End-of-the-Day Palm Tree, Fern Room Niijima Floats, Black Saguaros, Desert House Red Reeds, Ikebana, Venetians, Putti, Tiger Lilies, and Tree Urchins. Most installations contain elements first used in other contexts, but now recontextualized in a site-specific assemblage installation. Glass reeds, fronds, vines, blossoms, bouquets, garlands, a fanciful Art Nouveau Tiffany-type snake, and a whimsical mock Renaissance garden fountain of a toadstool sitting on a turtle topped by a gold glass putto are interspersed with the living botanical displays. The contrast between natural and artificial nature elicits a sense of wonderment and marvel that makes the familiar setting seem altogether new.

Because Chicago is a city Chihuly has always liked, the Garfield Park Conservatory site was particularly appealing. He was especially intrigued by the project because there is water in nearly every room, and he finds subtle ways to interact with it. The variety, profusion, and color of Chihuly's vitreous blossoms, pods, and stalks contrast effectively with those of the myriad natural specimens in the botanical garden gathered from tropical climates for transplantation to the Windy City. Chihuly's creations, however, are products not of nature but of the human imagination. They strike such a resonant chord that we may even imagine a Jungian interpretation. In their spiky protuberances, intense colors, and Medusa-like tentacles, they remind us on the one hand of the surrealistic floral paintings of Joseph Stella, and on the other of the zoomorphic filigrees filling the pages of medieval manuscript illumination as marginalia, and they are products of deep levels of consciousness.

The combination of seduction and glamour at the edge of repulsion has a powerful appeal for a contemporary sensibility formed by the images of science-fiction imagery. Are Chihuly's offbeat humor and quirky view of reality perhaps the product of a zeitgeist that has also produced the perverse subversion of glamour typical of the films of director David Lynch? For example, in the opening scene of Lynch's classic Blue Velvet, the colors of a lawn are surrealistically intensified and strange vegetation suddenly sprouts and expands out of control. Hybrids grow into menacing monsters.

The other image of a supernatural garden that comes to mind is centuries away from Lynch but rather the product of a genuinely Gothic imagination. In the late fifteenth century, Flemish artist Hieronymous Bosch painted the bizarre, unforgettable Garden of Earthly Delights, a hellish picture of the tortures of the damned that is the opposite of the earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden. Bosch combined unlikely hybrid monsters: animals with serpent's tails, fish with animal heads, and others found in medieval bestiaries. No less imaginative in his images of vegetation, he placed among the strange flora in his “pleasure” garden images of humans imprisoned in glass bubbles, suggesting that the magic garden fantasy is deeply embedded in the human psyche as both pleasant dream and recurrent nightmare.

Hieronymous Bosch lived in a time that did not distinguish between art and craft. He painted altarpieces and panels for wealthy clients, but he also designed stained glass, jewelry, furniture, and even grotesque carnival masks. Some of Bosch's images have uncanny echoes in Chihuly's structures. There are, for example, glass towers in Bosch's garden of delights, as well as in his scene of hell in his depiction of the Last Judgment in another altarpiece. The shapes of Bosch's glass globes recall the vials used in alchemy, a popular medieval pursuit dedicated to turning base metal into gold. Because it involves a change in the physical state of matter—from molten liquid to hard crystal—the art of glassblowing is by its nature related to the alchemical experiments of the past. And in one sense it is precisely this metamorphic magical quality that appeals to Chihuly's sensibility. The idea of being a magician has always fascinated him. When Henry Geldzahler, then curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of Chihuly's earliest admirers, asked the artist to whom he felt closest, his answer was Houdini.

The grotesque fantasy and intricacy of Gothic filigree are visibly recalled in the tangle of tendrils in Chihuly's Peacock Blue Tower in the Garfield Park Conservatory. The organic formation of the Peacock Blue Tower is related to the Temple of the Sun, which Chihuly made for the entrance to Atlantis, the Bahamaian resort complex that features a great underwater aquarium. Other installations at the Chicago conservatory recall the various ones brought together in 1995 in the mega-production Chihuly Over Venice, when he transformed the entire Renaissance lagoon city into an outdoor glass museum.

More than a dozen of Chihuly's Ikebana and Venetians are thoughtfully placed throughout the conservatory. Ikebana is the classic form of Japanese flower arrangement based on a refined and reductive aesthetic. As usual, Chihuly gives tradition a fresh interpretation. As he recalls, “Ben Moore organized the teams with Lino Tagliapietra as the maestro. We would bring together anywhere from twelve to eighteen glassblowers and try to do the most extreme pieces that I imagined they would be willing to do. Each session would get more elaborate. The teams kept getting bigger and wilder, and the pieces became more extreme. I would make a drawing and Lino would look at it and shout out a few orders. . . . One thing led to another.”

This seemingly casual, one-thing-led-to-another approach underlies the organic way in which Chihuly works. The stimulus-response nature of his imagination requires constant new challenges to enable him to mutate new forms and techniques that expand the repertoire of both the artist and the medium. Chihuly's taste for exploration and adventure explains why his lifestyle is that of the itinerant nomad. Like the earthwork and site-specific artists and artistic teams such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Chihuly travels the globe in search of stimulating projects that ultimately involve large numbers of other workers. Here the similarity ends, however, because Chihuly interacts with artisans with specialized skills, many of whom he has trained himself. Like his close friend the late Italo Scanga, Chihuly is an inspiring teacher who encourages individuality. For example, Howard Ben Tré and Roni Horn have been among his many students.

In Japan, Chihuly sought out the last living master of blown-glass fishing floats, a traditional Japanese craft that is dying out. The original floats Chihuly made in Japan were simple spheres and glass bubbles. As the size of Chihuly's Niijima Floats increased, so did the installations. He was fascinated with glass floats both because of their association with water and because they are sculptural forms rather than containers or vessels. Tentatively explored by the resident koi fish, the Fern Room Niijima Floats at Garfield Park Conservatory float in and are nestled around the lushly edged pond. The floats are among the largest and most technically difficult things he has done, and they include spheres up to forty inches in diameter.

In their environmental scale, the seemingly floating “water lilies” in the Garfield Persian Pond installation have ancestors in the Niijima Floats. In the Garfield Park Conservatory context, the blossoms on the Persian Pond evoke Claude Monet's gardens in Giverny. They are a witty inversion of Monet's transplantation of real water lilies to a pretend Japanese garden based in turn on the Japanese woodcuts that inspired Monet's paintings. Chihuly's brilliant yellow forms, on the other hand, reflect real light and color, as opposed to translating them into highlights on canvas. This triple inversion, with its multiple implicit referents, lends the Persian Pond installation particular piquancy.

The installation at Garfield Park Conservatory comes almost four decades after Chihuly's first installations, done in 1966 while he was still a student at the University of Wisconsin. In his essentially site-specific but also tender ephemeral earthworks at Artpark, the artist used transparent plate glass, brilliant neon, and ice. In the 1980s, he returned to installation art, and gradually his installations became architectural assemblages, ultimately leading to the often-huge chandeliers of hundreds of glass pieces put together with teams of assistants. In 1992, the Seattle Art Museum exhibited the first of these astonishing chandeliers.

The assemblage aesthetic common to avant-garde sculpture of the 1960s undoubtedly informs Chihuly's work as well. Chihuly has a degree in sculpture, and his knowledge has served him well in designing the armatures to which an infinite combination of glass parts are attached. The emphasis on technology, as well as the interest in site-specific installations, also connects him to his generation, which came of age in the 1960s. The Chandeliers can be seen as science-fiction adaptations of the classical Venetian fixtures that decorate the great palazzi of the Grand Canal. Hung outdoors, they suggest the extravagance and luxury of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. These great crystalline constructions can weigh as much as 2,500 pounds, and, through time, the hundreds of individual glass pieces attached to steel armatures have become increasingly phantasmagoric. The image of an explosion of crystals is decidedly contemporary as well as central to Chihuly's personal style.

Blurring art categories is another legacy of the experimental spirit of the 1960s. Often the most dramatic changes are recognized only in retrospect. Hieronymous Bosch, for example, was still a member of a guild, but his Italian contemporary Leonardo da Vinci was preaching the autonomy and superiority of painting as a strictly conceptual art. Today, the elimination of the distinctions between the “uselessness” of high art and the “usefulness” of furniture, vessels, and porcelain has erased the distinction between the fine and decorative arts, proclaiming autonomy and individual expressiveness as the right of the sculptors who use clay or glass as material as much as of the painter. By the same token, photography and film, formerly considered minor arts, are now on equal footing with the “major” arts.

After several decades of interdisciplinary art, the division between art and craft, like that between the major and minor arts, now seems dead. No one asks any longer if ceramists Robert Arneson, Kenneth Price, or Peter Voulkos are sculptors. What they have done for clay, Chihuly has done for glass. Indeed, he has gone even further in reconciling what has been thought of as a craft material by making entire installations in glass that go beyond sculpture into architecture.

Chihuly could not himself have broken through so many of these boundaries if he were not a voyager in the broadest sense. The only way to understand the meanderings of Chihuly's life is as an odyssey, an adventure of discovery. Part Homer's wandering Odysseus and part Ken Kesey's Merry Prankster, he took a minor art and reinterpreted it through conventions of major art of the avant-garde, without sacrificing what made historical art exciting and popular. His reinterpretation of tradition and his admixtures of disciplines and conventions are characteristics of the most significant art of our time, from Jasper Johns's and Robert Rauschenberg's symbiosis of painting with printmaking to Frank Stella's recombinations of printmaking with painting projected to an architectural scale as theatrical decor.

Chihuly's road to mastery of his medium and the development of personal style took many unexpected turns. In 1961, at age twenty, he wrote a term paper on Vincent van Gogh and first melted and fused stained glass as a naive experiment while a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1965, he began experimenting on his own in his basement studio and blew his first glass bubble by melting that stained glass and using a metal pipe. To earn money for graduate school, he worked as a fisherman in Alaska the following year and then won a full scholarship to the graduate school of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Harvey Littleton had started the first glass program in the United States.

In many respects, Littleton played a similar role to that of June Wayne, who set up the Tamarind workshop to train the first American master printers in the European tradition. Up until 1957-58, when Littleton visited the island of Murano, the traditional techniques of Venetian glassblowing were well-guarded secrets within the clannish glassblowing community in Venice.

Chihuly studied glassblowing with Littleton and received a master's degree in sculpture in 1967 from Wisconsin. He decided to enroll at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, and there he began his experiments in outdoor works using neon, argon, and blown glass. At RISD he received a prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant for work in glass.

The turning point in Chihuly's life came in 1968, when he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Venice. He was able to learn the traditional techniques of Venetian glassblowing, but, above all, he absorbed a spirit of teamwork, which inspired him to return to the United States to train teams of young artisans and to grow and improvise along with them.

While Venice was a first love, Chihuly also loves Ireland (his own background is Hungarian and Czech on his father's side and Swedish and Norwegian on his mother's). At times he has displayed the leprechaun's mischievousness, ignoring rules and jumping over boundaries. However, he understands that to break the rules, you first have to know what they are. His discoveries made after fully mastering various disciplines recall the words of painter John Graham: “No tradition, no revolution.” Having mastered the tradition, he is now in a position to transform it.

Chihuly's extravagant sensibility has antecedents in nineteenth-century Romanticism. His fantastic shimmering spectacles recall Samuel Taylor Coleridge's description of the stately pleasure palace of Kubla Khan in Xanadu. The tales of the German Romantic author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann are another example of the Gothic imagination that feeds from Romanticism to Surrealism and science fiction. All have in common a taste for the marvelous and the unearthly—what the German Romantics called the Unheimlich, or the uncanny. Chihuly's style as it evolved has become increasingly supernatural and Romantic, filling more and more space with delirious decoration worthy of Gustav Klimt's Viennese Secession architectural projects.

Chihuly himself refuses to assume intellectual postures or to theorize about his thinking. There is a major element of fantasy in Chihuly's work that separates him from the literalness of minimal art. For this reason, his work stands in contrast to contemporary currents of art such as site-specificity of earthworks and the literalness of minimal art, which requires that what was once illusory in painting and sculpture like light, color, and shape now becomes literal and united. On the other hand, his work seeks to resolve a perpetual problem for modernist painting. Ever since Thomas Wilfred invented the Lumia Box, a light box filled with changing colors, the idea that the canvas support needed somehow to become transparent to free color and light from materialism has haunted painting.

The dream of disembodied color and form floating on a transparent ground has been a common thread in modern painting as it sought to become increasingly abstracted from matter. Marcel Duchamp, in his Large Glass, resolved the problem of suspended forms in space by inlaying metallic forms into transparent glass, but he did not deal with the problem of color. Jackson Pollock's painting on glass was an attempt to render the support transparent so that drawing would seem to be suspended in air. The painting was an experiment made for Hans Namuth's 1951 film of Pollock painting. Pollock himself did not repeat the effort, but one senses when seeing videos of Chihuly working that he was influenced by Namuth's film. Namuth revealed how Pollock's pouring, spilling, and spattering “drip” process became the permanent record on canvases of an immediate and spontaneous, though controlled, experience. The idea that intuition and spontaneity should not be obstructed is an article of faith for Chihuly. Increasingly he has come to emphasize that glass takes on its permanent form gradually; its shape can be modified during the process of its creation.

Every aspect of Chihuly's creativity was tested in 1995, when he embarked on the major multifaceted international project Chihuly Over Venice. He worked in glass factories in Finland, Ireland, and Mexico, and the resultant sculptures were installed over the canals and piazzas of Venice. Revisiting Venice, where he had begun his career as an apprentice, Chihuly, now a mature master, set out to prove that glass not only can take on architectural dimension, it can also transform outdoor space. Festooning the canals with chandeliers that took the conventions of the fixtures inside the palazzi to cinematic proportions, he magically reversed interior and exterior.

The preparations for his triumphant return to Venice began in Nuutajärvi, Finland. Then he and his team traveled to the Waterford factory in Ireland, famous for fine crystal, before moving on to Monterrey, Mexico, where popular colored glass is produced. In Venice in 1996, he combined the disparate talents of his team to assemble the cumulative shipments arriving from Mexico, Ireland, and Finland. The shapes were as unexpected and varied as forms found in nature. The history of the material, from molten liquid to permanent solid, is preserved in the organic crystalline and large sculptures.

Four years after Venice, Chihuly assembled what was up to that time his most ambitious and complex installations, Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000. More than a million people visited the installations within the stone walls of the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem. As a thank-you to the people of Jerusalem, he also created a sixty-four-ton Wall of Ice echoing the ancient walls, and he hoped tensions there might melt away as his ice wall did—in three days.

For all of his projects, including the most ambitious such as Venice and Jerusalem, Chihuly has always started with drawings that give the general sense of the look and concept of the work to be produced by the studio. In making his drawings, he stands above a surface that is laid on the ground, working as Pollock did, directly from the tube of pigment or spattering and pouring. From these spontaneous sketches, he and assistants begin to blow glass elements that will eventually be assembled in the large-scale installations. He combines professionalism with play, and the results are both delightfully playful and impressively professional.

Chihuly works with the environment and the site, and the forms come out of the process of that interaction. He claims to “listen to the glass” in order to take best advantage of its capacities to permit color to fade and disappear into pure light. He brings a pragmatic American attitude about speed, efficiency, and technological innovation to an ancient art form in order to create miraculous new effects.

Chihuly has no set of rigid or prior rules. Clearly he is amused by his creations, and his intention is to share this pleasure with others. There is an element of “action painting,” and he is convinced that materials discover artists, not vice versa. He operates like the medieval master builder, depending on teams of artisans to realize his overall concept while permitting them liberties of personal interpretation that destroy uniformity and repetition. He does not seek perfection but the expression of energy, both his own and that of his team. “The more I do,” he says, “the more I can do. I take ideas from everybody and ultimately draw my own conclusion. I don't think, I just work, and I try to do what feels right.”

Chihuly's magical mystery tour has taken him from objects to environments, from inside to outside, from decoration to revelation. The shapes that are created or discovered become as unexpected and varied as natural forms. The history of the material from its molten liquid to its solid state is preserved in Chihuly's forms, giving his glass pieces a contemporary inflection. He twists and bends eccentric shapes, which grow complex and quirky, wildly imaginative and often contradictory in their forms and functions.

Even at home in Seattle, Chihuly is everywhere at once. Like a coach cheering on the team, he instructs, cajoles, directs, and encourages individual interpretation of the thousands of elements that make up the installations he has conceived. In the studio, the sound system alternates songs from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album with arias from Italian opera.

In City of Glass, novelist Paul Auster describes the fantasy of a crystal city. Chihuly appears to be gearing up to realize that fantasy. He is about to realize yet another correlation between glass and water in his tour de force for the entry to Tacoma, Washington's new Museum of Glass. The Chihuly Bridge of Glass will form a pedestrian link between downtown Tacoma's Pacific Avenue and the new museum. The bridge's 500-foot span includes effects that are lavish and powerful. “I do what I feel like doing,” Chihuly explains. “I don't think about good or bad taste, or politically correct strategies.” One has the sense that what Chihuly really seeks to do is to surprise himself.

There are periods when revolutionary personalities, because of their ethical rejection of human bloodshed, cannot express themselves in actual revolutions. This is essentially what happened to the generation of 1968, whose most irresponsible members chose terrorism while its finest minds turned to art and other creative modalities that they hoped would change the world. Whether, in the end, their public projects and ephemeral installations are more than diversions or advertisements for their sponsors, it is too soon to say. However, we can see that they represent a rebirth of the forms of festivities that brought the works of the great masters of art, design, theater, and opera to the public as part of the outdoor festivals that medieval lords shared with their subjects.

Today, scholars are finally turning their attention from the so-called major art forms—painting, sculpture, and architecture—to elucidate the significant historical role of the “luxury arts”: the tapestries, embroideries, jewelry, and furniture designs, as well as the ephemeral multimedia spectacles that were their public parallel.

The destruction of hierarchies among the arts and of the line separating the fine arts from guild crafts may strike a blow at Leonardo da Vinci's theories, but it may also reflect larger currents in today's global culture. This emergent global culture demands grand scale and impressive installations as symbols of cities, institutions, and enterprises. These projects reflect not the Renaissance view of the individual genius agonizing in isolation but rather the collective projects of the Middle Ages that were, as it turned out, far more democratic. It is more than possible that ours is a moment that once again, for various social, cultural, political, and economic reasons, permits forms of artisanship to combine with painting, sculpture, and architecture in dramatic collective communal undertakings under the direction of a master builder.

Certainly an artist like Dale Chihuly is at the forefront of this new fusion of the arts and of the arts with technology. Yet when he speaks of his work, there is something of the innocent expression on the face of the boy in Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's famous painting of the Boy Blowing Bubbles. Blowing bubbles is, of course, a metaphor for dreaming. Dale Chihuly has made the bubbles real and tangible in fantasy environments that delight and enchant in ways that stimulate others to dream.

Published in Chihuly Gardens & Glass, Portland Press, 2002

Also from Chihuly Gardens & Glass:
A Garden of Glass, Lisa C. Roberts
Chihuly Under Glass, Mark McDonnell

Also by Barbara Rose:
Dale Chihuly's Paradise Regained,Chihuly Projects, 2000.