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The Life of Forms: On Dale Chihuly’s Glass Baskets

The Life of Forms: On Dale Chihuly’s Glass Baskets

1994 | Linda Norden
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The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration.

--Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space1

Anyone at all familiar with Dale Chihuly’s work knows that the individual glass objects he creates represent only isolated moments in a complex creative continuum. Like stills or out-takes from an endless film loop, a given Basket or Cylinder or Float is as much an image as it is an object—a reference to all the forms that precede and follow it, to the action and process that go into its making and to the intuitive form-idea, which is its origin. Chihuly’s fondness for obsessively photographing his glass and his eagerness to have it described in words are only corollaries of his habit of nesting and stacking and gathering pieces into astonishing accumulations and his predilection for further enlarging these accumulations through their lighting and installation. Taken together, these “exaggerations” do indeed work to create a sense of wonder, if only by allowing permutation to read as possibility.

This helps to explain the popularity of Chihuly’s art, a widespread appeal that Chihuly has mistakenly attributed to the glass itself, to its “accessibility” and inherent magic: “People for centuries have been fascinated with glass,” he has said. “It's the most magical of materials.”2 But this explanation doesn’t do justice to the more uncanny aspects of his art or to its excess and energy. And it fails to account for the hundreds of glass objects that incite no magic at all. There is something more complex at stake here, a visceral presence that encourages metaphoric description even as it eludes explanation. In an age characterized by the “always already,” Chihuly manages to transform appropriation into invention and, in so doing, to bypass irony, instilling a belief in the life of form itself.

Chihuly’s talent, however, has not won universal acclaim. If he has been well served by a broad public and, more recently, by a number of formalist critics—those who would, as Walter Darby Bannard recently put it, “...take the work as it is, as an unconditional aesthetic object”3 —he has also been held suspect by those self-styled art world cognoscenti who tend to distrust both form and formalism and to value art less for its presence than for what it might portend. Chihuly’s prolific output and energy alone arouse suspicion among some; the apparent accessibility and seductiveness of the objects seem only to make things worse.4

In fact, neither Chihuly’s most ardent supporters nor those who would happily dismiss him have managed to account for the alchemy he regularly enacts or his penchant for strange beauty and for willfully dysfunctional forms that nevertheless retain a vestige of their functional or symbolic source.

Now that Chihuly’s series have begun to loop back on themselves; now that forms once distinct are begetting hybrids, we can move away, I think, from the technical analyses, elaborate metaphors and ever-expanding web of description with which Chihuly surrounds his work. Chihuly’s achievement has only partially to do with his ability to exploit the inherent properties of glass; only partially to do with the abstract, plastic richness of his aesthetic; only partially to do, even, with his love of spectacle. Buried within these talents is an instinct for significant form. It is as if Chihuly’s first language is a language of form, as if he reads the world in terms of its format potential. He is one of the few artists working today whose forms “mean” most effectively as form.

This is not only because he seems to understand intuitively how certain simple form-ideas might catalyze a new body of material and technical explorations. Even more impressive is his ability to recognize not just the aesthetic but the symbolic potential in what, for most of us, would appear to be only arbitrary or circumstantial phenomena—the Northwest Native American baskets collapsing under their own weight, a few eccentric remnants of Venetian Art Deco glass, even the generalized underwater creatures that helped him give shape to his series of Seaforms. The resulting glasswork manifests something more than a collision of art and craft preoccupations, especially once the forms are deployed in real space. What this “something” might owe to, however, is precisely what most of the writing on Chihuly fails to address. At the same time, Chihuly’s success in limiting viewers and critics alike to the terms he sets out within his art may explain the pleasure with which such formalist critics as Walter Darby Bannard and Hilton Kramer have begun to celebrate him.

But, as I hope to make apparent here, I have never believed the significance of Chihuly’s glasswork lies soley in its material or format self-referentiality.

This essay is in part a response to the challenge that a formalist appreciation (such as Walter Darby Bannard’s) presents, an attempt to question what beyond the glass itself enables Chihuly to spin his web.5

Chihuly himself frequently seems anxious to explain various aspects of his work, if only better to understand it, or himself, and to clear space for something new.

Chihuly himself frequently seems anxious to explain various aspects of his work, if only better to understand it, or himself, and to clear space for something new. But his efforts to identify sources or methods remain partial at best. Missing amidst the many fits and starts of explanation is any sustained search for critical context. The writing that follows represents the first steps of just such a search. It is an “essaie” in the French sense of that word: an unabashedly personal effort to reconsider just what Chihuly’s rather maverick art entails and to evaluate his paradoxical position vis-à-vis the contemporary art world in which he works.

That Chihuly’s art is deeply rooted in traditions of the decorative is obvious, though for all his commitment to glass, his craft has little to do with the “truth to materials” of either European or American Arts and Crafts. His aesthetic debt to Art Nouveau is far greater. We sometimes forget that the traversing of media so central to twentieth-century art really begins with this European turn-of-the-century celebration of the decorated environment. In the all-encompassing aestheticism of such artists as Henry van de Velde, C.R. Mackintosh, Adolf Loos or Antonio Gaudi, to name only some of its more celebrated practitioners, Art Nouveau manifests itself as an eccentrically organic style, which, when joined to an obsessive “will to decorate” urbane spaces, works to break down barriers between “applied” and “fine” arts and between nature and culture. All of this can be said of Chihuly’s enterprise. But Chihuly carries the decorative impulses of Art Nouveau aesthetics even further into the realm of non-functional art. For one thing, his insistently collaborative working methods make him at once less and more an auteur or signature craftsman than, say, a Louis Comfort Tiffany or an Emile Gallé. For another, he relies, in ways that have yet to be explored, on conceptual and presentational strategies directly identified with the post-war art world.

Chihuly has sometimes compared his engagement of the glass-blowing process to film making. Curiously, he does not use the analogy to describe his role as a “director” of the action but to liken his use of a given concept to a director’s use of a script—and the analogy seems an obviously apt one with which to explain what takes place while he orchestrates the glass blowing.6 But the comparison does not accurately account for the outcome of these sessions: Chihuly’s glass forms, even in their most dramatic installations or reproduction, lack any semblance of narrative or of the linear, frame-by-frame, space-time movement inherent to the medium of film.

A more consistent parallel, given his training in architecture and interior design, might be drawn between Chihuly’s use of a particular image-concept and the architect's “parti”—a powerful form-idea used to generate a scheme for a structure or a site. Unlike a working drawing or design, a “parti” need not have a fixed form, and it can be returned to repeatedly as the architect attempts to specify the precise contours, dimensions and plans of a building. The analogy can be extended to the relationship between a given Chihuly concept and the forms it inspires in that, as with the more functionally specific architectural plans, which follow from a “parti,” the actual glass objects, which Chihuly’s team fashions during a given blowing session are conditioned not only by the concept but by technical, material and functional considerations. And to some extent, the viewer’s kinesthetic and space-bound experience of the finished glass forms, especially in Chihuly’s site-specific installations, is closer to the experience of an architectural space than to that of a scripted film.

But this may just be quibbling. If Chihuly’s cinematic working process results in something other than narrative form or content, the architectural/design analogy is only marginally more satisfying.7 Both reflect a broad-brush stab at explanation. What these analogies do throw into relief, however, is the type of control Chihuly exerts over both his creative project and its perception. By continually finding ways to dominate not just the conditions of production but the contexts for reception that he creates for his artistic output, without ever specifying any didactic content, Chihuly has managed to deflect and resist art world categorization, even as he exploits a number of conceptual strategies that owe directly to the contemporary art world within which he works. But ironically, it is through his success at decontextualizing his oeuvre, exempting himself, as it were, from the usual lines of art criticism and historical analysis, that Chihuly has prevented his art from gaining a certain level of recognition.

Consider the wealth of writing addressed to Chihuly’s work. Clearly, his glass invites description: The eccentricity and extremity of its beauty alone challenge verbal response. And Chihuly further encourages writing by continually inviting authors to address specific series or aspects of his work. Yet there is a curious absence of any serious probing for context. Virtually all the discussions of Chihuly’s art are limited to only two modes of writing: description (of form or process) and chronological account (of the evolution of a particular series or working method). Random biographical facts and anecdotes are often spliced into the mix. Chihuly seems to relish these largely descriptive stabs at literary recapitulation and formal explication. He routinely sifts through the writings addressing his work and gathers the most piquant verbalizations into mosaics of text, an activity that echoes his use of his “chromes” or extensive collection of slides, photos and transparencies, which, as I alluded to above, extend the life of the forms that inspired them and fuel the creative “loop” that is Chihuly’s art.8

These habits of documentation, then, become as much a part of the work as the collaboration and installation, which Chihuly more openly acknowledges as central. His 1993 book Chihuly: Form from Fire for example, is composed almost entirely of just such a collaging of descriptive quotations from earlier reviews and texts joined with the now familiar procession of spectacular photos of individual glass groupings, details and installation shots and prefaced by two eloquent introductory essays, each of which [re]tells a story of the evolution of Chihuly and his glass.

The directness and lack of pretense in these accounts, especially Chihuly’s own, can be refreshing. Chihuly’s insistence on the role of intuition and fortuitous accident—not just for himself but for those who work with and for him—and his delight in the continual “surprise” of the processes he engenders, all seem ingenuous enough, especially on first reading. Eventually, though, the writing and re-writing of "The Chihuly Story" results in a type of mythologizing, or conflation of biography and artistic evolution, which is all the more mythic for its self-referentiality and autonomy. The fastidiousness with which Chihuly seeks to record his endeavors begins to read as an obsessive need to hunt down his own [larger] purpose. Perhaps this is why even a self-proclaimed formalist critic, such as Bannard, allows that he ‘finds himself’ writing about Chihuly as much as about his glass."9

... and driven with such an obsessive desire to mount the sky he soon proved himself to be a true pilot.

Patti Smith, Ha! Ha! Houdini!10

Bannard is hardly alone in coming up against the inextricability of Chihuly and his art. This is a truth so inescapable as to have become a truism. His presence is manifest in every aspect of his work: as inspiration and director; through images and voice; in the prominence of signature and signature style, even in pieces blown by others. But it is also true that in spite of an almost unanimous acknowledgment of Chihuly’s presence in his work, almost none of the writing addressed to his work can be said to analyze that presence at the level of psychology, or even to probe the relationship between his art and persona.

If these circumventions at first appear to be successfully subsumed by Chihuly’s untiring passion for, and exploitation of, glass as medium—which should make his art an ideal subject for formalist analysis—Bannard's admission would seem to underscore how much more Chihuly's forms are asked to carry than the message of medium alone. When I began planning this essay, I thought I would address just this problem—that is, the way Chihuly's art both attracts and resists formalist criticism—by using Chihuly to confound Clement Greenberg’s infamous opposition of “Avant-garde” and “Kirsch.” Chihuly, I planned to argue, managed to fashion forms that were both. I have not entirely abandoned that thinking, but responding to Bannard’s observation has led me to a different point.

Chihuly’s glass forms, while seeming to manifest perfectly a number of Greenberg’s criteria for successful, abstract, “avant-garde” art—most obviously, “a turning in upon the medium of his craft”—are ultimately “impure.” Rather, it is Chihuly himself, or his presentation of himself and his project, who demands to be treated as valid solely on his own terms. And in this sense, Greenberg’s aesthetic, media-based formalism fails to adequately account for the art. Instead, what Greenberg (in the same essay) claimed to be impossible—the creation of “forms given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals... [and of] content dissolved so completely into form that the work of art cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything but itself”—becomes a near-perfect description of the kind of direct expression Chihuly seems to be after.11 Moreover, by controlling the presentation of his art as completely as he does, he leads us to assume that the eccentricity of his work makes any historicizing or contextualizing of it seem somewhat beside the point. Even when he acknowledges the role of certain non-glass sources in giving definition to a given series—“natural” forms such as the marine life that gave added meaning to his Seaforms, “cultural” forms such as the baskets or an Italian chandelier, the architectural parameters of a given installation space—Chihuly somehow manages to ignore his engagement with the art or art history of his time.12 Yet one could probably learn a great deal about Chihuly’s projected presence in his art and ways he enlarges the impact of his medium-bound craft by examining more closely his relation to his contemporaries and not-so-distant predecessors.

One could argue, for example, that Chihuly’s mode of artistic expression has direct roots in American Abstract Expressionism.

One could argue, for example, that Chihuly’s mode of artistic expression has direct roots in American Abstract Expressionism. Certainly his intuitive grasp of the power residing in such functional totems as the Native American baskets he glimpsed at the Washington State Historical Museum reveals a rather profound understanding of one Abstract Expressionist quest, namely the search for a universal language of “significant form.” (Here, Adolph Gottlieb’s intellectualized appropriation of Northwest Native American pictographs offers a rather close precedent to Chihuly’s use of the original historic baskets in the fashioning of his own Basket series.) But beyond any temperamental parallels that might be drawn between Chihuly’s and Gottlieb’s or Pollock’s expressive urges, there is no artist working today who has more fully absorbed Hans Namuth’s contribution to Pollock’s popularization—that is, the idea of the creative act as a “kinesthetic spectacle,” an effect achieved not by the work alone but by the recording of the “action” of its making.13

At the same time, both Chihuly’s sophisticated exploitation of his medium—his experimental amalgamations of both traditional and high-tech glass-making processes—and his obsession with documentation and reception point to the period during which he came of age as an artist. Chihuly’s earliest mature work dates from the transitional years between the late sixties and early seventies in which a Minimalist commitment to industrial processes in the fabrication of original structures evolves into a pervasive Post-Minimalist preoccupation with documentation, mediated actions and a general approach that treats form as a record of something other than itself. What distinguishes Chihuly’s engagement of these Post-Minimalist strategies, however, is the fact that the objects he displays and deploys are both a record of a prior action—the collaborative “happening” of the glass-blowing session in which they get made—and unique, precious objects in their own right.

For if Chihuly’s intuition for expressive and symbolic form link him to the search for a totemic form-language that motivated such first-generation Abstract Expressionist artists as Gottlieb or Pollock, his working habits could not be more different. Though he has managed to retain the status of the independent artist, Chihuly’s insistence on collaboration blows the Romantic myth of the artist as alienated, tragic figure. Moreover, by fashioning his totemic forms in such a way that they also exhibit a Minimalist self-consciousness about materials and process and a Post-Minimalist fascination with entropy, the collapse of structure and chaos, Chihuly “problematizes” his aesthetic and contaminates the pure or direct symbolic humanism associated with Abstract Expressionist painting.

For example, in ways that both foreshadow and overtake the Duchampian post-modern tactics of such contemporary artists as Tony Cragg or Haim Steinbach, he delights in subverting the intended “use-value” of a given form, in “making the functional dysfunctional” without ever entirely abandoning the reference to function.14 But Chihuly’s thinking along these lines is closer to his glass-making contemporary Erwin Eisch, by whom he may have been directly inspired (or to, say, Richard Artschwager), than it is to Cragg or Steinbach, in that the forms he showcases are made and not found. On the other hand, they lack any of the “funk” aspect of these artists’ intentionally humorous objects. What Chihuly offers is something at once more sustaining and less ironic than the recycled industrial objects of a Steinbach or even the punning forms of an Eisch or Artschwager, yet more unsettling than the elegantly tragic canvases of Gottlieb. By blurring the boundaries between object and image, appropriated and invented form, abstraction and reference, material presence and conceptual form-idea, above all, between nature and artifice, Chihuly in some ways has managed to go the contemporary art world one better—to have his artistic cake and eat it, too.15

Perhaps the part of Chihuly’s artistic enterprise that most resists description is the dynamic of the actual blowing sessions. Chihuly himself often fixes on the glass shop at the Rhode Island School of Design, which Chihuly developed and ran for most of that decade, was probably the school’s most volatile, experimental and avant-garde oasis.16 And the iconoclastic, high-risk charge of that arena has remained central to Chihuly’s working method. He has long functioned as human catalyst, luring others—whose talents enlarge his own—into the production of forms they cannot possibly anticipate. Chihuly can give the impression of inevitability when describing the evolution of his glass forms, as if one thing leads to another and, eventually, a series emerges.17 This is deceptive. But it is nevertheless true that there is as much magic in his power as catalyst as any inherent to the glass. In this sense too, Chihuly is the medium. Like Harry Houdini, one of his childhood heroes, Chihuly “pilots”: He doesn't so much trick as seduce. And he knows that magic, or the expectation of magic, itself incites wonder. Unlike Houdini’s, however, Chihuly’s acts of magic are produced collaboratively. His greatest feat may well be his ability to sustain a belief among those he works with—and himself—in the ritual power of collaboration, which makes any one artistic decision or object only a manifestation of some larger creative force.

Of course, the magic of the making is also conveyed in the individual pieces that remain as residues of the action and in the placements with which Chihuly reinvents both action and form. My point is simply that Chihuly’s installations add to the lure of his individual vessels or groupings, not as installations per se, but because they function as a type of inverse non-site—references not to an absent artwork but to an absent activity—to the time, place and action that went into their making. When they are successful, they also refer to the sense of wonder that accompanies the moment of transformation—of molten mass into solid form—that is the magic of glass-as-craft and glass-as-art.

You don't paint the way someone, by observing your life, thinks you have to paint, you paint the way you have to in order to give, and someone will look and say it is the product of knowing, but it has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving. -Dale Chihuly

Franz Kline18

At the moment, Chihuly's oeuvre seems to be developing in two distinct modes, both of which draw on long-standing preoccupations: the erotically anthropomorphic and atavistic power of the vessel and treatment of architecture as environment. As Jamie Carpenter, Chihuly’s earliest collaborator, astutely observed some years ago, these two formal modes are really extensions of each other:

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 .... Ultimately, [his work reveals] his understanding and continued respect for the vessel, not as a container, but as an incredible sort of environment.19

Consider an installation of Chihuly’s recent Basket series at the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York. The invitation for this show featured a spectacular image: a huge canary-yellow Chandelier hanging nonchalantly in all its ridiculous splendor from the low ceiling of Chihuly’s Seattle studio, the Boathouse, the overgrown rotelli-shaped projectiles of glass competing with a subtle fogged-in vista of bridge-over-water behind a stretch of window and wood. Beneath the Chandelier, lined up on the floor along the window-wall, a series of German, paper, carnival masks compounded the poignancy of the image.

This degree of juxtaposition—in which Chihuly manages to make the absurd beautiful and the beautiful sublime—is, I think, an accurate reflection of the way he visualizes “form and its space,” the way he thinks and invents.

This degree of juxtaposition—in which Chihuly manages to make the absurd beautiful and the beautiful sublime—is, I think, an accurate reflection of the way he visualizes “form and its space,” the way he thinks and invents. This is why so much of the effect of Chihuly’s work depends on reading his glass objects as part of a dazzling, dramatic process, as traces of time stopped or action frozen. This is why, too, so much depends on our ability to reinsert individual forms into the continuum from which they emerge. And this may also be why when that effort fails—when forms remain just forms—they have the effect of stage props deprived of lights, actors and action.

In the case of this New York installation, something curious happened: Two truly spectacular objects—a bright blue and a chartreuse Chandelier much like that featured on the invitation—somehow failed to incite the magic or uncanny drama promised in the photographic juxtaposition that had announced them. Chihuly’s placement of a low steel table beneath each Chandelier—he is extremely concerned about the safety of viewers—was also distracting, killing some of the allure of the unrestrained glass by forcing us to look down rather than up. And in different ways, the presence of daylight and of two Chandeliers in such close proximity undermined the intensity of Chihuly’s always unexpected color and of the “ego-centric” quality of an object this exotic.

The problem was not with the Chandeliers themselves—witness the sensational installation of the 1994 Cobalt Blue Chandelier at Tacoma’s Union Station—but with their seeming homelessness here. A radically different experience was provided by Chihuly’s tremendously moving presentation of his new Baskets in the other rooms of the gallery. The contrast serves to point up the profound differences between Chihuly’s various series and between objects that require carefully orchestrated, dramatic installations to heighten their associative power and those in which the context, as it were, is inherent to the form itself.

In the main room of the gallery, a very dramatic procession of out-sized nested Baskets, all in an impossibly pure, transparent cadmium red, sat imposingly atop a number of simple black steel stands. One’s first impression here was of a gathering of light and glow, so that in searching for a way to read “basket,” one could only come up with “container” of breath and of color and of light. As with the Seaforms, these are objects that both celebrate and dematerialize the stuff of their making. They manifest another kind of Chihuly magic, one that does indeed rely on his exploitation of the material properties of glass. These are forms that truly make us wonder: whether the glass gathers the light or the light gathers as form.

But this material magic can also read as a blurring of object and illusion. The actual lighting of each group was highly controlled: It appeared as self-conscious as the forms appeared inevitable. The combined effect of the orange and red shadows projected by the various groupings and the deep gray darkness of the surrounding space so closely resembled Chihuly’s photographs of his work—those with black backgrounds and doubling reflections—that it worked to collapse the sense of real space and volume entirely. One could as easily have been looking at transparencies, at images rather than objects. But if one looked into these groupings of Baskets rather than at them, new worlds opened up and one could lose oneself to the seduction of forms within forms within forms.

It was only in the last and smallest room that one stumbled upon an entirely different aura and a different quality of object and space. The sense here was of objects found, tiny worlds, intimate. Chihuly continues to affirm the power of the vessel—a form he often describes as one that “wants to leave a hole”—and it is in his smallest groupings and occasional isolated baskets that the full force of this richly associative form is best captured. It is here too that one feels most the presence of the artist, or rather, that private presence of the artist that we often conjure in front of a still life painting, and where we imagine ourselves feeling what the artist felt at the moment of creation.

And of all the series that Chihuly has pursued, it is in the Basket series—both early and late—that this sensation of private discovery and of unspecified meaning is strongest. The urge to describe the Baskets individually is hard to resist. One wants to spend time specifying the colors—differentiating not just between a brilliant buttercup yellow and a deep cadmium red but between the endless variations of exquisitely subtle ambers and caramels and beiges and between degrees of translucence and opacity—as well as the nuanced attention to shape and juxtaposition in the groupings. One wants to make broader distinctions between the earlier and later series, noting, for example, that if the early baskets exhibited more complex surface patterns and contrast between interior and exterior (as in an unusually opaque, even speckled one) which intimate more directly the materials we associate with those made of fiber, the later versions play on a more figurative notion of basket as containing form. By exploiting the liquid translucence he first explored in his Seaforms and burying numerous smaller forms within these newer Baskets, Chihuly forces our gaze from the surface through to the interior: We penetrate these vessels not via their openings but via the glass itself.

There are also numerous transitional or hybrid Baskets that play surface pattern against this exploitation of translucence, such as one whose rich amber border—replete with the appearance of darker glass “stitches” and a continuous thread of teal-green—appears to disintegrate into nothing as if it were suspended magically on a bowl of air. And there is a luminous, colorless, milky white Baskets from 1979 that stands apart. Here, untypically, since most of Chihuly’s Baskets exhibit the slumped asymmetry with which he sought to emulate the collapsing fiber originals, Chihuly offers a nearly symmetrical form, with an unusually even lip in the same translucent white of the vessel and only a pale brown wisp of diagonally trailing thread to throw off the near-perfect balance. Like the newer, larger, more vibrant groupings of cadmium-red Baskets at Cowles, however, this Basket edges toward the formal effects which Chihuly chose to isolate and pursue independently in his Seaform series—the impossible thinness and liquid translucence of glass, the allusion to living rather than made form, the unabashed and unsullied beauty that only glass, and only glass handled this well, can carry.

Because of these traits, the Seaforms remain at once Chihuly’s most popular series and the one for which critics hold him most to task. It is as if they are too elegant, too beautiful, too pure. And yet, what most of Chihuly’s more “sophisticated” critics (those who read “ugly” as more serious than “pretty”) fail to acknowledge is that it was in the Seaforms that Chihuly first summoned a natural source, first seized on the anthropomorphic aspects of his vessels, first really exploited that Surrealist predilection for “gossamer.” Where the Baskets summon a people and a culture, the Seaforms invoke nature—as the medium for living form—directly.

But it is still the Baskets, with their powerful cultural allusion and their grasp of an abstract, expressive formal language, which resonate most symbolically in and of themselves within Chihuly’s oeuvre. As isolated objects, only his Baskets succeed in convincingly transferring Chihuly’s own love of marvel and discovery, his own intuition for forms that bespeak something mysterious and resistant to verbal explanation.20 Chihuly’s peripatetic nature and insatiable visual hunger—he continues to sniff out forms as disparate as the stones of the Ring of Bodger and an eccentric Italian Art Deco chandelier—seem to nourish him personally and to fuel the development of his own formal lexicon. If he senses in such objects the power of a relic to summon a history, what he takes from them is a form-idea capable of generating new forms.

The intimate quality so evident in many of Chihuly’s early Baskets and Seaforms has been somewhat eclipsed of late by a number of huge projects he has undertaken and by his current preoccupation with scale and the limits of scale in the glass itself. Such mind-bogglingly complex installations as the one he devised for the Honolulu Academy of Arts, or Tacoma's Union Station, unleash a very different set of associations than do the more individually differentiated vessels that make up most of the Baskets series. Or, rather, whereas early on Chihuly seemed to respond to the physical and associative properties of individual baskets he had seen or collected—such as the way a fiber basket responds to the elements and to gravity over time—now he is more likely to respond to “not a Basket but to a whole room.” "What is it about a whole room of Baskets,” he said not long ago, “that would turn me on infinitely more than a single Basket?”21

The recent Union Station installation, for example, with its reprise of so many different moments of Chihuly’s oeuvre (the Ikebana, Macchia, Chandeliers) and its emphasis on color and dramatic effect, borders on performance. We are witness to an artificial world clearly fabricated by Chihuly and Co., rather than privy to glimpses of Chihuly’s private habits of discovery (as with the Baskets). Chihuly does not exactly offer himself as would a true performance artist; he creates intensely personal, eccentric “exaggerations” whose public installation makes them all the more bizarre. Increasingly, his installations have taken on an aspect of fecundity and self-proliferation, which may also account for some of their slightly threatening aura. As Chihuly has said with reference to his Niijima Floats: “[A sphere] is the most natural form you blow [in glass]. But it's not natural at this scale.”22 The scale and sheer proliferation that characterize Chihuly’s latest installations can be overwhelming. Yet Chihuly still manages simultaneously to make familiar environments strange and the strange exhilarating, a tactic that brings him closer to Hollywood and Steven Spielberg than to Soho and the art world of New York. Like Spielberg—or for that matter Stephen Jay Gould—Chihuly appreciates the artifice in both nature and culture.

Chihuly’s unabashed celebration of artifice has itself been heralded of late by a number of critics less ready to praise his seemingly more conventional vessel forms. Justin Spring, for example, writing in the magazine “Artforum” quite brilliantly describes what he saw as Chihuly’s recent achievement: “It's this tension,” Spring wrote, “between the fantasy world of high artifice and the natural world of high artifice and the natural world in its infinite mystery and variety, that gives these most recent works a greater significance.”23 More difficult to celebrate, perhaps, is what Carpenter so profoundly observed early on—that the vessel itself is really an incredible kind of environment and one whose power Chihuly continues to appropriate and re-invent. But what may be most difficult for us post-modern skeptics to accept in Chihuly’s work is the presence of new form, invented form, things unfamiliar that nevertheless delight.

There is a passage in one of the early writings of William Morris—a nineteenth-century polymath not unlike a more ideologically motivated Chihuly—that invokes just this sensation of strange delight in the indirect associative power and many lives of form. Morris is describing a dream: is now two hundred years since that church vanished from the face of the earth,— it was destroyed utterly no fragment of it was left;... No one knows now even where it stood, only in this very autumn-tide, if you knew the place, you would see the heaps made by the earth-covered ruins heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves, so that the place where my church used to be is as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour...24

Like Morris’ “glorious waves of yellow corn”, Chihuly's fields of form bespeak something prior, undisclosed and transformed. But unlike the metamorphosis Morris so poignantly describes, for Chihuly it is as if metamorphosis has come face-to-face with mutation. That the most potent of Chihuly’s sources are “of nature”—or “of cultures” deeply allied to nature—only intensifies the desire to make the strange new forms he “breeds” familiar. Chihuly’s rather impressive achievement in this twentieth-century, fin-de-siècle moment is to show us that mutation is but another mode of metamorphosis and that to celebrate form in all its myriad incarnations is to celebrate life.


  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, New York: The Orion Press, Inc., 1964, p. 107.
  2. Dale Chihuly, from an unpublished statement, "Public Installations," 1992.
  3. See Bannard's "Introduction" to Chihuly: Form from Fire, Daytona Beach, Florida, and Seattle, Washington: Museum of Arts and Sciences, Inc., Daytona, and University of Washington Press, 1993, p.11.
  4. During the time Chihuly’s 1993 installation at the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York was on view, I ran into a well-known New York artist who alerted me to a surprise, and surprisingly ecstatic, review of the show in The New York Observer by the city's most reactionary critic, Hilton Kramer. Shaking his head in wonder, the artist observed “Chihuly’s on the top of so many different hit lists!” There is a great deal of irony in this comment, not least because the artist commenting on Chihuly is himself on the top of a great many hit lists. But his suspicion of Chihuly’s incredible success is not uncommon. Putting aside the possibility of competitiveness among artists—which in this case could not have been an issue—the implicit criticism here has to do with an assumption that Chihuly’s work is “too easy,” that it fails to challenge or confront the viewer and that this is what accounts for his tremendous success. Or maybe it is simply Chihuly’s lack of irony.
  5. Part of the inadequacy of media-based formalist analysis is its failure to account for the presence of the artist in the work. But formalist analysis also breaks down when it fails to distinguish between production and presentation, between the making of a given work and the taking-into-account of perception and reception with which virtually all post-war art has become inextricably engaged.
  6. See Bonnie J. Miller, Out of Fire: Contemporary Glass Artists and Their Work, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991. This passage did not come directly from Miller's book, however, but from related "out-takes" and pages of “cannibalized” texts, which Chihuly keeps on file. I received a collection of these pages from Chihuly’s staff when I began writing this essay.
  7. In another of Chihuly’s unpublished statements—labeled “Public Installations and Niijima Floats,” from 1992—the artist notes: “With a degree in interior design, I have always been interested in space and architecture,” an observation no one would contest. But he goes on to add, “My big break came in 1986 when I was commissioned to do a frieze for the renovation of the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. The site forced me to work directly off the wall, ten feet above the floor.” On first reading, I found this comment surprising. Though none of Chihuly’s early installations—such as the recently recreated ice-and-neon pieces or his early collaborative project for the American Craft Museum, both conceived with Jamie Carpenter—literally made use of the wall, they seemed just as radical in their use of architectural space. What the Rainbow Room commission offered, I think, was the opportunity to install works that had previously been relegated to temporary exhibitions or isolated cases as part of a permanent interior scheme or design. This put Chihuly’s creative practice squarely back into the arena of architecture and shifted the “use-value” of his art indisputably from object to environment.
  8. On yet another page of the cannibalized texts I received from Chihuly, in a recent unpublished statement, the artist comments: “A critic [Susan Zinger, in The Santa Fe Reporter] once wrote in a newspaper that she felt that during the night the Seaforms [sic] would float to the ceiling of the gallery [because] they were so light and transparent .... A good review can really help an artist learn about their [sic] work and the idea of the Seaforms [sic] having the buoyancy to float of their own power really crystallized an idea for me.” To this one might add a comment written to Chihuly in a 1981 letter from Fran Merritt, former director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts: “Where it would be almost impossible to reproduce the kind of forms you create,” said Merritt, “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 life.”
  9. Form from Fire, p.11.
  10. Patti Smith, Ha! Ha! Houdini!, New York: Gotham Book Mart & Gallery, 1977, p.3. The poem was written in 1972.
  11. This is also the sense in which Chihuly has been most convincingly compared to Jackson Pollock, that is, in the sense that both artists probably genuinely imagined themselves to be “of nature,” or sought to make art as if this were possible. The expressive dimension of their respective art-making is made to come off as a direct transfer of [the energy and power of] nature into art, through the “being” and “actions” of the artist. This is precisely what Greenberg claims the artist cannot do, precisely why he [Greenberg] needs to invoke Aristotelian imitation and truth to medium as material and method, rather than any truth to nature or to the artist as medium. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kirsch,” >Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1933-1944, Ed. John O'Brian, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 8.
  12. This is not the place in which to pursue a rather academic/theoretical analysis of Greenberg’s distinction between “absolute” and “relative” abstraction, but the ways this distinction might be used to analyze Chihuly’s transformation of his source materials are intriguing.
  13. Lawrence Alloway uses the terms “significant form” and, with specific reference to Jackson Pollock, “kinesthetic spectacle,” in his essay “Adolph Gottlieb and Abstract Painting” in Lawrence Alloway and Mary Davis MacNaughton, Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, New York: Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, Inc., 1981, pp.54-62.
  14. See Linda Norden, Chihuly: Glass , Pawtuxet Cove, Rhode Island: Chihuly, Inc., 1982, p. 21.
  15. In his predilection for indirect reference and association such as that intimated by his Persians or Basket series—that is, in his embrace of a more abstract mode of reference—Chihuly differs markedly from many of his contemporaries whose literal, Duchampian appropriations and representations of commercial, rather than hand-crafted, objects function as an ironic commentary upon the culture from which they emerge. Chihuly’s more ingenuous tendency to celebrate forms independent of their context and use also helps to account, I think, both for his more widespread popular appeal and for the suspicion in which he is held by many contemporary artists and critics.
  16. Interestingly, the German art historian Wolfgang Pehnt actually uses the word “happening” to describe the collaborative practice of the Spanish Art Nouveau architect Antonio Gaudi’s “architecture of action.” As quoted in Gabriele Sterner, Art Nouveau: An Art of Transition - From Individualism to Mass Society, Cologne: DuMont Schauberg Publishers. English translation, New York: Barron’s, 1982, p. 90.
  17. See, for example, “Dale Chihuly,” Glass Art Society Journal, 1990, pp. 36-40, for an extended discussion of the genesis of his Venetians series.
  18. See Robert Creeley, “A Note on Franz Kline” in >Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets, Ed. J. D. McClatchy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p. 220.
  19. This observation was originally quoted in Chihuly: Glass, 1982, for which I interviewed a number of people with whom Chihuly had worked, including Carpenter.
  20. This may be the place to propose some rather direct cross-pollination between Chihuly and two artists with whom he has maintained very close ties from the seventies on. Chihuly’s friendship with the artist Italo Scanga has never been fully enough explored, especially in terms of their respective work of the seventies, when Scanga juxtaposed crudely blown glass vessels to religious narrative paintings in a series that simultaneously celebrated and undermined the devotional painting of his native Italy. Chihuly’s affinity for more indirectly symbolic form can be read as an American equivalent for Scanga’s overt flaunting of his Southern Italian, ritualistic and figurative painterly roots at a time when most young Italian painters were exorcising religious reference from their art in favor of a more secular abstraction. Another artist whose work bears serious comparison with Chihuly’s (especially with his Basket series) is Roni Horn, who was an early student of his at the Rhode Island School of Design and with whom he has maintained close ties. Horn’s work has origins in the thinking that marked the transition from Minimalism to Post-Minimalism. In some of her sculpture of the late seventies, such as her “Rubber Wedges,” Horn explored certain extremely subtle phenomenal properties of the (rubber) material and (wedge) form she employed as they were affected by the surfaces on which they sat. By focusing attention not on any static or constant properties of the material but on the ways such properties are transformed by the physical interference of their support, Horn moved toward a Post-Minimalist emphasis on perception and on changes in material properties brought on by time, environment and entropy, as well as a more direct engagement of the thinking/sensing body. I think it would be extremely interesting to consider Chihuly’s exactly contemporary experimentation with the effects of gravity—to mimic the slumping Native American baskets in his own glass versions—in this context. In Horn's more recent work, in which she documents the terrain of various areas of Iceland under varying conditions, another parallel to Chihuly’s exploration of the vessel form emerges. Here, rent surfaces and “fields of holes” seem to render the earth itself a geological vessel. Both in her photos and in parallel texts, Horn reads the “boiling mud” and "venting steam" as evidence of an interior disturbing its containing crust.
  21. From a telephone interview with the author, January 1994.
  22. From an unpublished statement, 1992.
  23. Justin Spring, “Dale Chihuly,” Artforum, Summer 1992. The Cowles installation reviewed by Spring featured some of Chihuly’s Niijima Floats, but also included works from Chihuly’s Basket, Seaform and Venetian series. Another group of Niijima Floats was concurrently on view at the American Craft Museum in midtown Manhattan.
  24. William Morris, “The Story of the Unknown Church” in William Morris: News From Nowhere and Other Writings, Ed. Clive Wilmer, London: Penguin Books, 1993, p.5.

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