The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Introduction to "Chihuly: Form from Fire" (1993)

The Museum of Arts and Sciences of Daytona Beach in association with University of Washington Press. Also used as the foreword essay for the catalog of the exhibition organized by the Lowe Art Museum, January 28, 1993, travelling to 6 museums. Excerpt reprinted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 1994, pg. 44.

As a "formalist critic, one who takes the work as it is, as an unconditional aesthetic object, I usually write about the object itself. Here I find myself writing about Chihuly as much as about his glass. I think this comes from my own recent experience as a teacher and from Chihuly's example as a classic case of modernist evolution, emphasized further by the rarity and newness of glass as a studio art material. Despite a 5,000 year history, glass has only been readily available to fine artists since the early sixties, when technical developments allowed glass to be made inventively and in adequate variety in small workshops.

Born in 1941, Dale Chihuly came of age in the early days of the new small glass studio. Although he studied interior design and initially worked as an architect, an enchantment with glass and a restless ambition drove him through the '60s; winning grants; going where he had to go to learn what he had to learn; teaming up with the right people; playing with large glass forms and installations and generally mastering the craft. In the '70s, he taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School, made large pieces of blown, cast and stained glass, sometimes worked with neon, ice and other exotic materials and did architectural commissions. His energy has always rivaled his talent.

There is a popular misconception that great modernist art always makes a radical break with the past. In fact, very good new art more often breaks with the present by going back to the past (radical is from the Greek "radix" or "root"), by going back to its material essentials, as Manet did when he returned to Goya and Velasquez for the color and painterly spontaneity lacking in Salon painting. In the mid-'70s, Chihuly turned away from large multi-material pieces and began making plain, small cylindrical vessels with drawings formed from threads of hot glass picked up by rolling the semi-molten, red-hot bubble of glass over them. Somewhat later, after recovering from a serious automobile accident, Chihuly saw some Indian baskets in a museum storage room stacked sagging under their own weight, and his imagination associated these effects with glass-by nature not a substance of symmetry and applied decoration but a taffy-like liquid which "prefers" to sag and flow and swell and blend. When Chihuly saw these misshapen fiber baskets, he saw the essence of glass. More importantly, he knew what to do with it.

Thereafter, though his pieces are hardly utilitarian, Chihuly never abandoned the vessel form. He had discovered his version of the liberating narrowness that lies at the center of all good art and adopted the vessel as the formal underpinning of his art, turning his creative imagination away from glass as an ingredient or component to glass as glass. He made a series of Pilhuck Baskets in the summer of 1977 - pale ochre, sparsely decorated and very thin, each taking its shape and character partly from its blowing and partly from what it underwent in its making. Each crumpled, distorted and asymmetrical vessel bears the mark not only of the maker's intentions, but also the reaction of the material to the conditions of its production. This allowance was the revolution Chihuly brought to art glass, and whoever makes art glass now must take what he has done into account.

There are plenty of artists with talent and energy, but there are few who combine these with the merciless expedience which drives the great artist to make the right choices for his art no matter how they fly in the face of custom and especially when they run up against the artist's own cherished belief, when the ego must give in to the art and the essential qualities of the materials of the art. Chihuly has mastered glass by yielding to it, by discovering and accepting what is rather than deciding what it should be.

With the "glassness" of glass as his guiding principle and the vessel as the underlying form, Chihuly drove on with ruthless pragmatism to extract all he could out of the medium. Having long since abandoned the Romantic idea of the artist in creative isolation and borrowing the methods of the Venetians (with whom he had worked on a Fulbright scholarship in 1968), he uses a large team of highly skilled craftspeople. Unlike the Venetians, however, it is not a group replicating the master's designs in glass but a creative team working with the master from a rough idea, improvising all the way. A Chihuly glass making session is like a movie set or a football game. The participants know what they want more or less, but they are not exactly sure how they are going to get there. Ideas spring from Chihuly, from the workers who move around him as they would around a director or a coach and from the piece itself as it takes shape. To me, it brings to mind ancient Celtic storytelling: The good whiskey and the fire and the listeners packed around the teller of tales, throwing in their two bits at every pause.

Chihuly works in series, but not always precisely sequentially. After the Baskets came the Sea Forms and the Macchia (Italian for "spotted"). Applied decoration disappeared early on and bright colors were wilfully pressed, laid or strewn into the glass rather than on it, becoming less pictorial and more integrated. Lately, Chihuly has pushed the physical limits of glass with the large, tour de force Nujima FLoats, made hilarious sport with Venetian glass in the rococo Venetians and taken nice risks with the recent, less obviously sumptuous Pikhuck Stumps, his first mold-blown pieces. One way or the other, he is always pushing.

Objects presented as art, as these are, in a museum, are given to us for the apprehension, appreciation, criticism, judgment and enjoyment of their physical properties and for reflection on what these properties evoke within our feelings. This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating, particularly here where the eye unaccustomed to glass as "all out" as Chihuly's can too easily be beguiled or put off by the unbridled extravagance of the pieces, especially their color, and by the easy connection our minds make to other objects in life that are bright and shiny, recklessly whimsical, garish or rudely excessive.

Like most good art objects, Chihuly's works are often liked or disliked for the wrong reasons. So take them for what they are; take them as glass. This is glass that has had things done to it no other glass has, glass made on its own terms as viscous liquid which likes to be blown out, attenuated, pressed, slumped, stretched, twisted, perforated, laden with color, fused and melted into forms that cool to brittle but stable, clear or colored, transparent or opaque solid.

As America's, perhaps the world's, preeminent glass artist, Chihuly revels in the material. He pushes it to its limits and reveals its secrets. He shows us what glass feels like, so feel the glassiness. This is glass in its exultation. Enjoy it.