Dale Chilhuly's work is at de Young Museum in San Francisco. I'm starting this blog w/ some thoughts about the exhibition because so many people who visited our COLD+HOT 2008 exhibition asked me about Dale Chihuly's work and Kenneth Baker's notes on Chihuly in his San Francisco Chronicle review.
I love the drama of Chihuly's installation at the de Young! Who doesn't? It's larger than life and vibrant. Chihuly's choices of color and reflective surfaces appropriately serve to emphasize his work, mesmerize, allow for sculptural presence, respect the viewer, and grant opportunities to view the work from multiple angles. But is it fine art or decoration, I’m continuously asked, after all Mr. Baker is a well-respected supporter of the San Francisco art community (and I might get lumped in with the "admirers of empty virtuosity" crowd here...). My impulse is to defend Chihuly as a fine artist and draw comparisons of fine art vis-à-vis decorative art, but curators and museums in homage to design and decorative arts in New York, Los Angeles, Paris are better able than I to outline and blurr definitive concepts of the disciplines to very narrow, very particular details. So the question is more whether or not anyone cares that the Chihuly exhibition is one of fine art or decorative art. Does anyone? If our ideas of classic fine art developed from primitive attempts to communicate events, to develop iconographies and patronize ideologies, if fine art encompasses realms of artworks based on exchanges of ideas, what is fine art about Chihuly’s work? Well, what isn’t? As with previous installations, his decision to show artwork on an outré scale dwarfs all concept of glass sculpture, obliges us to revisit our knowledge of glass and its place in culture. The visual drama of Chihuly’s work by its cacophony of color and unheard of scale carries visual weight similar to Donald Judd’s minimalism and strict adherence to linear form. Judd presented sculptures that forced the viewer to ask, “What is this?” Likewise, Chihuly’s work takes the viewer’s personal history of every glass vessel and decorative object into play and ask the same question: "What is this?" We are presented with blown glass sculptures that occupy space, present the viewer with a visual spectable, demonstrate technical mastery of the medium, and challenge us to accept his work in the narrowly defined world of fine art.
I do not own any work by Dale Chihuly because it’s not part of my particular aesthetic yet, but you can probably tell by reading this that I do love glass sculpture. I love sculpture in general, from Calder and Giacometti to Kapoor, Libenski and Rodin. Chihuly’s work possesses a sensational aspect that arouses suspicion from my very formal nature, while the visual part of me loves the nouveau approach to art that is wholly satisfied by the exhibition at the de Young (after all, isn't part of the attraction of art its novelty?) and its sensory assault. Baker's critique reminds me of IM Pei's diadem at the Louvre and all the hoo-ha questions about whether it was appropriate for such a venerable institution, likewise with Gehry’s beautiful museum in Bilbao. For glass sculptors, Chihuly’s exhibition is validating. It redefines fine art tradition with its occupation of space and light, and challenges old-world techniques by its response to ever-growing cries for “bigger!” and “more!” By nature, glass is one of the most difficult sculptural mediums to sculpt. The artist is made to choose whether to work with it cold, with a chisel or other carving tool, or to heat it up to over 2000°F and form its shape by blowing - and subject the medium to the sculptor’s skill, remaining sensational in all aspects of its manipulation. The fantastic aspects of glass - it’s liquid nature and relationship to light - keep it at the fore of wonderment. Its material plasticity allow it to take on whatever shape commanded by its sculptor, and the developing culture amongst glass sculptors and collectors, private and public art institutions, that is warmly cohesive, full of camaraderie, and supported by considerable sums of serious money, clearly proclaims glass is a fine art medium whose time is now, no longer the ignominious little sibling of sculpture.
Thanks to Chihuly, the American studio glass movement moved out of the craft shop to generously publicly funded institutions and enjoys international support. We no longer dismiss the glass object as a crafty little knick-knack, our ideas of decoration and design are enriched by a sculptural medium that has been around for millennia, and recently brought out of the dusty annals of history to join the high voltage fine art techniques of the 21st century. Thanks to Mr. Baker, we have an ongoing dialogue of the place of glass sculpture in the fine art world. Such is the draw of popular notoriety and of art that blossoms from humble beginnings to international buzz.