I am of two minds about Dale Chihuly, and I cannot imagine any thoughtful person being otherwise.
The stunning array of gorgeous glass is certainly the most interesting work in the medium done in a long time. The Chihuly name on a piece of glass is blue-chip all the way.
Yet, one cannot get past the sense that the name on the glass is less a signature than a brand name.
In addition, he’s everywhere, doing scores of museum and gallery shows each year. His studio produces so much work that critics consider it an industrial production line rather than an artist’s studio.
And, detractors point out, he hasn’t made much of anything himself since 1979. Since then, almost everything that has been sold with his name on it has been created by his hundreds of staffers. Worse, Chihuly is a tireless self-promoter. His genius is as much in marketing as it is in aesthetics.
Several Web sites are dedicated to dissing Chihuly, including one that avers it’s “OK to hate Dale Chihuly.”
It isn’t just that his studio produces so much in his name; it’s a veritable factory. It isn’t just that the glass sometimes is too pretty.
Take a look at it as it is displayed at any museum. The installations makes them look more like a showroom than a gallery. All that dramatic lighting and black background sets off one’s instinct to look for price tags and bar codes.
So, looking at a Seaform, it might come from the show window at Tiffany, with all that glistening light and black background. I look for a salesman sizing me — and my bank account — up.
It isn’t that the work isn’t stunning in its effect, but that the effect is a little too slick.
In most art-world installations, the individual pieces are subordinated to the meaning of the larger assembly. In Chihuly’s installations, the individual pieces are glorified by the presentation. They are set off heroically, like a protagonist in Italian opera hogging the spotlight.
But for all that, the problem with dismissing Chihuly because of his marketing and production strategies is that the argument ignores the art itself, which is hard to dismiss.
Eminent art writer Barbara Rose puts it directly: “Chihuly has literally changed the definition of glass.”
Chihuly was born in 1941 in Tacoma, Wash., and began working with glass 20 years later. After school at the University of Washington, he did graduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design and won a Fulbright Fellowship to study glass in Venice.
With his shock of wild hair and his eye patch over a face that looks like a caricature, he could be the Quasimodo of art glass.
All along, he continued to win awards and place work in major museums. Today, there is hardly a museum, major or minor, that doesn’t own Chihuly’s work.
In 1983, Chihuly moved to Seattle, where his studio grew to the point that it is a major industry, nearly as well known as Boeing or Microsoft.
On the way, he raised glass from a craft to a fine art. Chihuly certainly has pretensions of fine art. This glass is not meant to be seen as merely craft.
The difference between fine art and craft is metaphor. Fine art functions because of its metaphor; craft survives happily without it. Chihuly has consciously developed the metaphorical side of the glass.
The least effective works are his paintings, which strike one as nothing more than abstract LeRoy Neimans in glitter paint.
Like I said, I’m of two minds about Chihuly, and I cannot imagine any thoughtful person being otherwise.