Whether you respect his art or not (critics often don’t), Dale Chihuly’s popular glass art can be found all over North America
To his loyal legion of fans across North America, Seattle-based glass artist Dale Chihuly has pushed the boundaries of glass blowing and decorative art, using colour, imagination and technology to breathe excitement into a material that’s arguably as bold as it is fragile.
At least that’s the take of his supporters. There are art critics who contend Chihuly is more craftsman than artist; a guy who simply makes pretty things. The good news for the curious is you can see Chihuly’s work up close and decide for yourself in almost any city in North America.
By virtue of hosting the second major exhibition of his work in Canada, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum is firmly in the camp of Chihuly supporters. The ROM invited the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’s Dianne Charbonneau to be guest curator for its new show, called simply “Chihuly,” having previously put together a 2013 Chihuly show in Montreal. The MMFA’s Utterly Breathtaking was the first major Canadian exhibition of Dale Chihuly; it brought more than 275,000 passing through the doors of the gallery and introduced the artist to Canadians through a survey of his past works, and videos showing the techniques practised by his team at his studio in Seattle.
Charbonneau compares Chihuly’s headquarters to the art-making factories of Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol. “Chihuly’s works are very organic, he truly understands his material and how it transforms from liquid to solid.”
Chihuly and crew at work, The Boathouse hotshop, Seattle, 1993
For those expecting small and delicate, Chihuly does the opposite, making many of his pieces twice or three times taller than an average person. “Pushing the limits of glass, his use of colour and the scale of his creations are unlike anyone else,” Charbonneau says. “It’s an immersive experience to see his work.”
For those who want a quick taste of Chihuly in Toronto without seeing the full exhibition, locals and visitors can look for Lime Crystal Tower in the ROM’s Gloria Chen Court, installed by Team Chihuly in June. Weighing some 1,300 kilograms (3,000 pounds) and standing some four metres (about 14 feet) high, it’s a prime example of Chihuly’s ability to create something with a seemingly delicate material. The oversized “rock crystals” that make up the work are in fact made out of “Polyvitro,” a form of plastic that Chihuly has pioneered and which is meant to share some of the light-filtering properties of glass.
The hope is that spotting Lime Crystal Tower in the atrium will entice people to buy a ticket and see the rest.
“Chihuly’s works have the power to enchant people. They command and elicit an emotional engagement that will be compelling to a great deal of people, no matter the age,” says Sascha Priewe, managing director of the ROM.
Influenced by the pop art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Chihuly studied at the first collegiate program in glass at the University of Wisconsin before spending time in Venice, the epicentre of glass art. He co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State in 1971 and has collaborated with different manufacturers across Europe to experiment and challenge traditional glass art methods. As his career was growing, a 1976 car accident blinded him in the left eye.
Persian Ceiling, 1999
Chihuly’s detractors don’t consider his methods true art. It doesn’t help that he has others do the heavy work for him, but that’s out of necessity: Chihuly dislocated his shoulder body surfing in 1979, which has prevented him from blowing glass himself. Team Chihuly, as his group of artists and installers are known, physically create each glass sculpture, with Chihuly signing each piece himself. In this respect he resembles pop contemporary Damien Hirst, who also works with others in his creation process.
In the 2000s, contemporary art fans in America became aware of Chihuly’s glass creations through his Garden Cycle series, inspired by greenhouses. Launched in 2001 at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, his glass plants, flowers and sculptures led the conservatory to purchase 16 glass lily pads, which are still a favourite of visitors. In subsequent exhibitions, Chihuly always creates glass items specific to the garden, for example a glass saguaro cactus at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix or the glass cattails seen in the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.
“I never met a colour I didn’t like.” – Dale Chihuly
He has since collaborated with several botanical gardens in Miami, Boston, London and San Francisco, and will return to the New York City Botanical Gardens 10 years after his previous appearance with the next Garden Cycle series in spring 2017. Despite receiving limited praise from art critics, Chihuly has plenty of fans and thus many exhibitions. In Seattle, an exhibit featuring Chihuly’s well-known glass series and new works opened in 2012 and is running indefinitely. The Royal Ontario Museum exhibition Chihuly runs until Jan. 2, 2017.
Want to discover more Chihuly? Travellers can discover the glass master’s creations in these cities:
Boston: The Museum of Fine Arts, which hosted a Chihuly exhibition in 2010, has Lime Green Icicle Tower, a 13-metre- (42-foot-) high glass and steel sculpture welcoming visitors to the gallery’s atrium.
Chicago: Visitors to the Garfield Park Conservatory can view Chihuly’s 16 yellow lily pads, permanently installed at the gardens’ Persian Pool.
Montreal: A colourful mix of yellow, red and blue, Chihuly’s sculpture The Sun can be seen outside the entrance of the Museum of Fine Arts, part of the gallery’s Sculpture Garden.
New York City: The artist will return to the New York City Botanical Gardens for an exhibition in spring 2017, 10 years after his first show at the gardens.
Orlando: The Museum of Art features several Chihuly creations, including herons and ikebana, boats and baskets and putti sealife.
Pittsburgh: The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens hosted a Chihuly exhibit in 2007 and have 16 pieces by the artist, including 13 on view throughout the gardens such as macchia bowls and cattails.
Toronto: Guests entering the Soho Metropolitan Hotel should look up – installed in 2003, the hotel’s ceiling entrance features 80 colourful and handblown Persian ceiling discs.
Washington: At the Smithsonian American Art Museum Renwick Gallery, visitors can view sculptures and drawings by the artist.