Friday, May 15, 2015

Why artists hate Dale Chihuly

Dale Chihuly "Basket Drawing," 2013 in the Dale Chihuly Drawings exhibition at Museum of Glass. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Oxblood Soft Cylinder with Payne’s Gray Drawing,” blown glass. Collection of Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of the artist in honor of his parents, Viola and George, and his brother, George W. Chihuly. Photo: Scott M. Leen, copyright Chihuly Studios.

I saw a poster in the office at the old Commencement Art Gallery. It was a take-off on a dictionary entry:
Chi-hu-ly (chü-hoo-lee) n.  The art of self-promotion.”

Artists hate Dale Chihuly. Not all artists, but a lot of them. They hate that he’s so amazingly successful. They hate that he’s much better than they are at doing what all artists must do if they are to have any chance at popularity and financial success. They also hate that he doesn’t blow his own glass but has a team of workers who do all the work for him. Some resent the fact that he, almost alone, is credited with the rise in popularity of the modern glass art movement, which is almost exclusively a Pacific Northwest movement, when he is but one of many equally talented artists associated with the Pilchuck Glass School, the catalyst for the modern glass art movement. Granted, he was one of the founders, long with Anne Gould Hauberg and John H. Hauberg. But there are many other Northwest glass artists who are as good as, if not better than, Chihuly. Martin Blank, Preston Singletary, Rik Allen, Cappy Thompson, William Morris and Ben Moore are a few that come to mind.

Back to the idea of not doing his own work. A lot of famous art has been done by assistants. Andy Warhol was notorious for that. So is Jeff Koons. Since the 1970s a major tenent of contemporary art has been that the idea is supreme. It doesn’t matter who did the work or how well it is done. It’s the idea that matters. Blame it on Marcel Duchamp who bought a urinal and entered it in an art exhibition in 1917 under the title “Fountain” and attributed to “R. Mutt”.

Not creating the work with his own hands should not disqualify Chihuly from recognition, but there is something inherently grating about the assembly-line nature of his art.

When I see a large collection of his work all in one place, such as in the current shows at both the Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass, I am struck with the notion that he comes up with something good and then has his studio workers repeat it with slight variations thousands of times (reference Warhol again: “I think everybody should be a machine.”)

It also bugs me — and yet I have to begrudgingly admit that it somehow impresses me as well — that what he has accomplished is essentially to take precious craft items and blow them up to gigantic scale. By so doing he has elevated a decorative craft to the level of fine art. Actually that is kind of the basis of the entire modern art glass movement just as elevating pop culture and advertising to the level of fine art was the basis of pop art. Still, it was easier to accept pop art because it was so audacious, and because people like Warhol and Lichtenstein and Wayne Thiebaud were such good painters. It’s not as easy to accept the same premise when it comes to glass art because with glass there’s this niggling idea that no matter how big or how attractive, every glass art piece is really nothing more than a pretty vase or bowl. Colored glass is pretty no matter what you do with it. The only one of the modern glass artist who has pushed his art into a more transformative realm is not Chihuly, but Morris, whose work is monumental, ageless, and doesn’t look like glass at all.

Having said that, Chihuly can also be monumental and audacious. Just not consistently enough. At its worst, his work is mediocre and boring; at its best, it can be so beautiful that it boggles the mind. The best of his best might be the drawings, now on display through June 30 at Museum of Glass. There is also a large and varied collection of Chihuly work on display on extended view at the Tacoma Art Museum.

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