Dale Chihuly, Paintbrushes, 2021. Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix.
It’s probably safe to assume that Chihuly is one of the most recognized surnames in contemporary American art. The glass master is so popular that, in 1992, Dale Chihuly was named the first National Living Treasure in the United States.
A pair of Arizona exhibitions titled Chihuly in the Desert run through June 19, even as the eighty-year-old artist remains one of the hottest talents in the world. Since December 2021, Chihuly’s large-scale glass sculptures have been shining in two of the Sonoran Desert’s most iconic places: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Talies in West in Scottsdale and the Desert Botanic Gardens in Phoenix.
And, even before these Arizona shows close, the artist is scheduled to open Chihuly Then and Now: The Collection at Twenty on June 18 at Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Dale Chihuly, Sol del Citrón, 2014. Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, installed 2021.
Over the long arc of his illustrious career, in exhibitions across the nation and abroad, both indoors and out, Chihuly’s glass has delighted thousands upon thousands of visitors at botanical gardens, medical centers, art galleries, bank lobbies, casinos, and other public places.
Chihuly is world-famous for his magnificently colored and often complex glass sculptures. He’s drawn inspiration from jellyfish, rowboats, fishermen’s floats, Navajo blankets, baskets, chandeliers, and sea forms.
He and his team have created thirty-foot-tall spikey or curvilinear towers and monumental glass flowers—or as they’re known in the Italian (a nod to Italy’s influence on Chihuly), Fiori. One of his most well-known works, the Fiori di Como installed on the ceiling of the Bellagio lobby in Las Vegas, staggers the imagination with 2,000 hand-blown glass blossoms. The installation remains one of the artist’s most elaborate public statement pieces.
Dale Chihuly, Gilded Fiori, 2021. 8 x 14½ x 9 feet.
Dale Chihuly, Blue Birch Reeds and Scorpion Tails, 2021. 9 x 16 x 14½ feet.
Dale Chihuly, Calendula Persians, 2017.
Dale Chihuly, Rotolo. 
Dale Chihuly, Float Quad Drawing, 2014, and Basket Drawings.
Chihuly’s artistic merits are many. He pioneered difficult glass-blowing techniques that innovatively use the effects of gravity and centrifugal force to capture natural irregularity and asymmetry. As a result, Chihuly’s work has an organic look as well as a theatrical and wildly imaginative appearance. His installations are playful yet sophisticated.
In 2014, Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) hosted Chihuly’s first large-scale exhibition in the Rocky Mountain region. It shattered attendance records. Lisa Eldred, Director of Exhibitions, Art and Interpretation at Denver Botanic, tells Art & Object, “The colors and forms of the Chihuly works appeal to a broad audience. Without an obvious narrative to the work, visitors were able to simply enjoy the artwork without committing a lot of time to understanding a storyline or intended ‘meaning.’ The craftsmanship and whimsical forms offered an experience art novices and seasoned art enthusiasts alike could enjoy.”
Not everybody appreciates Chihuly, however. Some Chihuly detractors argue that his work is more craft than fine art. And yet, Chihuly’s works are included in more than 200 museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Others criticize the nature of his process as it involves a team. Perhaps they do not realize that this long-time staple of his career was inspired by the Italian glass-blowing teams he encountered as a Fulbright Scholar. His resultant communal practice ultimately made important contributions to the American studio glass movement. Moreover, his collaborative process also allowed the artist to continue to produce works after physical setbacks and to produce more sculptures, larger works, and more complex pieces than would have otherwise been possible.
Dale Chihuly, Neodymium Reeds, 2021.
Born in 1941, in Tacoma, Washington, the artist received a BA in Interior Design from the University of Washington and an MS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He then studied with Harvey Littleton, a leader in the American glass studio movement who founded the first university program for glass and helped elevate glass from craft to sculpture.
Lanter, Chihuly earned his MFA in Sculpture from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and was awarded a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation scholarship. Chihuly established the RISD glass program and taught full-time for more than a decade. He also co-founded the world-famous nonprofit Pilchuck Glass School in his home state.
Chihuly’s joyful, colorful artworks hold light and belie personal darkness. Throughout his career, the artist faced a number of personal health issues. He wears a patch over an eye that was injured during a car crash in which he was thrown, ironically, through a glass windshield. A bodysurfing accident left him unable to hold a glass-blowing pipe, and the artist lives with bipolar disorder. Although his glass works seem otherworldly, Chihuly is only human.
In Seattle, his flagship Chihuly Garden and Glass museum combines the best of both worlds: indoor and outdoor installations of his glass works. Whether labeled ‘art’ or ‘object,’ with his wondrous glass, Chihuly has etched his name permanently in the annals of American art history.
Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.
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