Next month CMA will open the fall season with the exhibition Chihuly Illuminated. Although I did not organize the exhibition, I am spending the next several weeks giving lectures about Chihuly and his life, creating educational information to use in the galleries and following the installation of the works throughout the museum. In preparation for all of this I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Chihuly’s work and his influence on the debate over craft vs. art.
In 2002 I had landed back in my hometown of San Francisco just a year before California College of Arts (CCA) announced that it was dropping “and Crafts” from its name. The chaos and confusion this created among artists in the area was palpable. While CCA seemed to be making an effort to provide an atmosphere of integration and mutual respect, there were other signs that the merging of aesthetics was challenging, awkward and sometimes forced. For instance, when I met Julie Travis, a young MFA student who had been accepted into the program through the ceramics department, she needed to remind me that in order to find her studio I had to visit the Oakland campus. Her studio, inside the early 1922 campus building, was far removed from the San Francisco campus created in the 1980s, where all but two of the MFA students were given studio space. The other student who was placed in Oakland worked in glass. As the two navigated through the rigorous work schedules and ongoing criticism necessary to complete their degrees, both seemed to have the added endeavor of providing plausible reasons for working in glass or clay in the first place.
Dale Chihuly has spent the better part of 40 years within this critical debate, albeit without the discussions hindering his artistic output. He has even created a haven in Washington state, his own little part of the world to explore and encourage working with glass.
In his essay written in 1997, Donald Kuspit writes, “…Chihuly effects an iconic reprise of the problematic relationship between craft and art-ultimately the relationship between the decorative and the expressive-in the very act of reconciling them.” His extensive list of projects and output can cloud some of his earliest successful examples. The best aspects of Chihuly Illuminated highlight these successes, and show his formidable desire to push past long held ideas as to what the glass arts were and are for many of us today.
Associate Curator of Contemporary Art