Dale Chihuly’s Glass: Fine Art? Kitsch? Or Both?

dale chihuly's singing sunflower glass scupture. photo by BF Newhall

Dale Chihuly’s enchanting singing sunflower glass scuptures at the entrance to the museum. Yes, these flowers  actually sing. Listen here. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I can’t make up my mind about Dale Chihuly. He’s a glassblower, which makes him a craftsman. But is he also an artist? He’s prolific and his work is popular; does that mean he’s pandering to a mass audience? Or does his mind-bogglingly ambitious glass stuff come from the heart? Is his work fine art—or shameless kitsch? Is it guilty of sentimentality?

I’m going to go with all of the above.

On a beautiful summer’s day a few weeks ago, Jon and I strolled through the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum at the Seattle Center, just the two of us.

Our Seattle hosts for the week had told us that we might—or might not—want to take in the

Glass bowl by Dale Chihuly from his early Basket series. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Red and cream Glass bowl by Dale Chihuly from his early Basket series. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Glass vessels from Chihuly’s early Basket series. Inspired by the slumped forms of Native American baskets that he saw in the Northwest, Chihuly set aside glasswork’s traditionally symetric forms. Photos by Barbara Newhall

Chihuly exhibition. We could do as we pleased, they said, but they weren’t coming with us. They’d seen it once, and once was enough.

We went. We saw. We took pictures. And as we strolled amongst Chihuly’s often overwrought efforts, I wondered whether a little self-editing might have served him well.

Writers, artists, musicians—we all face the same challenge every day, with every brush stroke and with every line of prose: How do you know whether that nifty line you just wrote is searingly

Dale Chihuly's early 1970s "Glass Forest" glass sculpture at Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Chihuly’s early 1970s “Glass Forest” at Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle. I’m liking Chihuly’s earlier work — his Baskets, above, and this work created by dropping molten glass from on high. Photo by Barbara Newhall

poignant—or just plain corny? It requires a healthy resevoir of self-confidence—ego?—to go ahead and write/paint/compose what’s really on your mind.

People who write about religion are particularly vulnerable the poignant-corny divide. How do you write about people’s deepest yearnings without waxing mushy and sentimental?

That very challenge made the writing of Wrestling with God take a lot longer than it would have if I’d been writing about drought-tolerant ground covers for the back yard, say, or what to wear to

A museum-goer uses an etablet to photograph the colorful ceiling of Dale Chihuly's Sealfe Room at the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle. Photo by Barbara Newhall

A museum-goer photographs the museum’s Persian Ceiling. Chihuly created his first Persian Ceiling in the early 1990s. Photo by Barbara Newhall

meet your son’s in-laws-to-be. (I settled on dead pine needles for the yard, and polka dots for the in-laws.) As I wrote, I had to keep asking myself, will my readers find that paragraph off-putting? Or evocative?

And so, as a writer of stuff that teeters on the edge of cheesy, I’m going to cut artist Chihuly some slack here. Yeah, some of the concoctions he’s put in this garden in downtown Seattle tend

Glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly with orange conical shapes, at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle.. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly with white spiraling shapes. At Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Several glass chandeliers hang from a ceiling of Chihuly Garden and Glass. Just a little overblown? Photos by Barbara Newhall

toward the overblown, literally and figuratively. Yeah, some of it is kitschy. But you’ve got to admire a guy who’s got the guts to put his heart out there for everybody in this, his home state, to see.

And so, my advice to anyone about to visit Seattle: see this outrageous indoor-outdoor collection of Chihuly’s work – if only to find out what a person can do with a blowpipe, some molten glass, and a shot of ego.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Ghost of 300 Million Drought-Killed Trees Hovers Over a Lake in Texas” and “Sue Johnson’s Lamps and Shades — Works of Art in Berkeley.”

Two vessels with scalopped edges-- one chartreuse, the other cerise -- in Dale Chihuly's "Macchia Forest" at the Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Chartreuse and cerise vessels in Chihuly’s “Macchia Forest.” Photo by Barbara Newhall

Detail of prange and green striped vessel from "Machia Forest" display at the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum, Seattle. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Detail from “Macchia Forest.” Photo by Barbara Newhall

The Chihuly Glasshouse and Glasshouse Sculpture -- yellow and orange glass shapes float overhead in a glasshouse designed by Dale Chihuly, fulfilling his lifelong dream. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The Chihuly Glasshouse and Glasshouse Sculpture: Over-the-top yellow and orange petunia shapes float overhead in a glass structure designed by Chihuly, fulfilling a lifelong dream.  Photo by Barbara Newhall

A huge ball of spiraling yellow glass is on display in the garden of Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The Chihuly garden features huge glass sculptures like this one set in contrasting or complementing vegetation. A technical tour-de-force. Photo by Barbara Newhall

A black and white photo of glassblower Dale Chihuly at work hangs in the the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle.

Chihuly lost an eye in an auto accident in 1976. He dislocated his shoulder in a bodysurfiing accident in 1979 and was no longer able to blow glass himself. Since then he has hired others to do the hands-on work.




  1. Katherine Philipp says:

    We visited the Chihuly garden in Seattle a few years ago and loved it! We liked the creativity and took dozens of photos. In a nearby Seattle mall gift shop we also bought a small glass bird bath on a wrought iron base that is in our garden, outside of the kitchen window for me to admire every day and remember the Chihuly garden. Tell Jon we went to Peru for Will’s 50th anniversary. Has Jon’s brother ever returned?

  2. The Bookends page of the New York Times Book Review took up the question of “What’s wrong with sentimentality?” this past Sunday. Two writers weigh in on the subject.

    Essayist Leslie Jamison argues that “one of the deep unspoken fears beneath the sentimentality taboo is really the fear of commonality: the fear of being just like everyone else or telling a story just like everyone else’s . . we all have the same stories to tell, and . . . refusing our commonality is as dangerous as conforming to it too much.”

    I like novelist Zoe Heller’s definition of sentimentality: “The distinctive characteristic of sentimental art is not, as is sometimes claimed, that it “manipulates” (all art does this in some measure) but that it manipulates by knowingly simplifying, Photoshopping or otherwise distorting the human experience it purports to represent. It isn’t sentimental for Dickens to want us to feel compassion for Jo, the homeless street sweeper; it is sentimental for Dickens to try to secure that compassion by making Jo more virtuous, humble and forbearing than any boy who ever lived.”

    That works for me.


  3. George Alvarez-Bouse says:

    I am not persuaded at all that there is anything ‘kitsch’ about Chihuly’s art. That is part of your argument, but you don’t say which particular ‘or all’ of the pieces have this attribute ‘in your mind’. ‘Kitsch’ is a term that has an uncomfortable relationship with art history, existing more in the realm of crafted objects, which are a category peripheral, as you note, to ‘fine art’. Nothing you included in your article lacks technical skill, so if the accident of naïve is included sometimes as an attribute of kitsch, Chihuly’s art does not fit. Most would agree that his work is beautiful, but does it exist in the realm of ‘art for art’s sake’? I think it is too well grounded in associations with nature to be that—something like still life. Chihuly’s work does have a peripheral relationship, for now, with fine art, which still clings to the more durable media such and sculpted stone, marble, and cast metal works, but it is not by any measure kitsch, I think. Historically art has been displayed in unusual interior and exterior spaces. Artists like Chihuly, including many others who work in glass, have invented new places and ways to display it. If you look at the body of work of these artists, little of it qualifies as kitsch.

    • George, To me kitschy means corny, cheesy, and I find some of Chihuly’s work veers that — the work in the Glass House, for example. A piece that some people perceive to be fine art, can hit somebody else as cornball. That’s a challenge that every artist faces — how to walk the fine line between emotionally powerful and sentimental, between dramatic and overblown.

  4. I’m a fan of Chihuly. As a gardener, I am attracted to the colorful and outrageous-as-possible design. Last winter, while visiting the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona, I saw his display. It was very fun.
    Take Care.
    (let me know if you want to see any photos from there)


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