All Dale Chihuly had to do, back in the '60s, was put his lips together and blow. And before he knew it, the chubby-cheeked, curly-haired glass artist from Tacoma, Wash., was the most celebrated glass artist in America since Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Even the snootiest museums refuse to draw a line between art and craft when dealing with Chihuly's sensuous forms. Single or nested, small or humongous, they are virtuosic combinations of delicacy and technical derring-do -- hard, brittle material made to seem as deliciously soft and malleable as warm caramel.
Today Chihuly, 54, is an international star, with large-scale installations and brazenly baroque chandeliers in public buildings from Singapore to Amsterdam. There are also four traveling shows of his work now circling the globe, two of them at museums near you: "Seaforms" at the Corcoran (through April 29), and the larger, more comprehensive "Installations: 1964-1996" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through April 28). Chihuly spoke to standing-room-only crowds at both museums last weekend.
While the Corcoran's dramatically lit, one-gallery exhibition hints at Chihuly's interest in ever larger, bolder, more theatrical forms (better illustrated in Baltimore), the focus here is on his more domestically scaled and best-loved "Seaforms" series, begun in the early '80s. Typically, each piece on view is different from the next in both shape and color, which ranges from delicate, powdery pink to almost fluorescent yellow. Yet they are all related by their open, undulating forms and wavelike striations, which allude to the movement of the sea and to seashells.
Like all blown glass, Chihuly's irregular forms are shaped swiftly -- usually in no more than 30 seconds at a time -- with the help of gravity, centrifugal force and, occasionally, molds and paddles, all of which are used to manipulate the molten glass.
What's surprising is that Chihuly hasn't actually blown glass since 1976, when an automobile accident in England destroyed the sight in his left eye (thus his black patch) and, with it, his depth perception. Undaunted, he has continued to work on a prodigious scale by making large drawings with tubes of thinned acrylic paint, and then overseeing every aspect of their execution in glass by the talented gaffers, or blowers, he has trained at his renowned art-glass studio on Lake Union in Seattle.
A devoted staff of 30 or more blowers, architects and worker bees labors there full time under Chihuly's direction, all supported by the studio's multimillion-dollar annual budget. His gaffers -- many of them artists who also show their own work -- affectionately call him "the wind" in their sails. Some of the best glass artists in the country have worked under Chihuly, and still do.
He is not rich, says an aide. "It costs $5,000 a day to run this place. Dale works on million-dollar projects, but he doesn't make a million dollars." When he has a show, he fields his own team of installers. His only visible personal indulgence would seem to be his cotton trousers, which are dyed the same mustardy-chartreuse color that turns up often in his art.
A man of Rauschenbergian energy -- and a world-class talker -- Chihuly got his first college degree in interior design, but was soon teaching sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, where, after learning glass blowing from Harvey Littleton (father of Washington art glass dealer Maurine Littleton), he founded RISD's glass department. In 1971 he also established, with two others, the world-renowned Pilchuck Glass School, 60 miles north of Seattle.
"There was no studio glass movement when Dale began," says aide Joanna Sikes. "Harvey Littleton developed equipment small enough to make it possible for individual artists to work in a studio blowing glass. And Harvey and Dale brought glassmaking out of the factory and into the studio." Today, thanks largely to Chihuly, there are roughly 500 glass blowers in Seattle -- more than anywhere else in the world outside Murano, the glassmaking island off Venice.
Chihuly had a Fulbright grant to study glassmaking at the Venini glassworks on Murano in the late '60s. And the influence clearly lingers in his art, as any fancier of antique glass will readily see. It lingers, too, in his studio, which is set up on the Venetian model, with teamwork at its core.
Soon Chihuly will return to Venice with 20 assistants to blow the final work for his latest project, "Chihuly Over Venice," just in time for the Architectural Biennale and also a new international glass exposition. Christo-like in its scope, it has taken him to factories around the world, where he has produced, with the help of local gaffers, gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of pieces of glass. Come September, several of these works will somehow be suspended -- and illuminated -- over Venice's Grand Canal.
Back in the '70s, you could have bought one of Chihuly's nests of bowls from the "Seaforms" series at Fendrick Gallery for a relative song. Today, you can buy them still -- along with some gaudier works from the "Persians" and "Macchia" series -- at the Maurine Littleton Gallery, 1667 Wisconsin Ave. NW in Georgetown, where there is already a flurry of red "sold" dots despite prices that range from $10,000 to more than $25,000.
And what if you buy one and drop it? "We definitely recommend insurance," says a Littleton Gallery aide. CAPTION: Fire and sand: Dale Chihuly's "Celadon Seaform Set," from the exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. CAPTION: Dale Chihuly's "Rose Seaform": Glass made to seem as soft and malleable as warm caramel.