“Baskets was the first series that I did that really took advantage of the molten properties of the glassblowing process. Now, for the first time, I really felt I was breaking new ground with an ancient technique.”
For many celebrated artists, the path to creative achievement is gradual, studied, and often plagued by self-doubt. David Galenson, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and the author of Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (2007) calls these people “experimental innovators.” On the opposite end of this spectrum are what Galenson terms “conceptual innovators”—those whose brilliance arrives in a relative blaze, at a fairly early age, disrupting convention. Dale Chihuly is a conceptual innovator whose Baskets were a flashpoint for his originality. Forty years later, he is still a leader of the avant-garde and prodigious creative force, and the Baskets remain vital in the fascinating arc of his career.
Dale Chihuly had a meaningful encounter with traditional Northwest Indian basketry in 1977, during a visit to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. He was a young vanguard in the field of glass (he had become the head of the glass program at Rhode Island School of Design and co-founded the Pilchuck School of Glass in Washington by age 30). Chihuly was enthralled by how time had transformed the woven baskets into bowed and slumping objects. This touchpoint precipitated a breakthrough not only in Chihuly’s forms but also in his techniques for achieving them. He harnessed the interconnected powers of heat, gravity, centrifugal force, breath, and glass to achieve impossible thinness and dynamic asymmetry. Chihuly has stated: “Baskets was the first series that I did that really took advantage of the molten properties of the glassblowing process. Now, for the first time, I really felt I was breaking new ground with an ancient technique.”
His earliest Baskets, such as his 1979 Tabac Basket Set with Oxblood Jimmies, are daring and seemingly effortless. Like an alchemist Chihuly uncouples form from function and instead forges undulant containers of hue and luminosity. The muted palette reminiscent of Native American baskets defines the early work but is also an enduring muse. The extraordinary forms of Tabac Basket with Drawing Shards and Oxblood Body Wraps (2008) are like feats of Art Nouveau architecture writ in glass. This series is done in natural fiber tones akin to the objects that informed them, but the native formline design of the baskets is abstracted in Chihuly’s hand.
These forty years of Baskets are not a linear progression, wherein one builds upon the next until superiority is achieved; rather they are collection of transcendent moments through time.
While some works have maintained an aesthetic affiliation with the baskets Chihuly saw in the 1970s, others are merely kindred spirits. Jasper Black Basket Set with Red Lip Wraps (2000) revels in the drama of the color black; opaque obsidian is complemented by deep blues and shimmering violets, sheathed in a sanguine red. Six nested containers produce a panoply of shapes and crevices where light is absorbed and refracted by the lustrous surfaces. With the recent Golden Sapphire Basket Set with Midnight Blue Lip Wraps (2017), Chihuly continues to push the limits of the material. The outer vessel is turned on its side—its form part basket part sea creature, variegated blues dancing around the cresting and plunging contours. Nested inside this frame, six unique forms coalesce in a masterpiece of blown glass, the splendid blues enhanced by peeks of golden yellow.
Entwined with the narrative of the Baskets are Chihuly’s drawings, in which we see the artist’s instinctive and spontaneous creativity most viscerally. In a medium not bound by gravity, design elements can be liberated from their surfaces, nested forms emancipated, circles need not close. Not studies for specific works, the gestural drawings express Chihuly’s big ideas to both his glassblowing team and his viewers. Then, as if the works on paper could shatter like glass into “shards,” details from the drawings become design elements of the Baskets themselves, exemplifying the creative loop that characterizes Dale Chihuly.
Pablo Picasso once said that “to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” Such a prophetic statement could only usher from a true conceptual innovator, one who inspired a paradigmatic shift in art-making without seeming like it was any effort at all. Dale Chihuly has done the same for modern studio art glass, and the Baskets are the bellwether of this movement. Chihuly’s magic is intangible and unmistakable—a mix of technical genius, limitless imagination, fearlessness, experimentation, and an unfailing eye for the beautiful.
Jeanne Koles is an independent museum professional with a focus on cultural communications.