Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Chihuly at the De Young

Kenneth Baker does not like it. I just knew that Chihuly wouldn't be his cup of tea but a lot of people really like his work. I always wonder, when viewing shows of that nature, which is better? To show understated art that is more authentic but only appeals to the elite or to show gaudy glitz that a lot of people like and which brings in crowds which then can be exposed to more significant art? Perhaps we forget, in this era of mass marketing, when art (of some type or another) is available to more and more people how rare, historically speaking, this access to art is. They are a product of the 19th century populist movement which aimed to educate and "uplift" the masses. Sure, Chihuly is gaudy, his work is done by others and I don't much care for it myself. But I read the plaudits for Koons, Clemente and other artists whose work is also produced by others and doesn't have mass appeal and I wonder how much of this dislike is valid art criticism and how much is snobbery? The De Young now has a long record of really low brow shows but I don't remember this type of hostile criticism being directed at the fashion show exhibit not too long ago - maybe because the movers and backers of that show were part of the SF elite? Don't get me wrong; I agree with his critique of Chihuly but the finger he points at Chihuly would equally be pointed at others. How does a museum appeal to the crowd today, especially when so much of modern art is inaccessible to the majority of people?

Baker from the Chron:

Admirers of empty virtuosity may thrill to "Chihuly at the de Young," the de Young Museum's celebration of contemporary glass master Dale Chihuly. But so will those among the art public building a dossier against director John Buchanan's leadership of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Perhaps in today's arts funding environment, every museum must work a potboiler or two into its exhibition calendar. But Chihuly has come to personify everything meretricious in contemporary art. The most exciting thing about his work: Its status as art stands in question.

Worse, the de Young originated this one-venue exhibition.

Chihuly's presentation at the de Young consists of ensembles of works in blown glass, so theatrically lighted that they make a visitor feel like a walk-on performer in some costly, unnamed spectacle. That spectacle is Chihuly's career.

With the Rhode Island School of Design as his first important launch pad, Chihuly, a Tacoma, Wash., native, propelled himself into the international glassworks world. He bootstrapped his own glass-blowing mastery into an impresario role, eventually leading teams of glass craftsmen around the world. The outcome of these collaborations always bears his name.

A fair-minded critic must ask why Chihuly's work cannot be taken seriously as sculpture. Sculptors of acknowledged importance have at times made good use of glass: Robert Smithson (1938-1973), Christopher Wilmarth (1943-1987), Barry Le Va, Kiki Smith. But all of them shunned Chihuly's forte: decoration.

Perhaps dreamy color, glossy surfaces and flamboyant design - the signal qualities of Chihuly's work - should be enough. But in a culture where only intellectual content still distinguishes art from knickknacks, they are not.

The skeptical visitor to "Chihuly at the de Young," starting in the second of its 11 rooms, gets the queasy sense that here the gift shop inevitably barnacled to such exhibitions has finally engulfed its host. The earliest of Chihuly's installations, from 1972, and one of the latest, "Mille Fiori" (2008), look like surrealistic passages in a forest fit for Gump's. The many inanities of conceptual and other contemporary art may have inflamed the appetite for craft skill that Chihuly superficially satisfies.

He even exploits the open formal rhetoric of installation art. But there never develops any sense of linkage in thought or form to the work of a master of sculptural installation such as Jannis Kounellis, Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) or even Ann Hamilton.

Chihuly's most considered example at the de Young is "Tabac Baskets" (2008). On a series of long, horizontal shelves, he has placed glass vessels he made in response to American Indian baskets - ectoplasmic abstractions of the irregularities the baskets develop from the effect of gravity and the pliant nature of their material.

Baskets from Chihuly's own collection flank his pieces throughout the display, but the tiny spotlights under the lip of each shelf fall not on the baskets but on the glass works.

Educated viewers cannot look for long at Chihuly's work without wishing there were something to think about. So they think about something else. The capacity to hold our attention, in the moment or in reflection later, is a mark of significant art in an era when mass media work hard to abbreviate attention spans so as to cut costs and decapitate questions.

The history of art is a history of ideas, not just of valuable property. Chihuly has no place in it, and the de Young disserves its public by pretending that he does.

Chihuly at the de Young: objects and installations in glass, plus works on paper. Through Sept. 28. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. $5 surcharge, above museum admission, applies for timed entry tickets to the exhibition. (415) 750-3600,

E-mail Kenneth Baker at

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Baker's a bit of an ass, but you're absolutely correct, he's politically astute. Attack Chihuly, leave the rest of the crap alone if it's attached to a rich person in this city. I think the only thing the Chihuly exhibit lacked was a "ride," like at Disneyland, where you get to go slowly by the gaudy lights and colors and shapes. It would definitely be much more fun.