How does something so beautiful and so unexpected come to be in the stairway of the Drammen Museum? This magnificent glass sculpture was created by the American artist Dale Chihuly (b. 1941), but before we answer the question, here is a little information about the artist: Dale Chihuly has his studio and “hot shop” in Seattle, and is now regarded as the world’s foremost glass artist. Starting with studio glass and post-minimalism in the 1960s, he has developed a unique artistic idiom that now represents greatly varied and wide-ranging artistry. Over the last decade, art-lovers have seen increasingly extravagant and astounding work and installations bearing Chihuly’s signature. He has the art world at his feet, exhibiting in prestigious private galleries, such as the Marlborough Gallery in New York, and holding large-scale exhibitions at the world’s leading art museums, such as the new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (drawn by the famous architects Herzog and de Meuron) and in the new wing of the renowned Boston Museum of Fine Arts (drawn by none other than Norman Foster). He has produced major outdoor projects in Venice, Las Vegas and other cities, and his work now ornaments everything from museum collections, private homes, town squares and opera houses to hotels and casinos.
In addition to his work as an artist – he also works with drawing and painting – Chihuly was involved with building an environment for glass art in Washington State, where the Pilchuck Glass School has been significant in recruiting and developing glass artists since 1971. These activities have made him a central figure in making Seattle, the area around in birthplace of Tacoma, and the rest of the American north-west, one of the world’s strongest environments for contemporary international glass art. Tacoma now has a new Museum of Glass, drawn by the renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, which opened in 2002. The city of Seattle made great investments in exhibiting Chihuly’s art through the building of the newly-opened Chihuly Garden and Glass centre in Seattle, right at the base of the landmark Space Needle tower, which was built for the World’s Fair in 1962 and remains a popular tourist destination. Chihuly Garden and Glass has a large indoor collection, as well as an installation of monumental glass sculptures in the specially-drawn glass pavilion and around the museum building itself.
Chihuly works with a team. His works are of such a size and complexity that a number of expert glass blowers and technical staff collaborate with him on the realization of his glass sculptures and installations. It is incredible that Drammen Museum has been able to achieve something as spectacular as this hanging glass sculpture, a “chandelier without candles”, a hand blown sculpture that absorbs and reflects light from its surroundings, in the form of daylight and specially-designed electric lighting. There is great international demand for Chihuly’s glass sculptures. Drammens Museum Chandelier is an extension of the gigantic chandelier that was mounted in the large dome of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2001. As here, its colors and composition were decided by the stairway’s size and character.
The road to the finished and mounted sculpture has been long. Experts who travel internationally have been following Chihuly for many years, but the event that was the starting shot for the project at Drammen Museum took place almost a decade ago, with a visit to the newly-opened glass museum in Tacoma. Drammen Museum’s director, who was the project manager, was invited to Pacific Lutheran University to hold a lecture at the Norway Days. A banquet was held in the glass museum, where a large piece of wall art by Chihuly was on display. It was a bright yellow cascade of hand blown glass, and its effect was overwhelming: “How is it possible to create something so incredibly beautiful? Is it possible to produce something like that?” And so the idea came to the director of a museum with a fabulous collection of 18th century glass: could it be possible to bring something by Chihuly to Drammen?
Just there and then it felt like a dream, something too big, expensive and complicated. During the Norway Days seminar, the museum’s representative met an old acquaintance from Drammen, who was then – as now – the Norwegian Honorary Consul in Seattle, Kim Nesselquist. Just then there was little talk of a Chihuly project, but the idea continued to provide inspiration and it was Nesselquist who, some years later, succeeded in opening the door to Chihuly and his team, which in itself is something of an achievement and was decisive in what was to follow. Representatives from Drammen Museum and its partners in Norwegian academia and the museum world had visited the artist for a range of reasons over the previous years, but the idea of bringing a permanent sculpture here first began to take shape two years ago. Many proposals were discussed during these studio visits. Chihuly was interested in doing something in Norway, as this was the first time something like it would be done. When we began to discuss a “hanging glass sculpture” in the large stairway, he quickly lit up: that was where he wanted to create something.
Plenty of dialogue with the artist was to follow. His starting points were the room’s light and colors, and the collection of historic mirrors and classic and Baroque paintings. He developed three proposals for Drammen Museum and discussed the color scheme with us – and you are now looking at the results. The sculpture is composed of 180 individually blown sections. These vary between spherical forms and many flowing and flaming tongues of glass. The form of each of these is a result of the glowing glass being pressed into steel moulds with stripe patterns, before each section is blown and hand-shaped into its long, twisting design. A steel framework has been produced, onto which each section is attached with steel wire. Assembly and mounting took place at the beginning of August 2012 and was an artwork in itself, performed from scaffolding in the stairway by the artist and musician Jeff Gerber, who has worked on Chihuly’s team for 16 years.
Dale Chihuly primarily finds his inspiration in the process and opportunities presented by blowing colored glass. However, the resulting designs are not only determined by glass-blowing phenomenology. He finds design inspiration in both nature and culture, particularly the marine life of the fjords and sounds between the islands around Tacoma and Seattle, which inspired his Sea Forms, or the cold winters in the mountains behind, with their melting snow and icicles. A great deal of the cultural impulse comes from the Native American cultures of the western USA. Chihuly is very interested in their art, and he collects colorful blankets and gorgeous woven baskets, interpreting them in glass. However, he is also part of the European glass tradition as it was developed in northern Italy and Murano in the Renaissance and the Baroque. Drammens Museum Chandelier develops something of this European tradition. Its form is Baroque and expansive, its colors cool and muted, but the glass sculpture’s freshness makes it a contemporary artwork that builds a bridge to older European art, like that seen on the walls of the stairway. The work is in dialogue with its reflections and the gilded frames of the mirrors. The cool colors contrast with the room’s warm shades, and the few elements of warm yellow glass form a link between the art on the walls and the freshness of our chandelier.
A piece such as this would have been impossible to finance within Drammen Museum’s purchasing budget. It has therefore been bought by Sparebankstiftelsen DNB NOR (the Savings Bank Foundation DNB NOR). Sparebankstiftelsen is a partner and owner that has placed this specially-made artwork in Drammen Museum’s major stairway. That this work can be seen permanently in Drammen Museum is an example of the significant contributions that Sparebankstiftelsen DNB NOR makes to Norwegian museums. Dale Chihuly’s Drammens Museum Chandelier provides an invaluable addition to our public collections.
- Åsmund Thorkildsen, Museum Director and Project Manager