Wall of Ice
By William Warmus
This essay first
appeared in Artfocus magazine, Winter/Spring 2000
Dale Patrick Chihuly
remains a controversial artist. Even his strongest supporters recognize
that his art is unusual. The late Henry Geldzahler, who while curator at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art championed the career of Andy Warhol, was
an early supporter of Chihuly, acquiring three cylinders for the Met and
writing that “Chihuly’s work is American in its apparent vulgarity,
its brazenness, and its fearlessness to move farther out west even if
there is no farther west to move to.
There’s a kind of pioneering spirit to it.”
Geldzahler was fond of drawing parallels between Chihuly and the
lives of pirates, who are always at sea and determined to lead a nomadic
life. He would have been enchanted by the artist’s recent wall of ice,
set down as if by magic just outside the precinct of the ancient city of
Jerusalem. As if to underscore the pioneering spirit of the installation,
Chihuly brought the ice from Alaska, linking the promised land of the
bible to the last of the great American wild lands.
did Chihuly get to the ice extravaganza in the Middle East? As a young
man, he experimented in a basement studio with blowing bubbles of glass,
and was immediately taken with the magical qualities of the way the
material works: the breath of the artist almost literally gives life to
the glass. But he never saw glass as specifically a craft medium, he
always saw its sculptural, artistic potential. In many ways, he worked
(and continues to work with) glass as a minimal, or post-minimal, art
substance. For example, in the late 1960s he began to hang glass forms
from the ceiling of his studio, a move he made before the post-minimalist
artist Eva Hesse, and one perhaps derived from watching his father at
work, a butcher by trade. And by the early 1970s, he was exploring
(sometimes in collaboration with the artist Jamie Carpenter) other
unconventional media, such as ice and neon, culminating in 1971 with 20,000
Pounds of Neon and Ice. Chihuly and Carpenter froze U-shaped neon
tubes into molds filled with water, producing about 60 blocks of radiant
ice that weighed in at 300
pounds each. The piece melted over 10 days, the resulting puddles of water
mirroring the neon tubes, turning their straight line geometry into
wavering lines of watery color and inspiring the art critic Donald Kuspit
to write (much later) that “Chihuly
and Carpenter brought together primal elements—fire and ice—in a
hi-tech way, in effect raising the question of Robert Frost’s poem:
‘How will the world end? Will it freeze in ice or sizzle like neon?”
most of the 1980s and half of the 1990s, Chihuly pursued and refined the
tabletop scale blown glass series---Basket Sets, Macchias, Sea Forms,
Venetians, etc.—that established his popular success and gave him a
degree of financial independence. But by 1996 he had returned to large
scale installation work with the Chihuly Over Venice project: a series of
14 large sculptures mounted over the canals and in the palazzos of that
water-driven city. Chihuly had perfected a form—the Chandelier
series—that increased the scale of his work dramatically, much as
Tiffany’s windows had increased the scale of his artwork. And Chihuly
had a well organized team of assistants capable of mounting these
sculptures in demanding settings, half a world away from his Seattle
studio, on relatively short notice.
Jerusalem project, Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000, is the
largest of these recent installations, and it includes two structures over
40 feet in height, one of which—the Blue Tower—comprises 2000 glass
arms attached to a mammoth metal armature.
was within this context that Chihuly decided to create his second major
ice project, the Chihuly Jerusalem Wall of Ice, in October 1999. Several
years ago, after delivering a lecture in Alaska (where he had shown slides
of the 1971 ice project), a member of the audience told Chihuly about an
Alaskan source for incredibly pure and clear ice called Arctic Diamond
that is used for ice sculptures—it is said that you can read a newspaper
through 30 inches of the stuff. When Chihuly conceived the design for the
ice wall in Jerusalem, which grew out of his desire to produce an artwork
that might symbolize the thawing of tensions in the region, he immediately
decided that the ice for the wall had to come from the source in Alaska.
Besides, it was unclear if the resources existed locally to produce the 30
blocks--each measuring 6’ long x 3’ deep x 4’ high. And the area was
experiencing—still is—an extended drought. So the ice from Alaska
might also become a symbolic gift of water to the parched slopes of the
the ice, quarried from its pond during the previous Alaskan winter, was
shipped by rail and by barge to Tacoma, Washington, then again by rail
across the American continent, where it was loaded aboard a ship bound for
southern Italy, and transferred to a boat headed for Haifa, loaded unto
trucks and finally craned into place outside the old city wall near the
Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.
all went as planned. The wall had initially been envisioned as regular
geometrical tiers of exceedingly clear crystal. But when the sub-zero
refrigerated containers were opened in the 90 degree plus heat of the
port, a tremendous cracking sound was heard. The blocks had fractured! In
addition to obscuring the clarity of the ice, the fractures increased
their fragility: the ice was acting just like glass! Several blocks split
in half as they were being craned into position. Chihuly adapted
immediately to these unexpected events, transforming the wall into an
instantly venerable ruin that had far more human warmth than the ice queen
of the initial sketches.
wall had a commanding presence during the three days it took to melt,
visible far across the city, and brightly lit throughout the night by a
changing spectrum of colored spots. At first, people didn’t know what it
was, but soon large crowds gathered, and the wall acquired a cult status.
Some took pieces of ice home to pray over for rain. Children collected and
arranged ice shards on
cardboard box tops and carried them up through the nearby Jaffa gate into
the old city, displaying them like relics.
me, the wall had a threefold significance. From behind the wall (a view
limited to a few people for safety reasons) only the ice and the blue sky
were visible. This was the cocoon effect: one could have a fantasy of
being in the Antarctic, despite the intense desert sun, transported to a
world trapped in frozen time. From the front, the wall became all about
time, a time machine, as the heat and wind eroded the blocks and the ice
surfaces came alive with streaming sheets of water. You had only to glance
at the fast progress of this ice wall, and then up to the ancient walls of
Jerusalem directly behind it, to perceive time simultaneously in two
jarring scales: ancient (glacial slow) time, and modern (ice) time. By the
second day, as the sun rose higher, the blocks began to fall, tier by
tier, not resoundingly but with a musical tinkling sound as they fractured
into thousands of shining fragments. The third significant aspect of the
wall was the reaction of the audience. They rapidly appropriated the wall
as their own, sometimes calling out for us reporters and photographers to
stand aside because we were blocking their views! But mostly people stood
mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the wall.
The nice thing about
the ice wall was that it sidestepped a crucial issue that occupies those
working in glass. As art, glass cannot avoid kitsch because it is all
about beauty, a term I define much as Elaine Scarry does in her book On
Beauty and Being Just. Beauty is sacred, unprecedented,
lifesaving. In Augustine’s words, “a plank amid the waves of the
sea.” But beauty is intimately linked to kitsch, the faking of beauty.
Kitsch is formulated beauty. A great deal of studio glass is kitsch, and
Chihuly delights in at times veering in that direction. But that is only
because success in making something truly beautiful is won with such
difficulty that the attempt to repeat the winning formula is overwhelming.
The problem with
beauty is that you can’t easily write about it—you must experience it.
It is possible for me to point out a beautiful object—for example, a
Chihuly basket set whose elements are scaled together, with coffee colored
melted bits that project blood red onto a flat surface and a lapis lip
wrap that is like a Pollock “lariat” frozen into three dimensions. But
those are just words. You, the reader, must decide for yourself if Chihuly
is an artist and capable of creating beautiful artworks, by looking at the
I can understand why critics are
uncomfortable around beautiful objects. There is something vaguely
embarrassing about beauty, as if too much flesh were exposed. It makes us
uncomfortable at first, until we have had it around long enough to ignore
it. Glass is especially problematic because it is so fragile: glass
won’t let us alone, lest we forget it is there, and risk breaking it.
Artists who work mainly with glass tend to be cranky because they
experience so much breakage. And then there is the somewhat depressing
sentence an abstract painter once spoke ( appropriately enough, at a
birthday party for that arch-formalist critic, Clement Greenberg):
“Glass is so beautiful, the problem is how to make it more beautiful.”
One could say something similar about a gleaming chunk of ice. Most
critics lose it when confronted with a surplus of beauty. Chihuly is
among the few artists who have taken the confrontation with beauty to
heart. And with the Chihuly Jerusalem Wall of Ice, he appears to have
found a way to tame wild beauty without turning it into kitsch.
the ice, fresh from Alaska, into position outside the walls of
Jerusalem.October 2-3, 1999.
Ice Wall as it looked at noon on October 3, 1999. The wall of the old city
of Jerusalem is behind it.
wall at 6:20 PM on October 3. It was lit from behind with electric lights
tinted with colored filters.
help give a sense of the scale of the wall. The ice attracted thousands
during the three days it took to melt in the desert heat.
4, 9 AM: Sunrise over the walls of Jerusalem.
streamed down the faces of the ice blocks as they absorbed the intense
4 at 9 PM: The wind whipping around the wall has caused fissures,
destabilizing the blocks. And you can see how much water is dripping from