Chihuly installation in the new courtyard of the MFA

A new exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture has opened at the MFA. People who are new to his work are often full of awe and delight. I remember feeling that way too when I first encountered his wildly expressive, technically mind-boggling, larger-than-life work. There was nothing quite like it. And his color sense was (and is) extraordinary, so I wasn’t surprised when Judy Pfaff, an artist whose work I adore, went out to study with him at his Pilchuck Glass School.

That was over 20 years ago. Since then I have seen Chihuly installations all over the world. Now I am just not that interested in seeing more. Over exposure? Too much of the same thing? I’m not sure if I have a full explanation.

Sebastian Smee, my favorite reviewer at the Boston Globe, expressed a similar response. He does acknowledge an upside to Chihuly’s work: “Chihuly makes spectacular art. Grandiose and eye-catching, his work is made to interact with architectural or natural environments, and aims squarely at seduction — the seductions of color and form and, not least, of virtuosic technique. It is, one might say, celebratory art.” But he begins his review of the show with this question: “Is it unfair to describe the majority of Dale Chihuly’s glass-based work as tasteless?”

Ah, there’s that squirrely term, taste. Squirrely and yet such a pervasive element in any aesthetic assessment. I’m full of strong opinions about art—as are most artists—and of course those opinions are influenced by my concept of taste.

This is Smee’s take on that issue:

Taste, after all, is a social concept more than an aesthetic one, and is beside the point when judging serious art…And yet, the two concepts — art and taste — can never be completely separated. And if taste is primarily a function of social life, the truth is that Chihuly has for a long time now been a social sort of an artist…

I have no quibbles with Chihuly’s factory-style operation, his terrific rate of production, or his immense popularity. None at all. Nor am I bothered by the general absence of ideas in his work: I am all in favor of senseless beauty, and would prefer it any day to most of the brittle, air-filled intellectual meringue that goes by the description of conceptual art.

It’s the works themselves that I find so off-putting. And again and again I find the problem with them is that they are tasteless.

They’re tasteless in the way that a 15-course meal might be tasteless, or a garage with a dozen Ferraris, or a wardrobe with hundreds of pairs of shoes. Too many of them derive their raison d’etre from numbers and scale, rather than from any kind of inner purpose. They don’t understand restraint. Even when they do give off a whiff of minimalist intent…the combination of materials feels willed and strangely arbitrary.

You sense that if something is outlandishly ambitious, or if it is going to be technically difficult to do, that will be enough reason for Team Chihuly to do it. Make it big, make it bright, make them say, Wow!

I get what Smee is saying, and I am in basic agreement with his point of view. But for me that last line captures something even deeper, a crucial element that seems to be off base here: intent. My personal test for potentially powerful and moving art is often based on the Smith Doctrine*: Art made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. And by that measure this isn’t it.

* The Smith Doctrine: Roberta Smith first published that memorable phrase in the New York Times in February 2010. Since then I have referenced it many times on this blog. My original post is here.