Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Sculptor Sues His Acolytes

The famous glass sculptor Dale Chihuly is suing two other artists, one of them a guy who he worked with. Chihuly's charge is that the other glass blowers are copying his style, according to the New York Times.

Ironically, Chihuly can't blow glass because of a shoulder injury (surfing accident) almost 30 years ago. Bryan Rubino, one of the artists being sued, was a 20-year member of Chihuly's team of assistants who actually do the glass blowing. He and the other artist in the suit have accused Chihuly of putting his name on objects he buys.

Chihuly told the Times that he "works with sketches, faxes and through exhortation." I get the sketch and exhortation part -- he draws pictures and tells people to make stuff -- but I'm not sure how he makes art via fax. How often do you fax studio assistants your designs for you to tell a newspaper it's how you work? It makes you wonder if he's commissioning his own work long distance.

Which would explain why he's suing an assistant. The further an artist gets from his own work, the more his workers might think the art isn't his anymore. Chihuly has 93 employees. The Times spoke to Andrew Page, editor of Glass: The Urban Glass Art Quarterly, who wondered how a case like this would affect celebrity artists who work in bulk. Page thinks the lawsuit was a bad idea.

Said the artist: "This lawsuit is not about money … It's about what is fair. There are a million forms you can make that don't look like mine." But the defendants say many of the Chihuly pieces were not imagined by Dale Chihuly. The artist countered, "You think I would ever let Rubino decide what something looks like?"

Rubino worried that the lawsuit would bar him from making even simple glass shapes. His lawyer added, "If the first guy who painted Madonna and Child had tried to copyright it, half of the Louvre would be empty."

That's the same sort of argument musicians have used for emulating earlier styles, an argument one can hardly quibble with -- of course artists imitate each other. And why wouldn't a glass blower who worked under the orders of a famous artist for 20 years make art that had some resemblance to his master's? I looked for examples of the art in question, but I couldn't find anything.

One way to look at this case, since it involves the older style of working (master overseeing a studio full of technicians), is this: the master, Dale Chihuly, is passing along his wisdom to apprentices. Eventually, some apprentices will make it on their own, and they will bring with them everything they learned working with the master. If Chihuly saw Rubino as a younger artist carrying on in the latest incarnation of an ancient tradtion of glass blowers, he might be flattered.

Benevolence in always more becoming in a celebrity artist. But what's probably at stake here for Mr. Chihuly is an ego, inflated by millions of dollars and 93 lackeys, teetering on the narrow precipice of the knowledge that he hasn't made anything in decades.

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