16 April 2011

Dale Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass

Entrance to Gallery Shop.

On April 8, Jay and I took advantage of the members' preview days to visit the crowd-pleasing exhibit "Dale Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass." Chihuly, a well-known Seattle-based glass artist, directs a large corps of artisans in creating monumental glass installations all over the world. In this show, some of these installations are re-created in a gallery context.

Sketches for Ikebana series.

This latest exhibit, at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) though August 7, 2011, also includes objects from Chihuly's own extensive collections, notably trade blankets and Native American baskets. A few of Chihuly's vigorous concept sketches are displayed as well.

Gallery with wall of trade blankets,
glass vessels on rough-hewn wood slab.

Glass shapes share color palette of Native American baskets.

Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee's review, which I recommend reading after visiting the exhibit, follows the usual party line that's there no intellectual content in Chihuly's work. (See the review here: http://articles.boston.com/2011-04-08/ae/29397522_1_chihuly-show-chihuly-installation-dale-chihuly)

Smee's review is another example of establishment art criticism creating a false dichotomy between the so-called fine arts and decorative art. This out-of-date distinction traps some art critics in an uncomfortable place, limiting them to snide, sour dismissals of objects in fiber, clay and glass, materials which often have functional associations.

Chihuly's works have moved far from their vessel origins, but his carnival color palette and biomorphism probably don't help his cause with art critics. The neon colors and swirly forms do make his work appealing to a wide audience, however, and of course there's the alchemical, almost magical, quality inherent in glass. Chihuly's had great commercial success; I attended the book signing held earlier in April and the line for signed catalogs was quite long. His glass objects were priced between $5,000 and $6,000 in the shop.

Blurry photo at book signing;
line of fans can be seen through glass wall.

Prints and glass for sale.

It may be more useful to examine Chihuly as one of the few contemporary glass artists continuing the tradition of glass as a monumental material. Glass and stone form the immense rose windows of Gothic cathedrals; few would argue that the windows of Chartres are not works of art. An institution like the medieval church could afford to build on such a scale, and had the management framework in place to continue projects over generations. Enormous resources are expended with each of Chihuly's temporary installations which then endure only in media or in gallery reconstructions.

Rose window, Chartres Cathedral.
Photo credit:

Glass was also used for the glorification of another institution, the Bourbon monarchy, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the light from huge windows reflects endlessly off mirrors and chandeliers. Mirrors are, after all, plates of glass with silver on the back. In both Chartres and Versailles, glass is an integral part of the architecture.

Closer to our own era, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Philadelphia-area architect Frank Furness both used glass to great effect.

There are some permanent installations of Chihuly's work in museums and public spaces, but none, to the best of my knowledge, in Boston. Other cities have enjoyed large-scale temporary installations, notably Venice, with its glass-blowing island of Murano, and Jerusalem, where ancient Roman glass may be seen in the archeological museums.

Blue and White Tower, Jerusalem installation. Photo source: http://i12bent.tumblr.com/post/192611659/dale-chihuly-glass-art-master-is-68-today-sep

Chandelier in the entrance of the Tower of David museum.
Permanent installation. Photo source:

My favorite pieces in the MFA show are the chandeliers, whose cascading forms both defy and respond to gravity. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a chandelier permanently installed in a lobby and I hope that the MFA might acquire one.

Gallery of chandeliers, and close-ups.

Onyx and Caramel chandelier.

One work, "Lime Green Icicle Tower", was created specifically for the new courtyard of the American Wing. While this 42-foot tall spiky form is a dramatic introduction to the exhibit, I'm not sure I'd like it as a permanent resident. With its green thorns protruding from a metal armature, it unfortunately conjures up nothing so much as those artificial aluminum Christmas trees assembled by sticking graduated shiny branches into a central metal pole.

Lime Green Icicle Tower.

Lime Green Icicle Tower, detail.

Viewing glass forms in the
outdoor landscape pocket adjacent to the new courtyard.

Slender orange rods of glass are visible in the landscape pockets between the new courtyard and the older building. I wish more of the MFA installation could have been viewed out of doors in natural light; indeed many of the pieces in the MFA's galleries were originally outdoor installations.

Looking through glass at
another view of glass garden forms.

More reedy forms in Mille Fiori.

Mille Fiori.
The installations were recreated on reflective plinths,
with high contrast, dramatic lighting.

The Persian Ceiling.

One highlight of the show is an overhead installation called the Persian Ceiling. Wouldn't a pavilion with these forms incorporated into the roof be a great addition to the Rose Kennedy Greenway? That bland expanse would become a destination.

The Persian Ceiling.

The Persian Ceiling, detail.

The Persian Ceiling, detail.

From the Ikebana series, form and two details.

Chihuly's team has achieved great technical mastery in glass. These forms are huge and it takes great skill to produce glass objects of such size. Without some knowledge of glass-blowing it's hard to fully appreciate the challenges of this medium. Videos of the Chihuly's hot shop (glass-blowing studio) can be seen at http://www.chihuly.com/cbs-early-show.aspx . There are many feature DVDs of Chihuly's work.

Neodymium Reeds.