Dale Chihuly is the most famous glass artist of our time, and admirers see his work as inventive, colorfully dazzling, technically virtuosic and exuberant.
And yet the art critics have never warmed to him, regarding his sculptures as brash and empty. Washington Post critics, over the years, have labeled his artwork “utterly vapid” and “pure bombast.”
This lack of critical affirmation does not seem to matter much to an artist who has been pushing the boundaries of his medium and his own brand for more than 40 years.
Nor does it diminish the affection of his fans, who find simple delight in the way he has turned glass, that most hard, brittle and lifeless of substances, into something soft, fluid and alive.
On a recent sunny afternoon, friends Lisa Gorman and Debi Taffet, both from suburban New Jersey, found themselves at the New York Botanical Garden, which is staging a major exhibition of 20 Chihuly installations.
“I just love the color and the shapes,” said Gorman as they stood at the end of a lily pond in which flat panels of colored polycarbonate are reflected. The glass dome of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory loomed behind.
“The way they have set it up,” Taffet said, “you can’t take a bad picture. It’s like I could be shooting for a magazine.”
Chihuly seems ready to step into the pages, with his cherubic face, mop of curly hair and eye patch (a result of a car crash in 1976). He is 75 and gave up blowing his own glass several years ago, serving instead as the head of a creative team that includes glass blowers, installation experts and lighting designers, based at his Boathouse studio in Seattle.
In his work and in its staging, Chihuly follows themes. The New York show, named simply “Chihuly” and which runs until Oct. 29, is the latest in a number of exhibitions he has taken to botanical gardens since 2001. But in its scope and survey – it includes a gallery display of early career drawings and art glass – it has the feel of a retrospective tracing the arc of an artist’s career. The botanical garden occupies 250 rolling acres in the Bronx.
Most of the sculptures have been seen elsewhere. Four were made for the show, and some, the “Koda” studies, consist of the polycarbonate panels set in reflecting pools.
They reprise panels he made in 1975 at Artpark, an arts venue in Upstate New York, and conspicuously do not foreshadow his later work. The Koda works are flat, and the matte colors are subdued, in contrast with the multidimensional, biomorphic pieces such as the Seaforms series from the 1980s and what he calls Persians from the following decade. The former are light and transparent, redolent of urchin shells, clam shells and jellyfish. The Persians are cupped disks with similar wavy edges and striated patterns but brighter and more opaque.
His Chandelier sculptures are his signature form, flamboyant pendants of hundreds of individually blown horns, spirals and other forms he calls feathers, stingers and goosenecks. Three Chandeliers are on display at the garden’s Visitor Center. The major piece at the entrance to the conservatory, redolent of a Chandelier but free-standing, is an explosion in lemon yellow and lime green blown glass – 1,248 horns and curlicues, 14 feet across, and named Sol del Citron.
Elsewhere, Red Reeds on Logs consists of 150 scarlet, slender glass tubes rising 12 feet from an armature of logs. The sheer length of the tubes is a glass blower’s tour de force.
One of the most interesting – and different – installations is of a 35-foot-long sculpture of neon tubes, Neon 206.
There’s something about the more biomorphic forms that connect to a gardener’s sense of organic beauty, said Todd Forrest, the botanical garden’s vice president of horticulture and living collections. “They’re tapping into the same gene that makes us all love gardens,” he said.
Another aspect of the show’s broad range is that even the most grudging Chihuly fan may find something to like.
After three decades, the Seaforms still have an arresting delicacy of color, pattern and translucence. More than 50 are displayed in the atrium of the Beaux-Arts Library Building.
Within the conservatory, the works are modest in scale and integrated into carefully chosen plantings. The conservatory’s glass is whitewashed for the summer, giving a bright but diffuse interior that serves to flatter the sculptures.
Gregory Long, the garden’s chief executive and president, favors the relatively demure Garden Fiori, an installation of 129 forms redolent of grasses and reeds integrated into beds of harmonious plant blooms and foliage in silvers, grays, blues and yellows. Visitors “can’t tell the difference” between the plants and the glass, he said.
Other sculptures are harder to love. Outside, in the conservatory courtyard, the Scarlet and Yellow Icicle Tower is more than 30 feet high and consists of 1,886 elements.
While impressive, it seems in awkward juxtaposition to the conservatory. You may perceive the craft but not the art.
In another conservatory gallery, visitors find a series of elevated crinkly bowls that Chihuly calls Macchia. The Macchia Forest consists of nine pieces suspended above an ornamental pond. From a glassblower’s perspective, the sculptures are masterpieces – using innovative techniques to layer many colors without allowing them to bleed together.
But on the day I was there, they were competing with two venerable vines that were in full bloom.
One, the mysore clock vine, had big pendant clusters of bicolored red and yellow blooms. The other, the jade vine, was festooned with blooms reminiscent of long clusters of baby bananas, but in an extraordinary luminescent turquoise color.
I couldn’t help thinking that art can approach nature but not surpass it. Then there’s the ultimate glass sculpture of the garden itself, the magnificent 1902 domed conservatory by Lord & Burnham and its 11 interconnected glasshouses. Is Dale Chihuly, or any glass artist, capable of gilding this lily?
The answer seems to be yes.
When Chihuly held a show at the botanical garden in 2006, it was so successful that the garden decided to hold others that were outside its strict mission of horticulture and botanical science. They have included ones for the poet Emily Dickinson, the sculptor Henry Moore and the artist Frida Kahlo.
“The show in 2006 was a turning point, and we learned the lesson that if we have something that’s accessible to people that’s not necessarily connected to horticulture and highlights the landscape, it’s a way to draw in different types of visitors,” said Karen Daubmann, associate vice president for exhibitions. There have been more than 70 shows since the first Chihuly. “Everyone asked, ‘When is Chihuly coming back?’ ”
Tim Penman, a sports editor who lives in East Harlem, came to the original show with his mother and was back for the new one. “We are big Chihuly fans,” he said, standing before “Sol del Citron.” “I like the grandeur; it works really well in the garden.”
Penman is exactly the sort of visitor the botanical garden wants the show to attract: young and outside the usual garden crowd. But Long doesn’t see Chihuly or anyone else diminishing the character of one of the world’s great botanical gardens.
“We are a museum of plants, we have a million plants under our care, and we exhibit them 365 days a year. The sculpture comes and goes,” he said. “We are not confused.”
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