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For the last 40 years, Dale Chihuly has transformed the art of glassmaking to new heights

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
For the last 40 years, Dale Chihuly has transformed the art of glassmaking to new heights
Mille Fiori, Dale Chihuly, Blown glass . (Photo: Artwork © 2011 by Chihuly Studio, All rights reserved. graph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

For the last 40 years, Dale Chihuly has transformed the art of glassmaking to new heights

The beguiling exhibition of glass sculptures on view through Aug. 7 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) has an apt title, “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass.” This showcase of works by Dale Chihuly draws viewers into an alternate universe that evokes the bizarre, gorgeous excess of nature in a voluptuous profusion of colors, textures and shapes.

Chihuly renders the ephemeral in a material that is both enduring and fragile, glass. The technique is timeless — using intense heat to melt glass, breathing form into the molten blob through a blowpipe, pressing it with hand tools and spinning it into shape using gravity and centrifugal force. A piece of blown glass is an object frozen in motion.

Over more than four decades, Chihuly, 70, has used this technique to take glass art into new realms, experimenting with colors, designs, textures and scale. In the collections of more than 200 museums, his pioneering works also include large-scale outdoor installations in conservatories, botanical gardens and arboretums throughout the world.

A globally renowned American artist with roots on both coasts, Chihuly has since 1983 made his home in Seattle, also the site of his studio and hot shop and close to the Pilchuck Glass School, which he co-founded in 1971. Born in nearby Tacoma, Chihuly received a bachelor’s degree in Interior Design from the University of Washington and then earned an master’s degree in sculpture in the nation’s first hot glass program, at the University of Wisconsin. Next, he went to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he received his Master of Fine Arts in 1968.

Under a Fulbright Fellowship, he then spent a formative year in Venice working at the Venini glass factory on the island of Murano. He returned to establish the glass program at RISD and throughout the next decade taught glassmaking at both RISD and Pilchuck.  

After an auto accident in 1976 left him blind in one eye, Chihuly turned from blowing glass to instead, directing teams of glass artists who create his designs. Like a choreographer, he conceives and orchestrates each installation, often restaging and evolving the works. Some are structures with thousands of hand-blown parts. Like a company of dancers, the glass pieces travel the world and adapt to each host city.  

Chihuly designed the Boston exhibition, which was organized by MFA senior curator Gerald W.R. Ward. Three works in the MFA’s glass-walled courtyard are a prelude to the show. Chihuly’s 42’ tall “Lime Green Icicle Tower” (2011) almost reaches the ceiling of the soaring atrium. Composed of 2,342 hand-blown pieces of glass, the exuberant stalk suggests an abstract version of a Douglas fir, a tree common to the artist’s home state. Over the entrance to the courtyard is a sprawling mural of green and red glass tubes lit from within by neon and argon gases. And amid the live greenery that rims the courtyard, Chihuly has planted flamingo-like cattails of amber-hued glass.  

But the real magic begins when you descend into the show’s seven ground level galleries. The visual intoxication starts at the entry, where you face an enormous composition of floating, parasol-shaped orbs of wondrous delicacy in yellows, reds, and oranges entitled “Persian Wall” (2011).

The galleries are darkened to highlight the brilliant colors of the works, which are mounted on black mirrored platforms and masterfully lit to show their intricate, jewel-like textures.

The first gallery is home to “Ikebana Boat” (2011). The plain, curvilinear shape of a Finnish wooden rowboat frames its burgeoning cargo of confetti-colored organic forms — a teeming fantasia of loopy tubular petals, rococo tendrils and impossibly ornate flowers, some encrusted with gold specks, scales, specks and opulent whirls.

The Venetian Room shifts to silvery Art Deco elegance — but injected with whimsy. First inspired by Chihuly’s collaboration with Venetian glass master Lino Tagliapietra, this series takes as its starting point the sinuous forms of classical vessels. But these flagons and vases, in hues of purple, amber and gold, sprout multiple stems, spectacular flowers and abundant leaves. Also on display are three alluring drawings by Chihuly, quick, calligraphic whirls of pigment with which he sketches out his serpentine designs. Under his direction, his teams then translate such images into the luscious works on view.

In the third gallery, the Northwest Room, Chihuly displays glass pieces alongside selections from his collections of Northwest Coast Indian baskets and trade blankets — products of Pendleton and other companies based on Navajo designs.

The centerpiece is a massive table from Chihuly’s studio, hewn from the trunk of a 750-year-old Douglas fir tree. On its burled, craggy surface rests a group of shell-thin bowls — lustrous, pearlescent orbs of glass. Behind this display is a wall of 75 trade blankets in multicolored geometric motifs.

Shelves mingle exquisite hand-woven baskets with small glass vessels. Their slouching shapes mimic the softness of the baskets. Some are streaked with colored threads and encrusted with jewel-like patches that evoke the gold flecks of art nouveau paintings by Gustav Klimt. The installation has the grandeur and uncluttered delicacy of cave paintings.  

In the next gallery is “Mille Fiori” (2011), an otherworldly garden of glass in brilliant shades of yellow, red, lavender, green, orange and blue. Amid its impossible blossoms are snake-like tubers, spheres that resemble giant marbles and a tree of tangling orange boughs.

This gallery opens onto the Persian Ceiling Room, which evokes a tented garden pavilion. A bench invites visitors to linger as they view the voluptuous colony clustered overhead — from fantasy horned jellyfish and plump gilded starfish to tiny cherubs and sea-inspired forms that resemble floating parasols.  

The temperature cools down a bit in the remaining two galleries. The Chandelier Room displays six extravagantly writhing bundles of glass, each in a different color. The grand structures seem remote here, after the sensuous immersion of the previous galleries.

The exhibition concludes with an installation of austere beauty entitled “Neodymium Reeds on Logs” (2011). Crisscrossed birch logs from Maine form shaggy white bark mounts for a forest of slender, intermittently sparkling glass reeds in a bluish-purple hue.    

Chihuly counts among his major influences the installation artists Christo and Jean-Claude, who transform public spaces into realms of reflection and serenity. Their Feb. 25 project, “The Gates,” draped 23 miles of paved paths in Central Park with saffron fabric panels, drawing millions of captivated walkers. Visitors to this exhibition too are caught up in a spirit of joy and wonder, snapping photos of the works and each other as they murmur in admiration and delight.

You exit into a shop dedicated to Chihuly merchandise. Whether or not you succumb to a purchase, you’ll have something to take with you: a feeling of joy that lingers long after you leave the show.