Going to see “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass,” on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through August 7, is a little bit like a trip to the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. In both cases, visitors float through dark rooms where focused light sharply illuminates color-drenched objects of wonder. But the moods of the two exhibits are completely different. At the Tower, you’re pressed together with what feels like hundreds of tourists, squinting at glittering tiaras and scepters through thick glass in a somber yet avid hush. On the other hand, the Gund Gallery, a series of linked rooms where “Through the Looking Glass” has been installed, is a roomy and relaxed habitat where museum-goers co-exist with the art they have come to see. The atmosphere is one of easy delight: before entering the installation “Persian Ceiling,” a large text on the wall encourages viewers to “Look up, and luxuriate.” And they do. As I stepped under a ceiling bright and crowded with hundreds of colorful blown-glass pieces, two teenaged girls (one showing a fair amount of black-stockinged leg, the other wearing a bright turquoise hijab) lay down shoulder to shoulder to stare at the ceiling, gleefully urging, “You have to do this!” A three-year-old with red curls let out a stream of wow’s while an older couple, taken with their own wonder, turned their cameras away from the ceiling and towards each other’s faces. The glass environments in this exhibit meet us, encourage our amusement and surprise; they are strange sometimes beyond words, but also terrific fun.
Dale Chihuly is a glass artist based in Seattle, WA, who is famous not only for the precision, technical mastery, and brilliant colors of his pieces, but also for his collaborative method. In part resulting from the loss of vision in one eye and an injury to his shoulder, Chihuly works “like a film director or an architect,” with a team of artists to create “glass environments” for indoor and outdoor settings, whether permanent or fleeting. And like a film, a theater production, or a building, the sensibility and aesthetic of the work produced by Chihuly Studio is unified and consistent, even in its multiplicity and complexity. The pieces presented in this forty-year retrospective are bright and smooth, often dauntingly large, and composed of multiple parts that cluster together like organisms in an ecosystem or diverse components within a cell. They are frequently plantlike, vital and faintly menacing, and sport attachments that suggest insect pincers or lobster claws. They’re organic and goofy, as if they’d grown themselves, rather than being made. Yet at the same time there is something stubbornly artificial in their fantastic symmetries.
The exhibit welcomes with you the “Persian Wall,” a collection of platter-shaped forms with wobbled or ruffled edges in warm shades of red and orange, which suggest jellyfish or tree fungus or even poppies. (In the Chihuly lexicon, a “Persian” is merely a form, a unit of glass without geographical or political inflections. “I just liked the word,” Chihuly is reported to have said.) The Persians are impressive, but for me, the real moment of you’re not in Kansas anymore, when I knew I had crossed over into a different world, was the confrontation, in the next room, with the “Ikebana Boat.” In a dark space with very bright, clean lighting, it drifts on a silky black platform: A plain wooden boat heeling with the almost-sentient weight of a load of blue, green, orange, yellow and gilt glass tentacles, bulbs, horns, and tendrils, lively and writhing with life. One orange calla lily-shaped arm snakes down as if to peer at itself in the highly reflective surface.
Also amazing are the slumping forms of the “Tabac Baskets,” which rest on an enormous cedar plank in the Northwest Room, accompanied by the Native American baskets and Pendleton blankets which have inspired them. The Tabacs are painfully translucent, almost gelatinous, like jellyfish or blisters. And “Mille Fiori,” in an adjoining room, is a world unto itself: Repeating forms cluster and proliferate like enormous rainforest plants. (Chihuly is quoted as saying of this installation, “When one is good, a dozen is better,” and he’s right.) This environment is one of strong, simple lines, clear reds and cobalt blues, and a bright, pure teal I especially loved. Dark, slippery, faintly birdlike forms seem to slide among the stalks like grackle in straw. Yet for all their playfulness, there is something aloof, even clinical, in the refusal of these forms to resolve into anything anthropomorphic: A tall column of orange, red, and yellow curlicues bristles with life, advancing its stems and spirals toward you, but it’s no life you might feel kinship with.
The series of “Chandeliers” even more obviously occupy this strange territory between the made, abstract thing, and the mysterious, suggestive creature. Glowing fiercely, hanging suspended from the dark ceiling, these are monochromatic, rigorously alien forms: One like a yellow splash, one like a white taffy-pull, one a precise, static explosion in aggressive algae green. My favorite, a cobalt and tangerine concoction named “Orange Hornet and Eel Grass,” suggests the insect as well as the vegetable world, but at the same time it’s an astoundingly inorganic thing: hundreds of pounds of bright glass blown in bizarre convolutions and hanging from the ceiling. Maybe it’s a jellyfish or a bioluminescent squid; but then again maybe it’s just a really weird chandelier.
But if the “Chandeliers” elegantly maintain their abstracted distance, the “Persian Ceiling” pulls us in. You lie there on the carpeted floor, or stand, craning your neck upwards, surrounded by your fellow museum-goers, all of whom seem to be having a lot of fun. The more you look, the more you see. The clear glass ceiling holds a multitude of colorful forms (“Persians”) that suggest starfish, jellyfish, calla lilies, ocarinas, lily pads, amphorae. Some are abstract, making me think of the rods and cones in the eye; if you look carefully, though, you’ll see a fully-articulated octopus and a rare humanoid form: a clear glass putto, fat and small.
And in the last room, cool as a woodland glade, we find our size reduced by the “Neodymium Reeds on Logs.” Like slim, unopened crocus or iris buds, a delicate shade of bluish-lavender tipped with darker nibs, they rise out of gigantic birch logs. Each one is uniform, unerringly straight, and taller than I am.
Confronted with all this vitality and technical virtuosity, two questions arise, one practical, one philosophical. The first is, How in the world was it done? And the second is, Who did it? The curators, as well as Dale Chihuly himself, have been perfectly transparent about the extent to which this work is a collaboration. But—a collaboration of what sort? What makes a Chihuly bear that name and not the name of the artist who blew the glass or assembled the pieces? How does Dale Chihuly direct this work? We understand that it is his workshop, his vision, his drive. But what does that mean exactly? The “Venetian” room includes a series of fantastical vessels and vases accompanied by Dale Chihuly’s paintings which, though they suggest the three-dimensional forms, are much less technical guides than impressionistic gestures. It would take some imagination and engineering to leap from the sketch to the made thing. Which of course brings us back to, How in the world was it done?
This is really the only flaw in this marvelous exhibit. More information about the technicalities—and practicalities—of how this work comes to be would be illuminating on a number of fronts, not to mention fascinating. And while I’m perfectly willing to accept that a work that is executed collaboratively can still center around, or spring from, one vision—that one artist can in fact be largely responsible for work that was carried out by many—it would be delightful and informative to know exactly how that works. In the world of art, we are too often quick to minimize or dismiss the collaborative aspect: Either a piece of art is the sole creation of one person, or we consider the lesser contributors to have been somehow slighted; then we seem to want authorship assigned to them instead. Numerous controversies of this sort have surfaced, and will continue to surface, if we don’t better understand the collaborative process. And this exhibit could have been a wonderful site to explore that question. This missed opportunity was made even more disappointing when I was disgorged from the gallery into the gift shop, where a video of the artists blowing glass and talking about their work was playing on a small wall monitor—without sound.
Still, when I was let out into the normally-lit, ordinarily-human lobby outside, feeling oddly let-down to have left Chihuly’s world, I was cheered to see a ceiling-high, acid green tower of clear, faintly-glowing glass spikes: A transplant from the planet I’d just left. More glass sculptures were tucked among plantings in the courtyard. And while I can’t endorse one hundred percent the words I heard a young woman say of “Mille Fiori”—“This is the world I want to live in all the time”—I definitely wanted to turn right around and go back for more. And, unlike the Crown Jewels, where lines are long, spectators hushed, and the gems passive, this world of Dale Chihuly lets you right back in, and might even give you a little wave with a plantlike, glassy, tentacular claw.