Chihuly, the guru of glass
Organic forms sprout about town
By CATHERINE FOX |
Published on: 05/13/04
Dale Chihuly is to glass what Frank Gehry is to architecture.
Both stand at the
pinnacle of their professions. Both work with signature
vocabularies. Both embrace technical innovation. Like Gehry's Bilbao
museum and Los Angeles concert hall, Chihuly's sculptures are
unabashedly beautiful. Cities are clamoring for a Gehry building of
their own; individuals covet a Chihuly.
For the next five months at least, Atlanta will have its Chihuly,
and then some: a spectacular array at the Atlanta Botanical Garden
and a hefty show at Lowe Gallery. (You also can see Chihuly in the
context of his teacher Harvey Littleton and some of his disciples in
"The White House Collection of American Crafts," which just opened
at the Carter Center. But more about that at a later date.)
You might want to visit Lowe first. The exhibition offers a sampling
of the many series Chihuly has conceived over the years and
continues to work with. Pieces from these series are in the garden
as well, but here you can examine them close up and see them in
relation to one another.
The result is a good sense of the character of Chihuly's work. For
instance, his ruffly-edged "Sea Forms," which evoke such things as
clamshells and lilypads, suggest that nature is a major source of
inspiration. Their presentation as nested forms exemplifies his
preference for ensembles.
And you can't miss his glorious color. The gallery is a
bliss-inducing rainbow coalition — fiery orange, red and yellow
candy stripes, soothing blue, milky pink, spring green. Chihuly
never met a hue he didn't like, and he seems determined to use all
300 available to him in his medium. He extends their range by
deploying colors at various levels of transparency and opacity.
The main gallery is devoted to the newest series, "Mille Fiori."
Working in conservatories inspired these abstracted tendrils, stalks
and blooms. The dramatic, multipart assemblage in the center
reflects his ever more expansive scale.
Chihuly is a giant in his field. Still, some pieces work better than
others. His exuberant imagination is his strongest suit; the objects
that dwell in the realm of the evocative and the fantastic are the
most beguiling. When he edges closer to realism (like the
flower-in-a-vase motif of the "Ikebana" series and some of the
"Mille Fiori" objects, the wonder fades. And the paintings on view,
though ebullient, are not even close to the level of the glass.
On to the garden.
Chihuly is an old hand at site-specific installations and has worked
in public spaces all over the world. It should be no surprise, then,
how well he and his crew have adapted his glass to both the
monumental and intimate spaces of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The
extravagant, 19-foot-tall tower in the Howell Fountain — 650 pieces
of yellow, red and citron corkscrewing glass — punctuates the vista
across the great lawn and the axis of the walkway from the
administration building. The frenzy of color sprouting out of the
old granite planters behind the conservatory looks terrific against
the skyline, especially at night. The similarly dense and undulant
glass tubes that seem to explode in the parterre fountain make a
splendid counterpoint to that garden's crisp geometry.
Using tricks learned at Chicago's Garfield Park, his first
conservatory project, Chihuly alternates startling contrasts — blue
and purple spikes against the cacti in the Desert House — with more
subtle surprises, like the way a ropy piece mimics thick vines in
the Fuqua Conservatory. In the Fuqua Orchid Center, the "Sea Forms"
floating in a pond look like exotic specimens in their own right.
The project, which has introduced some shapes I've never seen,
offers both whimsy and a hint of menace. The green spiky pieces
crowning the portal to the Japanese Garden exemplify the former. The
bulbous red stalks in the tropical garden suggest sci-fi alien
The installation falters a bit in places where the pieces are less
integrated into the garden. The "Macchia" display outside the Orchid
House, for example, is too much like a standard exhibition. Also,
the opaque plastic balls in the tropical garden, which look like an
imminent New Year's balloon drop, offer none of the allure or magic
These are quibbles. "Chihuly in the Garden" is a great experience,
day and night. (You must do both to get the full effect.) You will
not only enjoy the art, but you will see the garden in a new way.