Glass Menagerie

The spectacular Dale Chihuly solo sparkles at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Since taking over as president of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center a couple of years ago, Michael De Marsche has made many changes -- some for the better, some for the worse. But one call no one can argue with is his decision to bring in Chihuly, a massive retrospective solo dedicated to glass wizard Dale Chihuly that is set to run nearly all summer.

What makes this such a savvy move is that it has attracted a lot more visitors than usual to the center. More people means more money, an increased admission gate and a rise in gift-shop sales, memberships and more. In fact, the press of crowds has forced the CSFAC to extend its hours, remaining open all day on Mondays as well as on Friday and Saturday nights. These evening viewings are an unexpected bonus, because that's when the Chihulys look their best. They glow under the spotlights and become truly luminescent.

The secret to the show's success is that Chihuly is more or less a household name -- the artist and his work have been featured in books and magazines and on television for the past quarter-century. In art, familiarity doesn't so much breed contempt as it does appreciation.

"Autumn Gold and Aquamarine Chandelier," by Dale 
Chihuly, glass assemblage.
"Autumn Gold and Aquamarine Chandelier," by Dale Chihuly, glass assemblage.

Working in the Seattle area, Chihuly is among the best-known glass artists of all time, right up there with Louis Comfort Tiffany and Paolo Venini. But his real genius has been in changing the way people regard glass -- something even Tiffany and Venini couldn't pull off. Instead of using glass to make lampshades or vases, Chihuly used it to create sculptures and installations, thus brilliantly defecting from the arena of decorative arts to the loftier ranks of contemporary fine art.

The exhibit at the CSFAC features a big selection of the art star's accomplishments, beginning in the 1970s, when he started, and continuing to the present. Chihuly's in-house exhibition team selected the pieces and installed the show, which, considering the fragility of glass, makes a lot of sense.

Scores of pieces have been brought together for this huge effort. The show meanders throughout the majestic John Gaw Meem-designed center, with the Chihulys installed in most of the galleries, the niches, the hallways, the courtyard and in the newly created Deco Lounge bar.

The exhibit begins in the Garden Gallery, where the first phases of Chihuly's oeuvre are on display. I was shocked to see the delicate pieces sitting on tall iron and glass pedestals instead of being safely stowed away in showcases. I shudder to think how a wrong move on someone's part could do some expensive damage. The Chihuly studio-based organizers not only eschewed the use of showcases but also a lot of wall text, because both negatively effect the viewing experience. In response to the lack of labels, the CSFAC produced a handsomely illustrated color brochure that can be used as a guide to the show -- just don't walk and read at the same time, since you could bump into something.

The show starts off with Chihuly's earliest important pieces. These were inspired by American Indian art, in particular Navajo blankets, as seen in a series of "Blanket Cylinders" begun in 1975. The foundation for the pieces was laid a year earlier, when Chihuly and a group of friends began pulling glass rods into thin threads and then using the threads to draw on the surface of his pieces. By employing this new technique, and by choosing appropriate colors, Chihuly was able to suggest the mood, though clearly not the appearance, of Navajo blankets.

He created a similar feeling in echoing baskets made by various Indian tribes on the Northwest coast. Having seen the fabulous collection of the Washington State Historical Society, Chihuly was taken with the slumped and sagging appearance of the baskets, and he reproduced the concept in his "Baskets" series by creating forms that tilt this way and that, bulging here and there. The "Baskets" proved more important to Chihuly's future work than did "Cylinders" because the eccentricities of shape left the vocabulary of the traditional vessels and entered the realm of sculpture.

The CSFAC cogently paired "Blanket Cylinders" and "Baskets" with Navajo blankets and Indian baskets of the type that first lit Chihuly's conceptual furnace. The center has a world-class collection of this kind of thing, and it's good to see at least a fragment of it out on view, especially now that the permanent displays of American Indian and Hispanic art of the Southwest have been taken down for the first time since the center opened in the '30s. (Unlike bringing in the Chihuly blockbuster, the decision to short-change these pieces was not a good one on DeMarsche's part.)

Also in the Garden Gallery is a small selection of Chihuly's "Persians" from the 1980s, a series comprising flat, expressively blown bowls that are nested into one another or mounted on the wall. The "Persians" are a step closer to the full-blown sculptures and installations that earned Chihuly lasting fame.

One of Chihuly's most famous recent series is the "Chandeliers," and the Garden Gallery includes several of these. The "Chandeliers" are light fixtures in name only; they have no lights in or on them at all and thus need to be illuminated externally. The piece in the Garden Gallery is made of dozens of orange horns clustered together like the petals of a flower. It's fabulous. The "Chandeliers" were first done in the early 1990s, by which time Chihuly had embraced his signature Venetian-derived aesthetic; the "Chandelier" in the Garden Gallery fully reveals his debt to Venice.

Around the corner in the North Gallery is another "Chandelier" carried out in the very Venetian color combination of antique gold and pale aquamarine. It is similar in some ways to the orange piece, but it's different, too: It hangs all the way to the floor, thus suggesting a sculpture as opposed to a light fixture. This huge "Chandelier" is at the center of the room and anchors an installation of large-scale acrylic-on-paper drawings. Done with vivid, sometimes fluorescent shades of paint applied with squeeze tubes, the automatist compositions are clearly studies of color combinations and effects that are later seen in the glass. Chihuly's primary art form is drawing, with the actual blowing of the glass having been left to others since the 1970s.

In the East Hallway is a display of "Putti Sealife" and examples of "Ikebana," among others. The "Putti Sealife" refer back to a long Venetian tradition of combining fish with cherubs in absurd, though gorgeous, combinations. In these pieces, which are among the most beautiful things in a show filled with beautiful things, Chihuly creates elegant deep bowls of translucent or transparent glass. The bowl forms are closed at the top and done with luxurious glass techniques, including suspended gold flakes. On each, there's a sculptural finial that incorporates the fish-and-cherub motif in transparent glass with a tremendous amount of gold flakes. The "Ikebana" pieces are based on Japanese flower arrangements, with the results being Japanesque vessels in opaque multi-colored glass, topped with glass flowers.

In the big East Gallery, there's a pair of monumental "Chandeliers" and a selection of blue-and-white "Baskets," most of which were created in the 1990s and represent a return to Chihuly's interest of two decades earlier. Also reflecting back to that early period are the "Jerusalem Cylinders" from the late 1990s, which bear a close kinship to the first "Blanket Cylinders." As suggested by the title, the "Jerusalem Cylinders" were inspired by samples of ancient glass unearthed in Israel.

A small pair of galleries immediately adjacent to the East Gallery features "Persians" and an installation from the 1990s, "Niijima Floats." The installation is made of two dozen blown-glass spheres in juicy candy colors that are laid on a bed of broken clear glass; it's a showstopper.

Follow up a tour of those galleries with a trip outside to the beautiful courtyard, where an installation of the "Mille Fiori XVII" was put in the fountain so that the blown glass rises out of the pool of water; another rises from a flower bed. In both, long vertical spikes, suggestive of plants, are arranged in a group with spheres and other simple shapes.

The crescendo of the show comes in the South Gallery, the last one devoted to the show. This room is dominated by works from the "Macchia" series; they were installed as a "Macchia Forest" with thirteen pieces on individual pedestals of varying heights. Chihuly began the "Macchia" pieces in 1981, but these are from a more recent series, the newest of which was completed only a year or so ago. The "Macchia" pieces are based on Venini's famous fazzoletto vases, which imitate the form of a handkerchief being waved in the air. And like the Veninis, Chihuly uses a three-layer sandwich of glass with opaque white in the middle so that the outside can be a different color than the inside. I could not leave this gallery without mentioning how great the eggplant-colored walls look as a foil to the glowing glass.

In a sense, this gallery is the formal end of Chihuly, but there are other major pieces hung in the rest of the CSFAC. In the lobby, there's the center's own Chihuly chandelier, and down at the end of the breathtaking El Pomar Hallway, in a formal anteroom space backed by floor-to-ceiling windows, is the striking "Autumn Gold, Citron and Scarlet Tower." The piece, essentially a "Chandelier" turned upside down, is yet another showstopper on the order of the "Niijima Floats" installation. Immediately to the left in the Deco Lounge is "Gilded Sapphire Chandelier," one of the newest works in the show, done only a year ago.

Chihuly is well worth the three-hour round trip from Denver, and I unreservedly recommend it to everyone.

Dale Chihuly will make a rare personal appearance at the CSFAC on Friday, June 24, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., for a book signing. The museum shop has a wide variety of Chihuly books available.

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