It is generally unacceptable for people to lie on their backs in the middle of a museum gallery, but in one room at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), adults and children alike covered the floor and gazed up at the vibrant, sparkling ceiling above them. “The lighting is much better down here,” one patron told her friends excitedly, and they all quickly dropped to the floor to delight in the whirl of colors above.
Dale Chihuly is used to creating such exhilaration. Chihuly, an artist who has been creating sculptures out of molten glass for over 40 years, is being featured in an exhibit at the MFA from April 10 to August 7. His creations possess a vivid energy and exuberance that aptly coincide with the awakening of spring.
The exhibit, called “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass,” displays 12 original instillations designed specifically for the MFA. The intricate works were created by the artist and his team and evoke themes of nature and motion. “I would want my work to appear like it came from nature, so that if someone found it on a beach or in the forest, they might think it belonged there,” said Chihuly in the caption of one of his pieces. Unlike the work of many other glass artists, Chihuly’s creations possess an asymmetry that adds to their organic quality.
Chihuly uses the technique of glass blowing, in which molten glass is transformed through the use of centrifugal force and instruments such as blowpipes. The form originated as early as the last century B.C., and was used to make bowls, bottles, and glasses. In the ’60s, a group of artists, including Chihuly, saw beyond the practicality of the method and started to view glass blowing as an art form. After working at a glass-blowing factory in Venice in the late ’60s, he developed into one of the leaders of the avant-garde glass-blowing movement by creating flowing and colorful environments inspired by ice landscapes and forests. He has since displayed his work in over 200 museum collections worldwide.
The artist’s new exhibit at the MFA features 12 colorful installations, some of which are among the largest he has ever created. “There’s a lot more dimension in his works now,” said Richard Pearson, an MFA patron who viewed Chiluly’s exhibits in the ’80s. The most staggering of the new installments is “Lime Green Icicle Tower,” a soaring 42-foot work that resembles a gargantuan plant. Each ‘leaf’ on the tower has a slightly different hue, shape, and size, all of which give the structure a distinctive texture. Chihuly built the tower specifically for the courtyard, and it reflects impressively off the glass walls that surround it.
The exhibit’s dark lighting further accentuates the vibrancy of the glasswork. While the compositions are stunning on their own, Chihuly effectively employs juxtaposition to enhance the exoticism of his work. “Ikebana Boat” features a dull, wooden boat filled with lively and twisting figures. Chihuly’s “Tabac Baskets” and archaic Native American baskets sit side by side, the former echoing the intricacies and simple beauty of the latter. In the Persian Ceiling Room, a series of seashell and floral figures sit on a glass ceiling above. The reflections of light off the glass forms give the room a dreamy, underwater quality. “You feel like you’re at the bottom of the sea,” said patron Jane Tuckerman.
Despite the ease with which the sculptures currently fill the museum’s space, installing the project was a monumental task. Chihuly’s team brought 775 boxes of material into the museum and set them up over the span of three weeks, and engineers had to make sure that the museum could hold such enormous and delicate structures. Chihuly was careful to tailor his works to the rooms in which they would be displayed. “Chihuly designed the traffic flow through the rooms, and there’s a really nice rhythm to the exhibit,” said MFA senior curator Gerald W. R. Ward ’71.
While Chihuly’s works have been critically acclaimed for their complexity and innovation, they also produce an immediate emotional reaction. “The sense of movement makes his work joyful,” said Lynda Umbro, another MFA patron. “It makes me happy.” Ward agreed. “After a long winter, [Chihuly’s sculptures] are a taste of spring. They lift your spirits.”