Chilhuly at the De Young

A catch-up post from June 18.

We’d seen the Dale Chihuly glass ceiling garden at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and just missed his book-signing appearance at his gallery there, so we were delighted to hear that his show at the De Young in San Francisco had just opened.

Our tickets were timed, so we went straight in. I wish now that we’d seen the movie offered before getting our tickets. It documented a week’s symposium at the hotshop of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. Each day, Chihuly, or rather, Team Chihuly along with invited glass-masters of the world, created masterpieces beneath an upper gallery of fascinated spectators.

A roar of applause would erupt each time a piece was finally severed from the gaffer’s pipe and placed into the fire-suited arms of a bearer who’d whisk it off into a kiln for slow-cooling like a trusted midwife.
Scorched wooden smoothing paddles, hot-tables spread with gold leaf or delicate glass threads, waiting to adhere to the soft globe of glass, emerging from roaring glory holes of intense heat, optic molds for shaping ridges in taffy-like, red-hot glass, which would later spin out into scallops, veins, and stems of enormous flowers: all these elements were kept in play by skilled, sweating muscles of glass masters. They followed the directions and sketched concepts that Chihuly would dash out on large paper, with fistfuls of pencils, or thick charcoal sticks, but their artistry would always take center stage in this amazing co-creation.

Dale Chihuly would have been one of the great masters in glass, but his destiny was to be an artist who could evoke the magnificence of a team of masters, and bring forth objects and installations beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. First, he lost an eye, which made the missing depth perception in a hotshop very dangerous. Then he injured his shoulder and was finished as a glass-blower, but certainly not as a leader in the art of glass.

His show is a riot of color and light, and impossibly large forms that don’t mimic nature but express its energy. The De Young has mounted this show with all the work exposed. Nothing is behind glass; only discreet markers on the floor and vigilant guards keep these enormous pieces from harm. One guard told me that the Monet exhibit was worse, because of the extreme value of the pieces, but this show, especially on our second visit on the weekend had to be a challenge. Photography was allowed, but not flash, and many of us had cameras that would default to flash every time we turned them off to save the battery. Many of us had large, swaying, camera bags, and some people had hyper little kids who stamped around energetically. The gaurds would tactfully tail them and were surprisingly understanding about the unintended flashes.

Like exotic creatures from other worlds, pink and white neon-filled glass drool-forms reflected deeply in their black glass display.

Giant glass vases with outlandish flowers reached toward the spotlights near the black ceiling.

A brown trellis was of parasol-sized ‘flowers’, all in exuberant sun colors lifted our hearts, like California poppies.

A long, low platform covered with ‘tabac’ colored ‘baskets’ and bowls was flanked by shelves of Ancient Indian baskets, which had inspired the glass ‘baskets’ mixed among them. The opposite wall displayed dozens of Pendelton blankets, which inspired some to the tiny details in the baskets and in cylindrical vases further into the show.

Another room billowed with large (>3’) bowl/flowers on tall iron stands. Each had a bead of contrasting color along its edge, and many were arranged to play against the next piece. The undersides of these glowed with the layers of color within.

One room had huge birch logs, from which ‘grew’ shoots of deep lavender glass, over a layer of white case glass deep within, inspired by the glassworks of Finland. The sheer size and number of these created a tranquil ‘forest’ and their uniformity of color calmed the eye for the next room’s riotous spectrum.

On a sea of black glass lay two old wooden boats: one filled with gargantuan glass floats, inspired by Chihuly’s child-hood love of old glass marbles, and his discovery of Japanese fishing floats along the Northwest coast, and the other overflowing with flowers, vines, pods, tendrils, dragon’s tongues and other serpentine forms which reflected in the still, black ‘water’ below.

The next room held four of his famous hanging ‘chandeliers’, consisting of hundreds of pod-vine-like forms that snaked out from their dense, grape-like clusters to catch the light and cast fantastic shadows.

The next room, painted white, was lined with benches along the wall, which were filled with stunned visitors waiting for friends, or looking up at the glass ceiling above, which supported hundreds of flowers, Persian pod-shapes, shells, stars, putti (wingless cherub-forms) and other smaller delights. It reminded me of the bottom of a toy box belonging to celestial beings. On first visit, I didn’t even try to shoot the ceiling, but shot the ripples of colored light that spilled down the white walls.

The last room was truly a grand finale: a garden of unearthly delights, using all the forms previously seen, rising again from the mirror of black glass, form playing against form, color vying with color, textures inviting touch, and watchful guards forbidding it. I think they were right to allow photography, as it kept hands busy and the photos, long afterward, will help recall the exquisite experience. No, it wasn’t all just a dream.

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