Dale Chihuly's sculptures need no introduction. You know those extravagant arrangements of glass when you see them. And having seen them, you might think: Why see them again?
Like many of you, I have seen a lot of work by the world-famous glass artist, in greatest abundance at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.
So I was unprepared for my reaction to the Chihuly Collection, which opened a week ago in downtown St. Petersburg.
"Stunning" was my first thought.
For the most part, the vessels and installations are in Chihuly's familiar vocabulary — the Chandeliers and Persians, the Boat with Floats.
They seem, if not new, then fresh in the environment created for them by architect Albert Alfonso.
Most museums and galleries need neutral backdrops that can accommodate rearrangements and changes. There's nothing neutral about this setting. Alfonso had the advantage of designing a place for permanent installations that will stay put for the foreseeable future, so he has tailored the architectural elements to enhance the particular Chihuly form in each area.
When you enter the collection, before you see the first work, you smell the fragrance of cedar planks that line some walls. It's the first of many references the materials make to Chihuly's background and influences. In this case, it's his love of the Pacific Northwest where he lives in Tacoma, Wash., near Seattle.
The progression is a circular one with alternating bright and dark spaces as you move from gallery to gallery. Some are squared off but there are also a trapezoid shape, a gallery with undulating swirls and an oval made of steel bearing a dark patina, its walls used for both their convex and concave qualities. Floors are polished marble or darkly stained oak, and the way they're blended is especially artful. None of these details is meant to be your focus, rather subliminal cues that highlight Chihuly's works. But I found myself repeatedly appreciating their uniqueness and utter rightness.
The first installation is the simplest, a grouping of Chihuly's Tabac Baskets, which he began creating in 1977. Chihuly has a large collection of old baskets woven by Indians of Northwest tribes and his "baskets" have the earthen colors and slouchy shapes of their namesakes. Flourishes are subtle and distilled, a reminder that he may have become rich and famous because of his larger works, but he has always valued pure form. They're set on a table Alfonso should mass-market — richly veined heart-of-pine blocks set into a steel base. Across from it is the Drawing Wall, Chihuly's paintings he creates on paper that are studies and inspiration for his sculptures.
The second gallery could be called "Earth, Sea, Sky." An angled wall glows with Sunset Persian, 10 large yellow discs that march along like the sun's progression. Opposite is a set of eight Venetians, Chihuly's most flamboyant vessels that incorporate all the techniques used by his early mentors, the famed glassblowers of Murano, Italy. The Venetians have always been my least favorite among his work. They seemed too flamboyant, almost messy. Set against a vibrant backdrop of deep blue Venetian plaster the color of an early evening sky, they suddenly have a context and make sense. They contrast with the serene grouping of Sea Forms, 38 vessels made with optical molds to create clear and white ribs suggesting the foam of a cresting wave.
A trio of tall chandeliers, the famous tangles of glass spilling out Medusa-like, are suspended from the third gallery's ceiling. One is in shades of blue, another a crayon box of color and a third in bright red. The first two generate shadows, adding dimension to the curving walls. Ruby Red Chandelier is set into an alcove formed by one of the wall curves that glows with the same deep color.
Off this larger gallery are two small ones. A Macchia Forest, huge bowls "spotted" with every color available to the glass blower, is a riot of color mitigated by the uniformity of their shape. Next door, three oversized Ikebana sprout like Dr. Seussian flowers.
From these bright rooms, you enter the darkened gallery with Float Boat, another beloved Chihuly idiom. It's perched on a black Plexiglas platform surrounded by large orbs like a solar system. More of these Niijama Floats are piled into the boat — 150 we're told — named after the Japanese fishing markers that would sometimes wash ashore on the Northwest coast when Chihuly was young.
A narrow walkway with a Persian Ceiling tunnels you into the grand finale, the oval room centered with a Mille Fiore landscape planted in another reflective black Plexiglas platform. It's a fantastical garden of many forms, arranged to suggest the mass and void of a natural landscape. The curving walls and simple wood beams are a kind of homage to Le Corbusier's famous chapel in Ronchamp, France, which Alfonso and Chihuly both admire.
Just across is a small area with a Tumbleweed sculpture suspended from the ceiling and lit with a cool blue neon that suffuses its shadowless walls much as Ruby Red Chandelier did earlier.
If you didn't go any deeper than the visual here, you would have a satisfying experience. It won't take you long, probably an average of 30 minutes, and I urge you to go with a docent tour, offered every 30 minutes on the quarter-hour, that will provide you with interesting anecdotal and biographical information.
What I realized in my own look at the Chihuly Collection is that the artist should be taken more seriously than he generally is by some art critics.
He intends his art to be playful and fun, and when was beauty in art ever a bad word? There's none of that au courant irony we see in other contemporary art such as neo-pop artist Jeff Koons' stainless steel bunnies. (And as for Chihuly not actually making his glass, do you think Koons casts his sculptures? For that matter, did Bernini?)
I was tempted to blow past the chandeliers — another one of those? — until I began considering how they were done. They did not spring fully formed from his studio one day. They are the culmination of experimentation and, yes, failure, over many years. When he first began assembling them, many of his colleagues said they couldn't be done, especially as he began making them ever fuller and taller. I bet he was told the same thing about the enormous Floats, probably the largest blown glass orbs being made.
I see a wonderfully creative mind at work here, crammed with a lifetime of knowledge about his medium specifically and form and color generally, along with a childish joy he thankfully never left behind.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.