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His glass menagerie

MFA exhibit finally gives colorful artist Dale Chihuly his moment

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By Regina Hackett
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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SEATTLE — Dale Chihuly’s complaint about Boston is that there isn’t enough of him in it.

“I’m underrepresented in the region,’’ he said recently, mock indignant at the thought of his neglect in a place that helped shape him. After all, he graduated from Providence’s Rhode Island School of Design with a master’s degree in ceramics in 1968, founded a studio glass program at the school in 1969, and remained on the faculty for more than a decade.

If glass art’s main man once had grounds for complaint, he has them no longer.

“Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass’’ opens April 10 at the Museum of Fine Arts with a series of work that spans 40 years. Pieces will fill the museum’s new Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard and an expansive series of other spaces, with 12 installations in all, each showcasing Chihuly’s elaborately theatrical imagination. One piece, the spiky “Lime Green Icicle Tower,’’ is 42 feet tall and weighs about 10,000 pounds; it was created specifically for the courtyard. Another, “Boathouse Neon II,’’ will stretch 98 feet across one courtyard wall.

Organized by MFA senior curator Gerald W. R. Ward, “Through the Looking Glass’’ focuses on Chihu ly’s ability to create environments with a fairy-tale flavor, multicolored fantasies.

“He’s a major American artist,’’ said Ward, “who specializes in the manipulation of blown glass to create unique environments and installations that take full advantage of all the properties of glass, including its ability to absorb and transmit light and color. He’s really a master of both light and color.’’

The artist is to glass what Jean-Honoré Fragonard is to 18th-century French painting. Both are sensualists, open to the charge of frivolity, whether, like Fragonard, they paint pearly pink and baby blue skies as backdrop for a girl on a swing or, like Chihuly, they devote themselves to high-tone explosions of silky forms.

But Chihuly addresses the charge that his work is superficial with silence. “There is nothing any artist can do about people who dislike his work,’’ he said.

Little in his childhood suggested a lifelong interest in the decorative. Born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1941 to a meatpacker who became a union organizer, he grew up solidly blue collar. Chihuly remembers his home life as happy and stable until he was 15, when his only sibling was killed in a training accident at the Naval Air Force base in Pensacola, Fla. A year later, after his 51-year-old father died of a heart attack, his mother went to work to make ragged ends meet.

Chihuly might not have stayed in school were it not for his father’s friends. They put their burly hands on his shoulders to offer no-back-talk encouragement. But his real saving grace was an instinct to find solace in beauty. He prized his brother’s red roadster, suddenly his, and the neon sign over the bar where his mother sometimes worked. He was fascinated by the way the color flickered and steamed in the rain when he showed up to fetch her home.

He took his time getting through the University of Washington, turning a four-year program into six by dropping in and out, working odd jobs, and traveling. Chihuly signed on as a commercial fisherman in Alaska to make money for graduate school.

In 1967 he received a master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin, where Harvey Littleton had set up the country’s first contemporary studio glass program. Not content with one advanced degree, Chihuly got another, this time at RISD. Grants came his way, including one from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and a Fulbright Fellowship, which allowed him to become one of the first American glassblowers to work in the Venini factory on the island of Murano, a short vaporetto ride from Venice. The Venetian tradition, central to Chihuly, has been prized for dazzling color but faulted for its seemingly effortless grace.

In 1971, Chihuly founded Pilchuck Glass School on a tree farm north of Seattle. The first years were freeform, rich in the experimental. When Murano master glass blower Lino Taliapietra showed up in the summer of 1979, he found, he said later, facilities that were terrible, glass that was terrible, and students who were technically terrible. What kept him coming back was their willingness to learn and open attitude about where they might take what he taught them.

And Chihuly was thinking expansively. His sights were set not just on what he could put on a sculpture stand but what he could create to change the character of a room, house, field, or waterway. Early on, he worked not just in glass but also (with artist James Carpenter) in neon, dry ice, and experimental plastics.

In 1976, a car accident on the outskirts of London left him blind in his left eye, with permanent damage to his left foot and ankle. Glass blowers need both eyes for depth perception. Three years later, a body-surfing accident dislocated his shoulder, making it even harder to deliver what he envisioned.

He turned in a new direction: toward the age-old system of glass blowing with a team. As the artist in charge, he became a choreographer, not dancer, an architect, not builder.

“Once I stepped back,’’ he has said repeatedly, “I liked the view.’’

At this point, his career took off. Henry Geldzahler, then curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, acquired three of his “Navajo Blanket Cylinders’’ for the museum. The patterning of Navajo trade blankets inspired fat orbs with a lovely and loose patterning.

After that came glass spears rising from the mud banks of rivers; giant, abstract butterflies clustered on walls; swamp flowers with lolling, sexualized tongues; and clusters of swollen breasts, otherwise known as his 20-foot tall, 2,000-pound chandeliers.

Most of his series bear Italian titles, such as “Mille Fiori,’’ meaning a thousand flowers, a version of which will be at the MFA. In this 58-foot-long installation, iridescent blues, undulating greens, and hot reds catch the eye in a blooming garden of glass.

Chihuly now maintains two studios in Seattle, his primary one in an industrial section of Lake Union and the other nearby in Ballard. Crews act on his instructions, which they polish and elaborate on over time. Using the traditional Venetian technique, they shape molten glass at the end of blowpipes, adding color to the creations while they’re hot.

Chihuly’s Lake Union space is known as the Boathouse, and he lives there with his wife, Leslie, and their preteen son, Dylan. All around them are the artist’s collections, from antique bathing suits to toy airplanes and accordions. He buys in bulk, often on eBay.

Built like a wounded bear, clad in pastels, and sporting a pirate’s eye patch and paint-splattered shoes, Chihuly is instantly recognizable wherever he goes.

And his work is ubiquitous, with pieces in the collections of more than 200 museums around the world.

The MFA show is a major undertaking. Thousands of individual pieces arrived in 775 boxes, according to Ward, the curator, and the installation took 18 days.

About his goals for the exhibit, Chihuly will only say he hopes people come and that they like it, adding that he considers it an experiment.

“It’s an idea,’’ he said. “The interesting thing is to make it work.’’

Regina Hackett can be reached at anotherbb@gmail.com.

Chihuly's glass flowers on display at MFA
Photos

Chihuly's glass flowers
on display at MFA

Take a look at the exhibit that showcases the new and early works by one of the world's foremost glass artists.

CHIHULY: Through the Looking Glass

At: Museum of Fine Arts, April 10-Aug. 7. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org