Heart of Glass Dazzler: Museum is about to throw light on a wonderland by glass pioneer Dale Chihuly.


Two and a half weeks before the opening of the show, it arrived at the Baltimore Museum of Art in three tractor-trailers -- in hundreds of boxes filled with a thousand pieces of glass, from tiny squiggles to globes and swirling flowerlike forms 3 feet across.

Then came the installation team: six people from the Seattle studio joined by an even larger number of BMA staff, all working 10 days to create the world of glass known as "Dale Chihuly: Installations."

When the show opens Wednesday, museum-goers will enter a world of light and color that fills the temporary exhibition galleries and spills over onto the east wing's front window wall. There will be a chandelier 6 feet across and 10 feet long, made of 400 pieces of bulbous yellow glass; a forest of pieces called macchias that look like a cross between a vase and a sea creature, placed on stands up to 12 feet high and lighted from above so that they seem to glow from within; spherical floats that look like a solar system's planets, their kaleidoscopic skins lighted from within by neon; a "Persian Pergola" of 450 pieces of glass placed on a ceiling of clear glass that you walk under, so you look up and see a roof of glass, look down and see its equally colorful reflection on the floor.

Glass has been made for thousands of years, but there has never been anything in its history like Dale Chihuly's creations. His sizes, his forms, his combinations of colors have never been thought of before. His installations are wonderlands, as appealing to school children as to museum curators. In the process of a phenomenal career Chihuly, 54, has become a worldwide figure and greatly expanded the appreciation of glass.

"People who see a beautiful Chihuly have to start thinking about glass as a wonderful thing to live with," says Dorothy Saxe of Menlo Park, Calif., who with her husband, George, are major collectors of glass in general and Chihuly in particular. "It changes people's lives, and makes them open to and aware of the special kind of beauty of glass."

Strangely enough, Chihuly has not blown any glass himself since he lost sight in one eye -- and with it his depth perception -- in a 1976 automobile accident. Instead, at his Seattle studio he has built a team 40-strong, from glass blowers to installation designers to office workers, who help execute the ideas that flow from his fertile mind.

He travels up to 250,000 miles a year and at any given moment has projects going all over the world -- at this moment, in Singapore, Japan, Korea, Amsterdam, Dallas, New York, Detroit RTC and Arizona. That's in addition to his recent grand concept to create chandeliers in several countries to hang over the canals of Venice. That project has recently taken him to Finland, Ireland and Mexico.

The show coming to Baltimore was created four years ago for the Seattle Art Museum and has been traveling the country since then. It consists of a combination of various installations created over decades; they are reconfigured for each museum the show visits.

"One of the differences with this show is that it was meant for big spaces," said Chihuly on a trip here in December to look at the BMA's galleries. "It's one thing to have one or two macchias in a room and another to have 20 of them, at different heights, that almost encompass you. And the pergola has that same kind of environmental feeling, where the glass is all around you and there's a lot of it.

"I had been doing installations in public spaces for a long time, but never in museums. This was the first time an important museum gave me the space to do whatever I wanted to, and that was the beginning of this exhibition. Doing an exhibition is almost like doing another piece of artwork. You can be as creative as you want to be."

During his day in Baltimore, Chihuly decided to install not only the gallery spaces but the east wing window wall. He decided to fling up to 20 of his flowerlike Persian pieces across the windows, where the sunlight will reflect on the interior walls.

After his site visit, more installation planning would take place in Seattle, he said. "I'll go back and make a model of the space and then we'll put in scale parts. Not a fancy model, but when you work with it, it sort of gives you an idea of how you get things into the space to work the best way we can."

Chihuly makes it all sound almost unremarkable, as he does when he talks about the team effort to create a piece. A new piece often starts with one of his energetic drawings, several of which will fill a wall in the Baltimore show.

First, a drawing

"If I were starting something like the chandelier," he said, "I would do a drawing, put the drawing up and talk to the glass blowing team about it. I give the craftsmen a lot of leeway when they're working on something. They work one day and then the next day you get to look at what you made the day before and talk about whether you got what you wanted. Very often the people that work for me do their own art work. Fortunately, they're usually smart enough not to want to make work that looks like mine, so the time that they're working for me they can sort of pretend they're me, try to figure out what it is I'm looking for. It makes a big difference if I've got really creative people working for me."

Several elements work to achieve the Chihuly effect. "Much of it has to do with color," he said. "And there is the size. Some of this glass is the largest glass that's ever been blown. We were able to do this over time by building larger equipment and having big strong husky guys as glass blowers and pushing that aspect of it. It's a lot harder to work large.

"And another thing is the lighting. They're lit so they glow. I think a painting can look good in pretty obscure lighting, but objects I think need light more. And glass, it's transparent, it thrives on light."

Original forms

Of course, there are also the Chihuly forms -- like no one else's.

He achieves the forms "in a very natural way," he says. "I don't use very many models or tools, and so I let the glass sort of find itself. A macchia, a minute before it was finished it was simply a round ball, and we heat it up and with centrifugal force spin it out [on the end of a pole]. It happens very quickly, and almost all of the shapes are made in a very natural way using fire and centrifugal force and gravity. And prior to my working that way, hardly anyone had ever worked that way. Most blown glass was symmetrical. These natural shapes that everybody thinks they feel like they come out of the sea. . . that just sort of seems to happen to me automatically."

Automatic or not, his work has changed the way people think about glass. Davira Taragin is curator of 19th and 20th century glass at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, which has a 7,000-piece glass collection, including about 25 Chihuly pieces. "He has taken the idea of a piece of glass as a table-sized object and moved it into the worlds of sculpture and installation," she says.

Brenda Richardson, the BMA's curator of modern painting and sculpture, agrees. "He's just stretched the medium beyond anything we ever expected of glass," she says. "It's extremely impressive when anyone takes any medium and pushes it that far."

Aside from the importance of his own work, Chihuly is also known as a spokesman for glass as an art form, and as a mentor. "He's truly an ambassador for contemporary studio glass," says Mrs. Saxe. "He's very visible. He promotes himself and his studio very well, and anybody working in glass as well."

Started glass school

Twenty-five years ago, he was among those who started the Pilchuk Glass School in Seattle. "What that did for the glass world was incredible," says Mrs. Saxe. "Today, Seattle has become the center for contemporary glass in this country. Chihuly and Pilchuk were the magnet for that, and it continues to be stronger and stronger."

If Chihuly has done more than anyone else to spur recognition of glass as an art form, his work has never become esoteric or rarefied in the process.

The show that opens Wednesday at the BMA recently closed after an enormously successful run at the San Jose, Calif., Museum of Art.

"Its appeal is extremely broad," says museum director Josi Callan. "My mother, who is 79, loved it every bit as much as a young child. It appeals to everyone. The last three weekends we had lines all day long. We let the museum stay open longer so everyone would have an opportunity to come through the show."

Art Preview

What: "Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964-1996"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 28

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

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