Thousands of glass art objects—strange, striking, beautiful, and combined in fantastic arrangements—currently populate the special exhibit galleries of San Francisco’s de Young. They range from palm-of-your-hand pieces to gigantic supernovas of glittering glass tentacles, singular, vivid, bowls big enough to float baby Moses down the Nile, and hallucinogenically hued “marbles” blown as big as sofa hassocks.
The museum is showing a broad survey of the work of the Washington-based Dale Chihuly. It’s a powerful, fragile, splendid display worth seeing before it closes Sept. 28.
Perhaps you’ve put off seeing this exhibit because some art critics don’t care for Chihuly. Apparently, he’s a bit too commercial, too popular and not sufficiently obte. In essence, if I read one review correctly, it’s discouragingly lowbrow when a critic or curator isn’t needed to explain what art means.
Chihuly’s exhibit text offers this observation about his glass sculptures. “Obviously, people are going to look at them and see things they want to see in them. I prefer that than if I told them what it is they should be seeing.”
I’ve seen things I like in Chihuly exhibits in recent years: the first, in 2000, at the San Jose Museum of Art; the second, last year, outdoors in the New York Botanical Garden; now, at the de Young.
My uncritical advice is to go see Chihuly exhibits when they’re around. They are like satisfying, entertaining movies; the art may not sweep the Oscars, but they’re a pleasure to experience.
At San Jose, as now at the de Young, the displays are tightly structured, with objects placed in darkened, blank boxes and rooms and carefully spot lit. This can produce quite dramatic effects with single pieces or whole walls, islands, and constellations of glass appearing as glowing objects ap-proached through the gloom.
At the New York Botanical Garden, in comparison, the glass artworks were in gardens or greenhouses, where wind and sun could play across them as they contrasted with the surrounding plants and structures.
The most enticing pieces in New York were in the twin, open-air, water-lily pools of the Haupt Conservatory. Wooden boats, each piled impossibly full of glass, were surrounded by glass floats, all glittering in the afternoon sun.
At the de Young, there are similar glass-laden boats, but they are displayed in a dark room. gliding on a black mirror glass surface as if crossing the River Styx. Single, planet-like, brilliant globes seem to float around them.
The Chihuly exhibit is a “one way only” progression, although when we were there on opening day the guards didn’t seem too intent on stopping those who decided to backtrack to revisit an earlier room.
Don’t cross the taped lines on the floor around many of the fragile sculptures, however. Photography is allowed, and perhaps too enthusiastically taken to. Many were intent on documenting, not necessarily contemplating, everything.
Each room displays a different form, style, or era of Chihuly’s work. Some cohere as unified sculptural sets, including a large space filled with white birch logs and lavender glass lances, and another where dozens of yellow and red fan-like forms project in frozen undulation on a vertical framework.
Other rooms feature diverse, stand-alone, single pieces, including intricate vases and several of Chihuly’s chandelier shapes that look like giant octopi, fantastical spiders, or starbursts descending from the ceiling.
There’s a room of recent “black glass” pieces and a space that mixes antique Native American baskets with glass forms in colors and patterns recalling the woven designs. There are also a lot of rather abstracted drawings by Chihuly, as well as Indian trade blankets he uses for pattern inspiration.
Many of the pieces are quite beautiful, others frankly weird, and at several points you’re likely to stop and think, “I had no idea you could do THAT in glass.”
The finale of the exhibit is a long room with a raised, mirrored, podium down the center, sprouting a gigantic “milleflora garden” of glass—reed shapes, spiky aloe-like growths, balls, sinuous stalks, many of them towering over the viewer.
My favorite space—both at the de Young, and at the earlier San Jose exhibit—has been the room with a “ceiling” of glass panels. Laid atop, in studied confusion, are hundreds, if not thousands, of glass sea-form shapes all brilliantly lit from above.
The objects range from hefty “shells” worthy of a giant clam to delicate cups the size of a sea urchin. It’s an otherworldly coral reef or a beach awash with a rhythm of glass shapes, an effect the designers have slyly enhanced by inserting, here and there, tiny golden glass putti mermaids and octopi.
It’s easy to spend a great deal of time in this room, discovering new patterns and yet another “most beautiful” piece of glass.
It’s also the best room for people watching. Many are just lost in rapture although a few get no more than a crick in their neck. At San Jose, the floor was carpeted, and many people lay down on their backs for a better view; the de Young has low benches but, alas, a hard wood floor.
There’s only one installation outside the special galleries, a huge yellow glass column in the “Pool of Enchantment” adjacent to the museum. You can see it without admission, and it’s lit at night.
The DeYoung museum, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, is accessible from the East Bay by BART, then Muni bus, or by car. The Chihuly exhibit runs through Sunday, Sept. 28. Tuesday-Thursday, 9:30 a..m.-5:15 p.m., Fridays until 8:45 p.m., and Saturdays -Sundays until 6:15 p.m. Standard admission, including a $5 surcharge for the Chihuly exhibit, is $15 adults, $12 seniors, $11 youths (11-17) and college students with ID. www.chihulyatthedeyoung.org or call (415) 750-3600.