Although fairly ubiquitous in Botanical Gardens and museum rotundas, Dale Chihuly’s colorful and primarily organically shaped glass installations add an intriguing juxtaposition with the spaces they inhabit. Despite his popularity, opinion varies whether his work enhances or detracts. Whichever camp you choose, there’s a fertile ground for conversation.
The single-word, all-caps title — “CHIHULY” — of a new show at the New York Botanical Garden conveys immediately exactly what visitors will be getting: vibrant glass sculptures in a familiar style, one that often recalls nature, and sometimes competes with it.
He started by weaving glass into tapestries but, eventually, the weaving part, once his primary technique, fell away.
“There is something about glass, one of the few materials that light goes through,” Mr. Chihuly said. “You’re looking at light itself.”
The shapes that Mr. Chihuly has spread to institutions worldwide remind many people of organic forms. But he has always maintained that copying nature has never been his goal. “I’m not conscious of mimicking,” he said. “I don’t study plant books. Glass wants to make forms like that, if you let it.”
Edward Cooke, a professor of American decorative arts at Yale, compared him to another prolific glassmaker who found a way to master both the high culture of museums as well as the popular market.
“You could say he’s the contemporary version of Louis Comfort Tiffany,” said Mr. Cooke, who is very familiar with the work of both artists.
Like many people in the art world, Mr. Cooke, though, is of two minds about Mr. Chihuly. He admires some work, but noted, “There’s a crassness to it at times,” which he attributed to “color, sensory overload, scale and ubiquity.”
However he derives his forms, “having artwork in the landscape changed how people view the plants, and the entire garden,” said Karen Daubmann, associate vice president for exhibitions and public engagement at the New York Botanical Garden, referring to the 2006 show. “People thought of us as an exhibition venue from that point on.” (The Botanical Garden had 525,000 visitors to “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life,” in 2015.)
And Ms. Daubmann had a ready response for any purists who think that Mr. Chihuly is merely gilding lilies.
“There are people who are not fans, but our answer to that is that this is a temporary display,” she said. “We say, ‘Come check it out,’ but it will be gone by November, and it’s back to your favorite flowers and shrubs.”
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