Connoisseurs talk about being struck by the Stendhal effect when they spot a particularly hot work of art.
I felt kind of like Stendhal a couple of weeks ago in when I was being filmed chatting with the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly in his sensational retrospective mounted that opened at the De Young Museum in San Francisco this summer, June 14-Sept. 28, 2008.
It was when I entered a gallery entitled "Black" and filled with his paintings and black glass sculptures.
What got me palpitating were the glistening black cylinders embellished with sparkling drawings arrayed along one wall. I blurted out, "Smashing! My God, after all you’ve done, Dale, you are still maturing as a creative force."
Chihuly’s "Black Cylinders" look like towers made of jet or of some mysterious material plucked from the heart of a black hole in space. They are stately columns of black fire awash with nervous hatchings and weavings and punctuated by diminutive color fields. The interior of each cylinder has a different color -- red, yellow, orange, green -- and the lush hues lurking inside enhance the majesty of the works.
The drawings on them are gripping. Frenetic congeries of cross-hatches and weavings in blazing white, blue, green and pink; figurative details like horses; occasional numbers, circles and dots, and feathers, all reminiscent of motifs from native American baskets and paintings and Pendleton blankets. The creators of the sensational drawings are Ms. Flora Mace and Ms. Joey Kilpatrick.
Part of the immense appeal of these monumental black cylinders is that they carry no message, no meaning, no folderol, no BS. They are objects of pure sensuality and visual passion. Or, as the vaunted art theorist Clive Bell would say, they offer "a dash of the sensuous affective."
Where did Chihuly get the idea for cylinders? Partly by sheer chance. Turning chance or even an accident in the hotshop into fine art is one of Chihuly’s hallmarks. Take his flamboyant boats -- and I mean flamboyant in the best sense. The idea of heaping wooden vessels with glass objects came to him when he was throwing some pieces into a stream to see how they floated and a couple of boys in small boats started retrieving them.
In the 1970s when he was exploring how to make drawings on glass, cylinders seemed the best shape to force the viewers’ eyes to the drawings rather than the structure.
The drawings are made flat and are wrapped around the cylinders. Chihuly uses the thrums of color as straight lines or bends them into curving shapes. When he first started laying out the glass like textile weavings, to his surprise, they fused together as if they were actually woven. That happenstance led him to work on thin glass chards of different colors to create color fields, which were then applied with dots, scribbles and sometimes words or dates. He discovered that when the temperature of the designs and the cylinders were similar they would fuse permanently.
In 2006 he started to create the truly wonderful black cylinders, which stand as yet another innovation by the artist of multiple inventions.
I have to laugh -- and groan -- at my tiny role in Dale Chihuly’s career. He calls it a crucial point in his career. Back in 1977 the mighty Metropolitan Museum purchased three Navaho Blanket Cylinders. This was the first time any museum had acquired his works. It buoyed him enormously.
I was the director of the museum at that time, and recall vividly the day in 1976 when the crator of contemporary at, Henry Geldzahler, showed me the glowing little vessels inspired by the designs of Pendleton blankets. They were so subtle and ferocious at the same time that I said, "Grab ’em."
"I have to warn you, if we do we may piss off the people in the American Crafts Museum."
"I don’t give a damn," I retorted. "Anyway, this isn’t craft, this is fine art."
Too bad I didn’t buy many more Chihulys for the Metropolitan, for in my book he’s one of America’s most inventive and powerful artists. After all, the man who invented Persians, Venetians, Ikebana, Glass Forests, Sea Forms, Towers, his special Chandeliers, Walla Wallas, Reeds, Baskets and Black Cylinders is bound to go down in history. Especially when you realize that of all artistic materials, glass has survived throughout time in greater numbers than any other.
"Chihuly at the de Young," June 14-Sept. 28, 2008, at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Ca. 94118
Another Chihuly show has just opened in Rhode Island:
"Chihuly at RISD," Sept. 27, 2008-Jan. 4, 2009, at the Chace Center, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 20 North Main Street, Providence, Mass.
For more info, see www.chihuly.com
THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.