My first exposure to the glass artwork of Chihuly was in 2017 at the New York Botanical Garden. Billed as his first major garden exhibition in New York in more than ten years, CHIHULY promised a “sensory-filled exhibition […] showcasing Chihuly’s signature organic shapes in brilliant colors”. Part new work, part retrospective, the 20 installations featured a mix of re-purposed pieces and new creations specifically designed and strategically placed to complement the Garden’s landscape and architecture.
Two years later, I still recall how excited I was in going to see in person the fantastical formations of glass juxtaposed against the very source of their inspiration. Exhibits at the NYBG were always full with wonder, and this laid at the intersection of two of my favorite fascinations – art and nature.
Nothing could be more true though that over expectation leads to disappoint. I vividly remember the feeling of being utterly underwhelmed by said displays of glass. So much so that I had completely failed to recognize the Chandeliers hanging from the vault ceiling of the Garden’s visitor entrance was part of the exhibit.
Sure it was impressive to see the intricate intertwining of hundreds if not thousands pieces of delicate glass smelt together in Sol del Citron – the tentacles though inanimate seem to be dancing in the wind – but Medusa’s hairball just felt small and out of place against the demure grandeur of the Victorian Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
Everywhere I looked, the installations simply seemed out of place. The Scarlet and Yellow Icicle Tower called to mind an overgrown alien liatris…
…the explosion of alliums on the Garden’s grounds outshining the Sapphire Star, 100 times its size.
There were installations that did speak out to me. In Glasshouse Fiori, such was the fusion of shapes and colors that I could barely make out where the organic ended and the inorganic began.
Similarly for Macchia Forest, there couldn’t be a more complementary palette than the red jade vine.
The brilliant red lotus pads of the Persian Pond and Fiori helped propel it out of the water as if in a dream defying gravity. The blue fiori nearby brought to mind giant glass swan barometers – not quite sure if Alice in Wonderland was the intended effect.
I was also perfectly at a loss to the fathom the meaning behind White Tower with Fiori in a washed-out, translucent pink of some yet unnamed sea creature. The again, it could be there is no meaning, but simply the joy of aesthetics for beauty’s sake.
Further along, White Belugas which combined artwork originally created in Vianne, France in 1997 with newer work blown in Chihuly’s hot shop in Seattle in 2014 was transfixing to behold in its simple serenity. Yet, it appeared so plain and minuscule nestled among the august foliage of the rain forest.
I questioned if these pieces had indeed be specially curated for the NYBG or rather were chosen and placed at random in the philosophy that all organic shapes mesh together. I couldn’t see the greater logic, the overarching story that I would typically expect from a cohesive major exhibition.
Even Red Reeds on Logs, made from wood logs collected from the Garden grounds and evocative of many a campfires in the Adirondack mountains felt inexplicably out of place in the warm summer evening.
Perhaps it’s because I didn’t go view the exhibit at night, but I could imagine Neon 206 definitely exuding more cool vibe set within the brick and concrete courtyard of MoMA PS1.
I save my favorite for last – Koda Study #3. Finally, an artwork in symbiosis with its surroundings. A quiet yet powerful contemplation of light and color (and might I add also reflection) through the medium of glass. A re-imagination of the groundbreaking works first conceived in collaboration with Seaver Leslie for Artpark, a multidiscplinary arts venues in Lewiston, NY, in 1975, it speaks volumes in its simplicity. Minimalism at its best.