Exhibit of the week: Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass

Among the glass sculptures on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Art is the artist's dazzling 1,000-bloom glass bouquet, Mille Fiori.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Through Aug. 7

Talk about a lightning rod, said Bill Van Siclen in The Providence Journal. “The most important glass artist since Louis Comfort Tiffany,” Dale Chihuly has gathered as many detractors as fans across his long career, and the MFA’s whirlwind of a show should stir up both camps. Those dazzled by Chihuly’s singular brand of showmanship won’t be disappointed. Marvels of glassblowing invention abound, from the 43-foot-tall Lime Green Icicle Tower, installed near the exhibit’s entrance, to the showstopping Ikebana Boat, a wooden skiff overflowing with “a glittering array of glass sculptures.” But Chihuly’s emphasis on “purely visual appeal”—which has made him a go-to artist for Las Vegas casinos seeking extra dazzle—long ago fueled a backlash. In art-critical circles, he ranks “among the least-liked contemporary artists,” as maligned as Jeff Koons or Thomas Kinkade.

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It’s nothing personal, said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. It’s not even the “general absence of ideas in his work: I, for one, am all in favor of senseless beauty, and would prefer it any day to most of the brittle, air-filled intellectual meringue that goes by the description of conceptual art.” What grates instead is the ostentation: Chihuly’s works are “tasteless in the way that a 15-course meal might be tasteless, or a garage with a dozen Ferraris, or a wardrobe with hundreds of pairs of shoes.” It’s spectacle for spectacle’s sake. “Make it big, make it bright, make them say, ‘Wow!’” But it doesn’t take long for the wow factor to ebb, as attempts to find “new technical feats with which to impress us” start to look desperate. Devoid of deeper meaning, they become like “daily deliveries of unwanted flowers after a regretted one-night transgression.”

Yet only the truly jaded could resist a 1,000-bloom glass bouquet, said Chris Bergeron in the Milford, Mass., Daily News. The dazzling Mille Fiori looks like “the lushest tropical garden ever to be fertilized with Miracle-Gro and Salvador Dalí’s imagination.” Also splendid is Persian Ceiling, inspired by another love of Chihuly’s: Byzantine art. Viewed from below, it’s a 25-by-15-foot glass ceiling bedecked with “hundreds, if not thousands, of what appear to be gloriously tinted seashells, starfish, anemones, jellyfish, and diaphanous membranes of color too profuse to enumerate.” The impulse to categorize or catalog is beside the point, anyway. “Describing the individual components that make each installation is like trying to explain the shapes of July 4th fireworks.” There’s no need to overthink it: You just say “ooh” or “aah.”

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