Arts & Culture

Museum of Glass’s survey of Chihuly’s drawings peeks into glass master’s mind

It’s hard to take in much Dale Chihuly artwork without a big helping of artist worship. The international glass artist has an internationally strong public relations crew, not to mention on-staff photographers, videographers, personal assistants and an entire team of glassblowers making sure that the Chihuly brand — like the art — is big and visible.

“Chihuly Drawings,” newly opened at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, is no exception. A gallery has been devoted to the artist’s process, and another is papered floor to ceiling with his fax messages. But the exhibit is striking, a two-dimensional peek into the prolific, colorful mind of this Tacoma-born artist.

Chihuly’s story takes up the first gallery in a six-gallery show (guest curated by Barry Rosen) that occupies half the museum. Chihuly’s journey from idealistic Tacoma kid at UW, through his Rhode Island School of Design days, and into his now-50-year career is told well. What’s interesting here is watching Chihuly, in photos, move through drawing techniques from small to big — a process echoed in the show.

As the artist goes from using drawing purely to communicate ideas to his glass team (he stopped blowing glass after two accidents in the 1970s) to drawing as conceptual exploration and finally to self-expression, everything gets bigger. We see Chihuly clutching a handful of pencils at a table, Chihuly sweeping paint in circles with a broom, an artful aerial shot of Chihuly painting giant yellow circles on his Lake Washington studio deck. Images show Chihuly squirting paint directly from the bottle, and finally taking a blowtorch to his paintings in the latest “burn” series. (They’re all called “drawings,” regardless of medium.)

No, we don’t really need to know the precise brand of paint he uses, nor read his scribbled notes — but it’s all part of the Chihuly story, running parallel with the art.

Watching the same small-to-large mental and artistic process unfold on the museum walls — via 180 drawings in huge grids — turns into an experience rather like diving into Chihuly’s brain. In the first gallery, the bunched-pencil drawings of basket forms are soft and subtle, highlighted merely with sweeps of graphite or blurry watercolors. There’s energy, but also a fine eye for balance and composition.

In the second gallery, pencil turns to brush and the colors saturate and brighten: washes of turquoise, fuschia, flame-orange. Here we see what’s truly behind Chihuly’s fame — his endless imagination for form, shape and line, as the drawings reflect the three-dimensional glass sculptures they would become (complete with scrawled notes to his team). Splatters of teal flip out from a Christmas tree-shape, thick indigo spikes poke out of a vessel, apple-green lines tangle.

On it goes, an endless blurt of creativity, through his opera sets for “Peléas et Mélisande” (wilder, more expressionist) to chandeliers and visions for his large-scale installations in Venice and Jerusalem. By the fifth gallery, we’re looking at recent drawings, hanging in subdued light and offering splattered, gold-rimmed visions of his Floats, Baskets and new Rotolo series. As stand-alone works, they have a spacious power, like constellations or nebulas.

The middle gallery is possibly the most self-important: Paper copies of faxes plaster every wall, ceiling to floor. This is the way Chihuly communicates with his team, even in the digital era (the museum plans to have a couple of fax machines in the lobby to explain the technology to younger folks), and some do make mildly interesting reading: instructions, suggestions, or just comments like “Guinness is good for you!” But the sheer scale is mind-blowingly narcissistic.

Finally, in the last gallery are the metallic golds and coppers of his burn drawings, paint bubbling and shimmering, scorch marked. As he gets older, Chihuly’s color and texture contrast is more thoughtful, and still highly conscious of framing and balance. Lining one wall are seven new works — lightboxes, some 6 by 5 feet, their painted designs glowing like stained glass and their zoomed-in geometrics almost approaching calm.

With Chihuly’s drawings, it’s difficult to know how much you’re appreciating simply because you’ve seen the 3D glass, like a photograph of a friend you see often in real life. But this 35-year survey gives a perspective on that glass art — and the mind that created it, and the brand that it has become — that’s well worth half a museum.