A new exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery shows how one of the most familiar American artists of his generation is still full of surprises.
“Chihuly” at Arthur Roger Gallery contains several dozen works by the artist and his studio, mostly from the last couple of years. Despite its compact chronology, the show, which occupies all of the gallery’s adjacent spaces on Julia Street, has something of the weight and spirit of a retrospective: It’s the largest show of the 77-year-old Chihuly’s work by the gallery in the nearly three decades of their association.
In fact, Roger calls it “the most ambitious exhibition in the gallery’s 41-year history” in a news release accompanying the show.
“I’m impressed with the immense attention to detail and careful planning that everyone has contributed in order to bring Chihuly’s latest artistic vision to New Orleans,” said Roger.
The gallery has been physically transformed for the occasion. Visitors entering the main gallery space will first encounter Chihuly’s work by looking up: “Persian Ceiling” (2018) unfurls like a floating garden more than 20 feet above a narrow corridor. (It’s neck and neck with Keith Sonnier’s tangles of neon tubes at the New Orleans Museum of Art in the running for Best Art Ceiling in Town this season.)
At first look, you wouldn’t immediately identify Keith Sonnier as a Louisiana artist.
Its most obvious antecedent is Chihuly’s “Fiori di Como” — better known as the monumental ceiling installed at the Bellagio in Las Vegas in 1998, and probably the piece most responsible for making the artist a household name.
“People didn’t know what to make of that when it was first unveiled,” said Roger of the Bellagio piece. “The hotel had to remove all the furniture in the lobby, because people couldn’t keep their eyes off the ceiling and were bumping into it.”
But in its smaller scale, there’s a through-line in the current piece that extends all the way back to Chihuly’s boathouse studio in Seattle, where he first began incorporating his signature biomorphic glass forms into the structural components of architectural space.
The ceiling forms a passage to a gallery that contains the startlingly beautiful “Fire Opal Chandelier” (2018). Unlike most of Chihuly’s chandelier pieces, this one is hung low, giving it a more intimate and almost confrontational feel. (It also makes you understand why the gallery asks you to check your backpacks at the front desk.)
Also featured are a series of illuminated “Glass on Glass” wall pieces that Chihuly began making for an installation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 2017.
Their points of departure are forms derived from ikebana compositions, created through gestural splashes of molten glass pigment, though the subject matter is more explicit in some pieces than in others. But their overall effect is a fascinating hybrid: the serene experimentation of Matisse’s late period collages expressed with the almost violent energy of Jackson Pollack.
While the format is a new one for the artist, they feel completely of a piece with the three-dimensional works elsewhere in the show — especially with the softly rounded forms of his “Baskets” series, which shimmer like fantastic tidal pools in the natural light of the gallery space at 434 Julia St.
Ikebana-derived forms are also the subject of a series of works on paper that leave the faintest impression of anything in the show, partly because the three-dimensional pieces have such commanding presences. While they’re interesting in providing a look into Chihuly’s artistic process — several began as studies for the more substantial "Glass on Glass" pieces — they seem more intended to fill a particular collecting niche than compelling works of art in themselves.
The show also underscores that as he enters the home stretch of a long and phenomenally successful career, Chihuly is still very much involved in the production of the works of art that bear his name — or brand.
A looping short film on view shows Chihuly supervising the creation of his “Rotolo” pieces, several of which are in the exhibition.
The word is Italian for “coil,” and a slickly produced montage shows the gargantuan yet delicate process of making them, which involves coiling lengths of molten glass around bars as they cool into seemingly weightless whirls and loops.
Unlike the suspended pieces which are made from individual components that are assembled later, the “Rotolo” are produced all of a piece at the same time by a team of assistants, and watching them come to life in the video while Chihuly directs the process and hovers like a presence out of a Rodin tableau in the background is riveting.
It’s a portrait of an artist very much in control of his work — and the works in this stunning show are among the most technically intricate and flat-out gorgeous ones of his career.
“Every time we do one of Dale’s shows, I’m reminded how many people respond to his work — from people who have been collecting it for years to people who come in who have never been in a gallery before,” Roger said.
“It’s inspiring work in so many ways, but maybe especially in how it pushes forward the idea of what glass art can be.”
Dale Chihuly at Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans
WHEN: Opens April 6; on view Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Sunday and Monday) through June 22
WHERE: Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia Street, New Orleans
INFO: (504) 522-1999, arthurrogergallery.com