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“Dale Chihuly:

Installations 1964-1996”

to April 28

The Corcoran’s show is a mere hors d’oeuvre compared to “Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964-1996,” currently housed at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). Studio glass watchers should not miss this spectacular retrospective, which previously appeared at the Seattle Art Museum and includes dynamic examples of Chihuly’s many experiments.

Sixteen flamboyant pieces from the Persians group hang in BMA’s front windows, best visible from inside the building. Turning away from the window, visitors enter the darkened gallery and immediately confront one of Chihuly’s vibrant “Chandeliers,” a crocus-yellow inverted cone suspended from the ceiling and constructed of scores of blown-glass water-balloon shapes. (Come September, a group of Chandeliers will comprise “Chihuly Over Venice,” and this piece presents a tantalizing taste for those who won’t make it to Italy.) The densely arranged, pendulous globs of glass dangle just out of reach, and seem to be tumbling over one another even though the structure does not so much as sway.

Adjacent to the Chandelier, on a low platform of broken, clear glass bottles, rests an arrangement of “Niijima Floats,” knee- to thigh-high orbs lit from within by curls of neon tubing. Hollow but stiff, the not-quite-spherical Floats resemble giant spores and crackling balls of lava. In the next room, two of Chihuly’s white Baskets occupy chin-level stands, their gelatinous-looking walls subtly distorting some smaller vessels within. BMA also displays Spanish Orange Seaform Set With Black Lip Wrap (1994), a Seaform collage smooth as lipstick in a tube and comparable in size and complexity to Translucent Yellow Seaform Persian Set. This glossy piece recalls internal organs more than watery depths. It appears that blood courses beneath its semitransparent skin.

In spite of the notable variety, BMA’s main advantage over the Corcoran is the installation Macchia Forest (1992-95). Chihuly builds the “Macchia,” as he calls these spotted, mushroomlike forms, by sandwiching a “cloud” of clear glass between layers of opposing colors. Each fused piece is a different hue inside and out, and receives a vibrant lip wrap as a clean finish. Twenty-three dramatic Macchia, seated on narrow tables ranging from chest- to ceiling-high, dominate a room like thick-celled flowers open toward the sky. If these were vessels, they’d be primordial soup dishes. On a facing wall hang 24 of Chihuly’s huge gestural drawings, circa 1992-95, spattered with blurts of radiant and sometimes metallic color. The four Chihuly charcoals at the Corcoran, created in the ’80s, represent his former sketching method but look tentative in comparison to his muscular ’90s scrawls.

But why condemn the Corcoran’s thematically limited show? “Seaforms” does complement BMA’s flashy, grand-scale investigation of Chihuly’s oeuvre, and both galleries allow spectators to enjoy first-rate pieces. “Installations” remains the must-see exhibition. But “Seaforms” is highly instructive, a means of placing a renowned artist’s developing strategies under a microscope.CP