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“Dale Chihuly:

Seaforms 1980-1995”

to April 29

Two women in tasteful, tailored jackets regard Dale Chihuly’s White and Amber Seaform Set, an aggregation of shell-like glass objects.

One of them grumbles that the piece looks too cluttered.

“Well, once you buy it you can arrange it any way you want,” her friend answers.

The first woman agrees. If she were to purchase a Seaform set, she decides, she’d display just three of the four or more components. They aren’t attached to each other anyway, and together they seem so unpleasantly crowded.

In the modern era, most art doesn’t suffer this kind of scrutiny. Patrons never threaten to crop a Jackson Pollock canvas or shorten a Louise Nevelson sculpture by a rectangle or two. But studio glass sits on a fence between art and craft, as likely to draw praise for its fluid shape as for its similarity to a serving dish (especially in this age of architectural food). Somewhere, a hollow Chihuly Seaform decorates a coffee table, filled to the brim with M&M’s; somewhere else, another Seaform occupies a gallery case, safe from crumbs and fingerprints.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Dale Chihuly: Seaforms 1980-1995” does not settle the art/craft debate. Still, the exhibition bespeaks the visual eloquence of its auteur. Chihuly reigns as the unchallenged maestro of studio glass, despite the loss of his left eye in a 1976 traffic accident. The secret of his productivity and ability to create cumbersome pieces is his team approach. With eight to 10 glass artists looking on, Chihuly sketches a project in thin acrylics on a 40-by-60-inch sheet of watercolor stock. The gaffers then set to work, adjusting the glass piece’s color, size, and shape according to Chihuly’s active direction.

The 25 sculptural pieces at the Corcoran grew out of “Baskets,” Chihuly’s series of sacklike blown-glass vessels. The artist borrows the Baskets’ open-ended-egg shape and reworks it with organic ocean forms in mind. Large “Seaforms” serve as nests for smaller, color-coordinated objects that resemble squid or sea urchins; each piece lies loosely within or alongside another, as though it has drifted into place, like an exquisite shell in a tidal pool. The dimly lit gallery, where single spotlights illuminate the glass works’ pure colors, adds to the undersea impression by lending these solid objects a liquid shimmer. Every piece here has a slippery perfection that no machine fabrication could touch.

Chihuly plans several series simultaneously, and “Seaforms 1980-1995” demonstrates a specific group’s 15-year progression. The artist’s first finished Seaforms closely recall the Baskets, and therefore beg a functional interpretation, while his more recent pieces represent a freer display of molten glass’s properties. Yet despite Chihuly’s departure from overtly bowllike elements, he has not made the leap from containers to pure abstraction. By naming this series “Seaforms,” he consciously encourages his audience to apply figurative attributes to nonspecific shapes. Viewers can easily liken Early Cloud Gray Seaform to a jellyfish or compare the brainy-blue cast of Pink Ribbed Seaform Set to a fragile oyster on the half shell. The unfortunate temptation is to imagine a piece as purely decorative, a high-end knickknack on an ocean theme.

Along one wall at the Corcoran is a shelf of 1981-85 Seaforms that borrow liberally from the Baskets style. From a distance, these translucent white and gray vessels, each no larger than a coffeepot, could be elegant repositories for candles; the soft glow from the track lighting facilitates such a judgment. A close look at their fine walls and undulating shapes proves, however, that they should not be used for such mean purposes. Nearby, several oval platters curved within one another comprise Pale Green Seaform Set With Green Lip Wraps (1980). This tissue-thin set, constructed of aqua-green glass ringed with inner threads of a creamy peach hue, indicates a breathtaking level of craftsmanship—though its ice cream–pastel hues wouldn’t look out of place in a china cabinet.

Likewise, Pink Seaform Set With White Stripes (1980) strongly resembles a Basket. This asymmetrical cup slumps slightly, as if ready to melt, like waxy white chocolate at room temperature. Its near-opaque walls lend it a heaviness not present in semitransparent pieces, but its gently rippling sides express a deft manipulation of the medium and gravity. Next to Pink Seaform Set, Ecru and Brown Striped Seaform With Black Lip Wrap (1982) also appears deceptively soft and receptaclelike, but the slender, uneven black threads that frame its opening are a change from its precursors’ fussy neatness.

Chihuly’s earlier pieces never approach the clunkiness of carnival glass, yet their seeming functional quality limits their appeal to art-for-art’s-sake purists. The ’90s Seaforms, meanwhile, show how the series came into its own. Chihuly had invented a group of warped platters known as the “Persians,” whose wavy outer rims suggest symmetrical petals or the toothed edges of a gear. The Persians also feature slim threads of glass in contrasting colors, which emanate from a center point like grooves on an LP and work as ribs to strengthen broad glass discs. The repetitive but uneven threads lend a fractal elegance to the Persians’ appearance. Chihuly combined these innovations with the vessellike early “Seaforms,” giving rise to a less categorizable type of art.

Magenta Pink Seaform With Green Lip Wrap (1990) demonstrates the evolution of this technique. Its largest components are twisted Persians the color of wine in a clear cup, and snaillike Seaforms shelter in its folds. Magenta’s shockingly fresh green border, a complement to its glistening surfaces, draws attention to the term “lip wrap.” Imagine the lip of a standard glass rimmed with a smooth, contrasting layer of red or blue; Chihuly applies a similar outline to the edges of his pieces, not only framing the installations but separating broad fields of like colors.

Translucent Yellow Seaform Persian Set (1994) is the largest (25 by 58 by 58 inches) and most arresting piece on display. Daffodil-gold and busy with layers, this conglomeration of bent Persians could not be mistaken for a vessel, nor could the algae-slick yellow Seaforms that hide in its crevices. This splashy piece takes full advantage of semitransparency: The viewer first sees only a glaze of light striking a surface, then notices other peaks rising up behind that surface, and begins circling the piece to fully comprehend its variety of arching elements. A less subtle but equally lovely exercise in transparency can be found in Peacock Blue and Yellow Seaform Set With Yellow Lip Wraps. A loose arrangement of vermilion discs lines the curve of a scallop-edged Persian that resembles nothing so much as a clamshell. This curious object might be prehistoric, yet it possesses the flawless surface of computer-generated art, like a scanned 3-D image made hyperreal.

For all Chihuly’s finesse, the Corcoran’s presentation comes up slightly short. All the pieces but Transparent Yellow rest on reflective black tabletops that collect smears from oily hands, and this disrupts the art’s pristine appearance. Fine layers of dust and fingerprints linger on some of the larger pieces. And worst of all, heavy footsteps cause the works to rock, destroying their semblance of stability. Such distractions cheapen the work, making it seem casually rather than reverentially installed. CP