To judge from the traffic it attracted this past Mother’s Day, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx has achieved another Dale Chihuly glass works blockbuster.
Within minutes of the garden’s 10 a.m. opening, its pathway was already becoming clogged with family groups posing for photographs. Especially busy backdrops were two of Chihuly’s larger pieces: “Red Reeds on Logs” at the main tram stop and “Sol de Citron” outside the entrance to the garden’s iconic Haupt Conservatory.
From a distance, if you hadn’t bothered to read the exhibit guide, the 15-foot-tall “Red Reeds” might have been mistaken for a cluster of candles on a giant birthday cake. “Sol de Citron” is a supernova of lemon-yellow tendrils hiding, or maybe hatching, spiraled nautilus shells.
But with Chihuly, who employs a staff of 80 to meet demand for his sculptures, the point is not to wonder what or why. Few of the 20 or so pieces in the new exhibition, depending how one counts, attempt to mimic plants. Most are mutants, intended to surprise, delight and wow.
The first Chihuly exhibition in 2006 drew 360,000 visitors, breaking attendance records and changing the way the Botanical Garden conceives of its programming. Since then it has mounted other big exhibits (Frida Kahlo’s 525,000 visitors set a record-breaking attendance in 2015) and added new attractions.
The most significant for the Chihuly exhibit is the native plant garden, opened in 2013. “He was really mesmerized in 2015 when he came and saw the new native garden,” says Karen Daubmann, associate vice president for exhibitions and public engagement. “We think that’s one of the highlights of the exhibit.”
The garden is a large natural bowl bordered on one side by a hill of rhododendrons and centered on three small ponds partially rimmed by a boardwalk. Chihuly, who made several repeat visits in planning the exhibit, chose the ponds as the site for three pieces.
Nearest the entrance, but hidden from view by hedges along the pathway leading to it, is “Float Boat,” a full-size wooden dory piled high with Chihuly’s version of glass Niijima floats used by Japanese fishermen. Easily the most explicitly playful piece in the exhibition, the floats are like a fantastic marble collection. It reprises the first float project done in 1995 in Finland, where the floats were dropped in a river.
The ponds in the garden are stepped, separated by shallow weirs, and it is on these weirs that…