The Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College, built in 1905, is presenting its first art show ever: circular glass sculptures inscribed with line drawings based on James Joyce's Ulysses. "Ulysses Cylinders" was designed by Dale Chihuly, the most prominent glass artist in the world. The exhibition will remain until November 22.
This show is the product of an old friendship. In 1975, Chihuly and Seaver Leslie conceived of a series of glass sculptures celebrating Ireland. Leslie made the drawings, and Chihuly inscribed them on glass cylinders. Soon afterward, the two artists were in a devastating car accident, ultimately resulting in the glassmaker losing the sight in his left eye. Their artistic collaboration was never exhibited. Almost 40 years later, in 2013, the friends returned to the project. Using Leslie's original drawings—but only the ones referring to Ulysses—Chihuly asked two glass artists to recast the pieces. Flora C. Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick meticulously fabricated the cylinders, using gold leaf and powdered glass pigment. "Ulysses Cylinders" debuted at Dublin Castle last year. This is the first American showing of the work.
"Ulysses Cylinders" represents an early stage of Chihuly's work in glass. Since then, he has created massive sculptures, often dreamlike, multicolored, tentacled installations hanging from ceiling. Chihuly has vastly expanded the possibilities, and the scale, of glass art. I saw the exhilarating 42.5-foot-high "Lime Green Icicle Tower" at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it looms over the atrium like a third-grader's prank.
In comparison to these later works, "Cylinders" is almost absurdly simple: cartoony drawings on glass vases. Yet the work has unmistakable presence. The cylinders sit inside transparent boxes—glass within glass—and the light from the floor-to-ceiling windows brings them to life. Much of Chihuly's work seems to levitate, or explode, while "Ulysses Cylinders" gently hovers.
Why cylinders, I asked Mary-Kay Lombino, curator of the show? "Chihuly prefers the rounded sides to a flat surface," she says. "They also catch the light beautifully; they almost look like they are glowing from within." Though the cylinders are large—some of them could be umbrella stands—they have a presence like votive candles. Perhaps Chihuly is suggesting James Joyce's complex relationship with the church of his youth: Joyce is one of the most famous ex-Catholics in history. The mostly amber color of the glass also suggests pints of Guinness.
The glassworks are popular with students. "It's nice to study around them at night," says Colin Edwards, a prelaw student from the class of 2016. "They're very calming."
Built in an English perpendicular Gothic style, with large stained-glass windows, the Thompson Library is perfect for an exhibition of colored glass. Chihuly's wife, Leslie, who majored in English at Vassar, helped organize the show, which transforms a masterpiece of modern literature into glittering glass relics.
An accompanying exhibit, "James Joyce's Ulysses: Text and Art," displays rare editions of the novel, including ones illustrated by Robert Motherwell and Henri Matisse. (It's possible that Matisse never read the book, because all his drawings illustrate Homer's Odyssey.) This exhibition reminds us that when it was published, Ulysses was considered pornography. The book went on trial for obscenity in New York City in 1921—and lost! A subsequent trial in 1933 reversed the decision. Several of Leslie's drawings have an erotic element, most effectively, one titled Penelope, showing a naked woman rising from bed while her lover sleeps.
"Ulysses Cylinders" will remain at the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie until November 22. The show is free of charge, but advance reservations are required. (845) 437-7400.