IN the dark hush of the Renwick Gallery, tourists whisper about the glass fantasies of Louis Comfort Tiffany: ``My gosh, Mattie, look! The fish and the rushes are blown right into the vase....'' And ``They've even got eyes, and the bubbles coming up from their mouths. Isn't that fabulous?'' The visitors are looking at Tiffany's aquamarine vase of Favrile glass, 15 inches high, with tiny hand-blown goldfish, forever breathing glassy bubbles of air in a blue-green glass pool. Fabulous is the name of the game for fans of Tiffany glass, who are crowding into the current show, ``Masterworks of Louis Comfort Tiffany'' (through March 4, 1990). A spokesman for the museum says they've had calls from all over the United States about it, and some of the callers are flying in just to see it.
The Tiffany-glass lamp craze which swept the United States several years ago and still has not abated doesn't prepare you for the dazzling art on display here. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), as owner of the enormous Tiffany Studios (est. 1881), did for stained glass what McDonald's did for golden arches: put them everywhere.
In his studios, household items - lamps, glassware, desktop d'ecor - were mass-produced for 50 years. And it always bothered him that the mass production of those famous lamps from shards of colored glass left over from important commissions was too commercial to be art. After all, he, together with painter/writer John La Farge, had been responsible for some of the most important innovations in stained glass since the Middle Ages.
This, then, is art. The Renwick, that wonderful red-brick and wrought-iron tribute to Victorian architecture, has treated this show reverently. The high ceilings, the velvet draperies, the columns, the darkened rooms where the glass windows, vases, and lamps are softly backlit create a sort of temple-of-art ambience.
The show is billed as the most important collection of Tiffany's work since his rise to fame at the World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It includes many pieces never publicly exhibited before among the 65 examples of Tiffany lamps, windows, jewelry, enamels, glassware, and oil paintings in the show. And it focuses on his Favrile glassware, which is distinguished by a delicate design and an iridescent surface.
Shimmering in the darkness is a lamp with a shade of red peonies, the light under the petals creating the effect of flowers made out of rubies, with violet interspersed to heighten the effect. Tiffany's maple-leaf table lamp looks as though he'd raked up gold, orange, and scarlet leaves and then stitched them together with black lead. His cobweb lamps spin glass into gossamer, as in a rose, blue, green, and aqua table lamp combining flower petals with delicate blue-green cobwebs of light.
WHEN Tiffany wanted his favorite wisteria and magnolias to bloom four season a year in his living-room window, he cultivated them in glass. His ``Magnolia and Wisteria'' window of leaded Favrile glass contains four panels, each 89 by 37 inches. He designed a similar five-panel scene for his 72nd Street home in Manhattan. In the installation here, the full effect of his colors - the soft bluish lilac of the wisteria and the creamy magnolias - can be seen only at occasional angles because an open display behind the panels interferes with the backlighting.
It is clear, in this room particularly, that Tiffany's oil paintings couldn't hold a candle to the art of his stained glass. Glass was really the medium through which his genius was reflected. You have only to look from the flat, rather lifeless painting he did of ``Magnolias'' across the room to his vibrant ``Magnolia'' window done in delicate pinks, lavender, and blue to see the difference.
Displayed in this same room are some of 11 major window commissions for homes and memorials that have been lent for the first time. The Helen Gould Landscape Window, for instance, was done in 1910 for the Fifth Avenue mansion of railroad baron Jay Gould's daughter, Helen. It is 11 feet tall, 5 feet wide, and it contains 5,000 pieces of glass. The scene depicts a fawn drinking from a blue stream in a woodland setting where gold-leafed trees stretch off toward misty mountains.
Alistair Duncan, guest consultant to the exhibition and an authority on Tiffany, notes in the catalog, ``These magnificent windows were always Louis Comfort Tiffay's true love. Naturally, they represented major commissions for him, from rich and powerful clients like the Havemeyers and the Goulds. But they also presented him with unparalleled opportunities for experimentation and artistic self-expression.''
Dubbed the summit of Tiffany's domestic stained glass production are the 9-ft.-3-in.-tall ``Peacock'' and ``Cockatoo and Parakeet'' windows done in 1912. Tiffany designed them for Capt. Joseph Delamar's Madison Avenue townhouse in Manhattan. The first shows a resplendent peacock perched between two pillars wound with wisteria. Below the peacock's iridescent blue-green and lavender body flows his glowing train of blue, green, and gold feathers, sweeping over the balustrade and trailing on the marble floor. The companion panel pictures jungle-green parakeets perched on a gold ring, looking down at a white cockatoo eating cherries above the balustrade.
One of the most hauntingly lovely creations on view here is the Exposition Snowball Window of white hydrangeas against a lavender-blue backdrop.
Tiffany lavished the same artistry on everything he touched, from the sumptuous punch bowl of Favrile glass and gilded silver that glows like a huge opal to the tiny smelling-salts bottle of Favrile glass, enamel, gold, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds that looks like a jeweled hummingbird.
He seemed intent on creating beauty at whatever cost. In the process, like landscape painter Frederic Church at Olana, Tiffany not only became wealthy but decorated and furnished his own lavish mansions. Photos from one of them, Laurelton Hall in Oyster Bay, Long Island, are shown in this exhibit.