Editors' pick

Chrysler Museum of Art

Art Museum
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Editorial Review

Let's face it. Nobody goes to the beach for culture. (And I'm not talking frozen yogurt.) Fine art and sand just don't mix, and the closest thing to a Picasso is often in the postcard rack at the boardwalk T-shirt emporium.

Okay, there is the annual Virginia Beach Boardwalk Art Show, where this past June some 300 artists and craftspeople from as far away as Utah and Ontario congregated over four days and 14 oceanfront blocks to hawk their wares.

But, believe it or not, there are even higher-brow oases of visual refinement flourishing on Virginia's fertile coastal plain (in addition to myriad science, history, marine and military attractions).

Cursed with the brackish-sounding name of Tidewater, the southeastern chunk of the state surrounding the channel that flows between the James River and the Chesapeake Bay is, surprisingly, alive with a number of top-notch art museums and exhibition spaces, all within an easy hour's drive of the ocean.

Let's put to rest the region's reputation as merely a place to stop for lunch on the way to the water. Henceforth, we shall refer to the area (including the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg) by the tonier and vaguely British-accented name of its classy alter ego: Hampton Roads -- the name given to the heavily traveled waterway between the ports of Hampton and Norfolk.

The biggest and best of the area's visual arts institutions is Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art, established in 1939 as the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences in an Italian Renaissance-inspired palazzo on the Elizabeth River's Hague Inlet.

Rechristened the Chrysler Museum of Art in 1971 after a hefty gift was dropped in its lap by collector, philanthropist and automotive scion Walter P. Chrysler Jr. (said to have purchased his first Renoir nude as a 14-year-old schoolboy), the collection today consists of some 30,000 items spanning 5,000 years and is widely counted among the top museums in the country.

Imagine finding under one roof a museum whose modern and contemporary holdings rival those of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, whose antiquities and Old Masters can stand shoulder to shoulder with items from the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan, whose storerooms of decorative arts and glass craft (particularly work by Louis Comfort Tiffany) would put the Renwick Gallery to shame.

Now, imagine paying a visit to this dream institution on any day of the week and being able to find parking not 50 feet from the front door.

The Chrysler, you see, undeservedly lives in the shadows of its higher-profile northern neighbors. With an annual attendance of only 225,000, there's never a crowd, whereas a single blockbuster at the National Gallery might draw several times that number – all of whom, it often seems, are competing for the same 10 parking spaces on the Mall.

With the user-friendly audio guides that are included in the price of admission, it's like having your own private tour of several museums rolled into one.

"Man, this is, like, glass city," one wide-eyed visitor was recently heard to observe upon discovering the glittering display cases of glassware for which the museum is justifiably best known. There, "open storage" vitrines are crowded with vases, bowls and goblets, often unlabeled and organized by color and continent of origin rather than style or maker.

In the Chrysler's vast glass galleries, examples of man's oldest synthetic range from vessels that once held olive oil used on the bodies of ancient athletes to 15th-century Venetian stemware to 19th-century American home products. Be sure to check out the Burmese-style furnishings of the Mount Washington Glass Co. of New Bedford, Mass., colored a delicate pinkish yellow by uranium oxide.

Of course, the cutting edge of the contemporary glass world is also represented, as you would expect, by the phantasmagoric chandeliers of Dale Chihuly. The blown-glass pioneer's "Laguna Murano" has nearly taken over the 16th- and 17th-century Italian gallery, where its amber stalks bristle harmoniously among the heroic canvases.

The Hydra-like installation is only one part of a summer-long, glass-themed exhibition featuring the work of Therman Statom, Stephen Antonakos and William Morris. Statom's paint-and-mirror assemblages and Antonakos's site-specific neon sculptures (one of which graces the Chrysler's facade) dazzle, but they can't compete with the strange and wonderful installations of former gaffer Morris (he was one of the master glassblowers who actually gave shape to Chihuly's molten glass designs).

These sensual and totemistic works -- dealing with "ritual, magic, life and death," according to the artist's statement -- easily steal the show from just about everything else in the museum right now. They alone are worth a trip to Norfolk.

Positioned in a series of dimly lit, ground-floor galleries -- appropriately adjacent to the Pre-Columbian, Asian, Egyptian, African, Greco-Roman, Indian and Islamic collections -- Morris's richly textured bone fragments and potsherds resemble artifacts unearthed from some otherworldly archaeological dig. Appearing at once familiar and utterly new in their glowing, theatrical settings, the pieces provoke both ancient reassurance and the twitching unease of the alien.

Also worth seeking out is the Chrysler's recent acquisition "Hamlet Robot," an uncharacteristically whimsical 1996 piece by video artist Nam June Paik, in which a sword- and crown-wearing android made from TV monitors plays clips from various film versions of the Shakespeare play.

More traditional but equally stunning are the 32 carved marble statues from the James H. Ricau collection of American neoclassical sculpture, although the crowded room into which they have been herded doesn't allow them quite enough breathing room.

-- Michael O'Sullivan