Chrysler gives new life to post-war holdings

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Despite the high regard in which his namesake museum is held, Walter P. Chrysler Jr. didn't always have it so good when it came to his standing among other art collectors.

Back-handed compliments were routine for this adventurous connoisseur — who was once described by LIFE magazine as "a prolific but not always selective collector." And when his critics weren't dismissing him as a mere "accumulator" they were crowing over his stumbles, including a 1962 scandal at the National Gallery of Art, Canada, in which dozens of works from his collection were determined to be bogus.

Not long after Chrysler's death in 1988, however, New York Times writer John Russell delivered the first and perhaps most important re-assessment of his reputation, declaring that "it would be difficult to spend time in the Chrysler Museum…and not come away convinced that the most underrated American collector of the past 50 years and more was the late Walter P. Chrysler, Jr."

He wasn't the last to note how the collector's once widely questioned acquisitions of 17th-century Italian art, an early risk-taking Cezanne and a late but also soulful Degas — to name just a few examples — have turned into extraordinarily discerning expressions of art historical taste just a few decades later.

This winter, new curator Amy Brandt has added still more luster to Chrysler's remarkable if sometimes mysterious record with an ambitious reshuffling of the museum's McKinnon Galleries of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Virtually everything seen here over the past few years has been removed — then swapped out for some 80 or 90 fresh examples that have only rarely or — in many cases — never been exhibited in Norfolk.

Originally assembled by this instinctive connoisseur — then added to in often admirable ways by other museum patrons — the permanent collection of more than 2,000 objects spans the post-World War II period from the Abstract Expressionist canvases of the 1940s and '50s to contemporary digital work produced just a few years ago.

And it does it with such depth and range that Brandt had little problem coming up with an almost totally new selection of work that makes this puzzling and tumultuous period of art not only comprehensible but also entertaining.

"When I arrived last March, I was surprised by what I found — and by all the things we had that hadn't been seen before," Brandt says.

"Chrysler did an extraordinary job. And that made it easy to put together a concise history of the period — including major works by major artists."

Among the most revealing parts of the exhibit is an astute selection of pieces exploring the early history of the Pop Art movement.

Beginning with 20 pioneering collages by little-known Scottish-born artist Eduardo Paolozzi — who led the way in borrowing images from popular culture — it extends the history of this influential school as far back as the late 1940s.

Equally illuminating is the collection of objects that Chrysler and his wife acquired from the groundbreaking "American Supermarket" exhibit of 1964, where several virtually unknown artists — including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol — used such unconventional works as silk-screened shopping bags and faux soup cans to transform mass consumerism into high conceptual art.

"What we have is a dual history that traces not just the development of contemporary art but also the meaty stories of how artists and collectors got together," says Brandt, who also is showing a hallmark 1967 Warhol silkscreen portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

"Chrysler was there for all these seminal moments — and he often just grabbed everything he could."

Similar connections link many works from the '70s and '80s, which include mysterious, often provocative statements of identity and self by such influential figures as feminist painter Joan Semmel and photographers Cindy Sherman and Tseng Kwong Chi.

Then there are the unexpected ties that join pioneering surrealists Man Ray and Salvador Dali with such contemporary artists as Tony Oursler.

"People don't think of contemporary work as having a history. But it does," Brandt says. "And what's so great about this collection is that we're able to show it."

Erickson can be reached at merickson@dailypress.com and 247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.

Want to go?

"remix," an exhibit showcasing post-World War II art at the Chrysler Museum of Art

Where: 245 West Olney Road, Norfolk

When: Through July 30

Cost: Free

Info: 757-664-6200/www.chrysler.org

Online: Go to dailypress.com/chryslerremix to see images from the show

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