A Vibrant Welcome: Sam Gilliam’s Norfolk Keels
Welcome back to the Chrysler Museum! Before Chrysler visitors step into the Museum’s galleries, they are greeted with waves of dynamic colors at the entrance in Huber Court. Canvases covered in vibrant hues of blue, green, orange, red, and yellow draw museumgoers’ eyes upward, where they experience Sam Gilliam’s Norfolk Keels. The Chrysler commissioned the colorful, site-specific work more than twenty years ago and recently brought it back to Huber Court for the first time in seven years. When installed, Norfolk Keels becomes a part of the space and helps visitors understand a familiar area in new and exciting ways.
Former Chrysler Museum director Bill Hennessy wanted a piece of Gilliam’s work in the permanent collection, so he organized the commission of Norfolk Keels in 1998. The title references Norfolk’s shipping history and legacy as a major port, as the word “keel” means the underside of a boat.
To create Norfolk Keels, Gilliam reconfigured an existing piece and worked with his assistants to hang, drape, and adjust the great swaths of brilliantly colored fabric until the lengths of canvas hung in harmony with themselves and the surrounding architecture in Huber Court. Hennessy partnered with several local collectors to fund the commission.
The work was on view in Huber Court for ten years before it was removed for the Chrysler’s extensive renovation from 2010–2014. To present Norfolk Keels to the public once again, the Museum’s conservation and registration teams conducted a thorough review of the artwork to ensure it was in prime condition. They discovered that the piece is just as magnificent as it was when it was first installed, so the Chrysler charged forward to bring Gilliam’s vision to Museum visitors once again. “As the art world reflects on how it can engage with a diverse and global society, the Chrysler is fortunate to have such an important work by a prominent artist of color,” said Chrysler Museum Director Erik Neil. “Gilliam’s work demonstrates the core values of the institution and its staff. We are so proud to have this piece and to show it to our audiences and the larger world.”
Gilliam, an internationally renowned artist, rose to fame in the Washington, D.C. area with artworks that range from hard-edge abstraction to painted and draped unstretched canvases, similar to the Chrysler Museum’s commission. His work is most often associated with the Washington Color School, a group of Washington, D.C. painters whose abstract images experimented with the capabilities of color and patterns. Gilliam thinks of his works as a visual parallel to jazz music. Much as a jazz musician steps beyond the written notes on his page, Gilliam creates works that are “Structured Improvisations,” a careful balance of freedom and structure, chaos and control. He has exhibited around the world, and in 1972 he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.
We hope you enjoy coming back to the Chrysler Museum to see Norfolk Keels as well as the rest of the incredible and dynamic exhibitions, and our always amazing permanent collection. There is always something new to see, so make sure to take your time walking through the galleries and you will notice that there is new artwork on view and new narratives being told. Enjoy a creative night in at home with our Norfolk Keels inspired Date Night-in Kit. The Chrysler Museum staff is always looking for ways to engage our visitors and keep them coming back.
–Kimberli Gant, PhD, McKinnon Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art