Hammer Museum in Los Angeles: Free for Good

Spy, philanthropist, corrupt businessman, National Medal of Honor recipient — all contradictions that describe the late art collector Armand Hammer. But only one word is needed to describe the Hammer Museum: fantastic!


Los Angeles Freeway Traffic

One of the current exhibits at the Hammer Museum, Leap Before You Look Black Mountain College 1933-1957, is on view through May 15th. Black Mountain was a progressive liberal arts college outside of Asheville, North Carolina with the study of art at its core. The faculty included painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, writers and architects whose work was seminal in the development of America’s post war avant-garde movement.  Buckminster Fuller created his first geodesic dome at Black Mountain, Josef and Anni Albers were faculty members, and composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham founded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Black Mountain in 1953. Cunningham and Cage became life partners and as artistic collaborators changed the course of American dance and music. John Cage’s approach to music composition employed silence, prepared pianos, radios, ambient sound and above all chance – in short it redefined music. For this week’s Listen Up, we’d like to share a short video of  John Cage expressing some of his thoughts on music, sound and silence.

By chance: In the late 1980’s, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was performing at the Joyce Theater where I was working at the time. On a snowy evening during the company’s engagement, I was slipping and sliding up 8th Avenue toward the theater. A block away in the magical silence that descends upon NYC during a snowstorm — the traffic hushed, people, buildings, cars blurred  — I saw the bent silhouettes of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, holding onto each other, supporting each other and moving painfully, slowly in unison in an effort to cross the street without falling. In the middle of 8th Avenue the light changed against them, but time and traffic stood still. I held my breath. They made it.


Los Angeles police officers eating ice cream police car near Hammer Museum

boxer mural Mubarak near Hammer Museum

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Armand Hammer philanthropist founder Hammer MuseumArt collector Armand Hammer once boasted that the only paintings hanging in his Bel-Air home were by his wife Frances, who enjoyed painting imitations of great works of art.* His actual collection – which included a rare portfolio of scientific drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci and a large amount of drawings by Honoré Daumier — traveled to museums all over the world. Taken as a whole his collection was considered respectable, but it was also criticized as heartless and unfocused. When he opened the Hammer Museum in 1990, the Westwood neighborhood welcomed the artful addition to the community, but art experts viewed it as hubris — a cold marble mausoleum with a questionable future.

Since 1999, under the directorship of Ann Philbin and the management of UCLA, the Hammer has found its heart and soul in the curation and acquisition of works by contemporary artists and exhibitions featuring emerging artists. The building itself has become less corporate, more user friendly — the cold whiteness is now fresh and expansive. The exhibition spaces, once disparate entities around a sterile courtyard, are now integrated into a whole joined by a bridge, a café, and “feel-free-to-hang out” spaces.

There are currently three temporary exhibitions on display that typify what the Hammer Museum has gained in its post-Armand incarnation: purpose, playfulness and verve. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 presents an extensive interdisciplinary collection of art created during the brief history of this extraordinary progressive North Carolina college; Catherine Opie: Portraits is a small but powerful exhibit of photographs by Los Angeles artist Opie, who draws the viewer into each image with an intimate look at her fellow artists; and, Still Fish: Photography from the Collection explores the history of conceptual photography on the West Coast from 1960 to the present.

The Hammer Museum may not be what it’s founder intended, but in going beyond the old masters to embrace contemporary visions and support artists as they struggle to rise out of obscurity, this legacy has secured its own keen and compelling place in the present and for the future.

*For more about Armand Hammer and his creation of the Hammer Museum please see “Battle for the Masterpieces: The Armand Hammer-County Museum Deal: A Saga of Art, Power, and Big Misunderstandings” by Robert A. Jones for the Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1988.

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Edward Jay Espstein on Armand HammerEdward Jay Epstein taught political science at UCLA, Harvard, and MIT while pursuing his career as an investigative journalist and author. In 1996 he published, Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer, a revealing account of the supercapitalist, businessman, philanthropist and art collector who founded the Hammer Museum. The biography includes information uncovered in KGB, FBI and CIA files, as well as Hammer’s own secret tapes of private conversations. The life exposed is one of political intrigue, deceit, aggression and possible political espionage. Hammer’s father was a Russian doctor and businessman who emigrated to the United States in 1875. A communist and socialist, he came under federal surveillance and enlisted his son as a liaison to his business interests in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. In Russia, a 23 year-old Hammer met with Lenin. According to Epstein’s research, in a letter to Stalin, Lenin later referred to the young Hammer as “Our path to American business.” Throughout his life, Hammer would continue to establish close relationships with Russian leaders, as well as other political leaders throughout the world.

In his late ’50’s, Armand Hammer became head of Occidental Petroleum and used questionable tactics (including bribery) to win oil concessions in Venezuela and Libya. He was resourceful, willful, underhanded and determined to possess anything he set his sights on — women, important works of art, and business acquisitions. He became a philanthropist, was obsessed with winning the Nobel Peace Prize (it never happened), and, concerned about his legacy, wrote two autobiographies. In his review of Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer for The New York Times, Joseph E. Persico came to an interesting conclusion about men like Armand Hammer and human nature:

“The portrait ought to be repellent. Yet Hammer emerges as one of those larger-than-life figures who somehow hoist themselves above the rules and leave us more timid souls, rather than condemning them, marveling that such people exist.”

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girl spun chair hammer museum courtyard

woman viewing photographs hammer museum los angelesThe Hammer Museum opened in 1990 and has been administered by UCLA since 1994. In its relatively short lifetime the Hammer has grown into a smart, engaging art space, and has become a friend  to and valuable asset for contemporary artists in Los Angeles and around the globe. Armand Hammer’s collection of old master paintings and drawings provides context and has been augmented by a growing Hammer Contemporary Collection created by the museum’s director, Ann Philbin. Hammer Projects has focused international attention on more than 100 emerging artists. It’s a small museum – you can enjoy the permanent collection and all of the temporary exhibits without suffering visual art fatigue. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957 and Still Life with Fish: Photography from the Collection both close on May 15th; Catherine Opie: Portraits closes on May 22nd; and, a new Hammer Biennial exhibit, Made in LA: a, the, though, only opens on June 12th. The Hammer Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and is absolutely “free for good.”

Take a break between exhibits to play a game of ping pong on the upper level. Spin in a chair by Thomas Heatherwick before having a drink or lunch at the new Hammer Museum Café in the courtyard below.

While you’re in the Hammer Museum’s Westwood neighborhood, take advantage of the offerings in Little Persia, a small enclave of Persian businesses along Westwood Boulevard.  When choosing a restaurant anywhere in LA always remember this important rule of thumb: never judge a restaurant by its location or décor. Taste of Tehran may look like a small, no frills order-to-go joint,  but grab a seat at one of their 5 or 6 clean simple tables and  settle in for a feast of  fresh and delicious kabobs, koobideh, stews, small plates and wraps — just thinking about their roasted eggplant dip with crispy onions makes my mouth water.

saffron & rose ice cream near Hammer MuseumContinue along Westwood Boulevard for dessert at Saffron and Rose Ice Cream. The creamery was founded in the 1970’s by Iranian immigrant Haji Ali Kashani-Rafye and today the business remains in the family with grandson Fred Papen making phenomenal pairing suggestions. Saffron pistachio is the store’s most popular flavor, but you can go fresh with watermelon, sweet and flowery with rose, or old school with a rich and creamy dark chocolate. Choose one flavor and put your trust in Fred to recommend a companion scoop that takes this ice cream tasting experience to a new level. When you fall in love with Saffron and Rose, the good news is this:  they distribute all that goodness nationally.

Side Trip: On the other side of town we decided to check out what’s new on LaBrea and discovered  fashion designer Rick Owens’ new flagship store. Huge, spare, modern and artful, the store delivers Rick Owens’ men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, pottery and other projects with the designer’s characteristic energy and brash confidence. 

We’d like to thank the Mullen family for inviting us to tag along on one of their spring break day trips – always a fun, fact-filled and tasty adventure.

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