An Avocation That Became A Legacy

California's new Armand Hammer museum ensures that the late industrialist's art collection will have a lasting - if controversial - home

THE Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center was Armand Hammer's final dream. The billionaire industrialist's last public appearances were in celebration of the horizontally striped marble building that now houses his $450-million art collection. Formally unveiled Nov. 28, just two weeks before Hammer's death on Dec. 10, the structure ensures that his lifelong avocation as a collector - in which he amassed over 100 European masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Renoir, and others in five decades of globe-trotting - will be his most enduring legacy.

Like the career of Hammer himself, the new museum is steeped in controversy. Born out of conflict when Hammer reneged on a promise to give his collections to the county, the museum has risen on the site of a former gas station behind his Occidental Petroleum headquarters in Westwood.

Local press coverage has been scathing. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, complained that the museum is ``an almost pure embodiment of the modern corporate use of art as a tool for public relations.'' Officials for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) won't talk about the new museum. And more than a few curators, historians, dealers, and collectors have been crying ``vanity!'' But the public and most of the growing arts community here seem to be embracing the new cultural icon.

``It's absolutely fabulous that Dr. Hammer decided to make his presence here in the bastion of movie theaters and [University of California, Los Angeles] students,'' says Sylvia White, CEO of Contemporary Artists' Services. Ms. White says she moved her business two blocks away from the Hammer instead of to the more artsy Santa Monica area. She expected the museum would attract a steady flow of art lovers.

``The Hammer brings more competitive spirit to the arts community while still complementing the collections of J. Paul Getty and Norton Simon museums,'' says Robert Metzger, director of the University Gallery at Bucknell University. Geographically, the Hammer is situated between the Getty Museum in Malibu and Simon Museum in Pasadena, adding a convenient stepping stone of culture to LACMA at mid-town and the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown.

The unveiling here is threefold:

The 79,000-sq.-ft. building: It includes study centers, a library, administrative offices, book and gift shops, a 250-seat auditorium (as yet unfinished), and a restaurant (still to be built). A landscaped and cloistered courtyard encompasses an additional 7,800 square feet intended for use in entertainment and key social gatherings.

A permanent collection, in three parts: more than 100 paintings and works on paper featuring European and American artists from the 16th to 20th centuries; more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures, and lithographs by 19th-century French realist and satirist Honore Daumier; and the Leonardo da Vinci Codex, a scientific manuscript with 360 drawings illustrating the artist's theories.

The inaugural exhibition: A traveling show of 170 works by Russian avante-garde artist Kazimir Malevich, father of Suprematism and a major force in modern art.

Press comment on the building and permanent collection have been mixed. Only the Malevich exhibition has received nearly universal raves.

``It's a triumphant exhibition to launch a new museum,'' says Robert McDonald, a museum director in Santa Clara and a former art critic.

The rural-born Malevich (1878-1935) was regarded as the theoretical godfather of the Russian avante garde. Empowered by the post-revolutionary Bolsheviks to create a comparable revolution in art, Malevich's brilliant polychromed abstractions made their greatest impact just before the state adopted Socialist Realism as its officially sanctioned style for art in 1934.

Hammer is credited with the initiative that made the exhibition possible.

The museum's five small galleries (amounting to about 14,000 sq. ft.), with their cream walls and whitewashed oak floors, have been lauded for their grace, subtlety, and adaptability. Electronically controlled skylights bathe rooms with natural light, baffled by exterior panes in pyramid shapes. One-third of the open-air courtyard is filled with plants and a canopy of Chinese evergreen elms. Heat-retaining granite pavers warm feet on cool California evenings.

``Every detail of the museum is meant to be user-friendly and appealing on a human scale,'' says Hilary Gibson, curator to Dr. Hammer for 17 years, who oversaw the museum's design and construction. ``We want to counter the image of hermetic smugness that some museums use to intimidate,'' she says.

Last - and least, according to some - is the permanent collection. ``The general feeling is that it is not strong enough to command the whole museum by itself,'' says Henry Hopkins, director of the Frederick Weisman Foundation, which collects contemporary art. There are not enough works of absolutely top quantity; the scale of many of the pieces is too small; and the collection lacks of unifying vision. ``It is a group of unrelated works with some extraordinary objects and some ordinary ones - but with no core purpose.''

Gibson counters, ``These are what is known as cabinet paintings; they are not in the grand salon style. There is a unifying vision, and it is that they are all very personal statements by the artists.''

Highlights of the more than 100 paintings include Monet's ``View of Bordighera''; Van Gogh's ``Hospital at Saint-Remy''; Pissarro's ``Boulevard Montmartre''; Rembrandt's ``Juno''; and Moreau's ``Salome Dancing Before Herod.'' Also represented are C'ezanne, Titian, Watteau, and Goya.

Museum director Stephen Garrett says thinking about why one individual was compelled to acquire such diversity can be one of the intriguing questions behind personal collections.

Others contend such emphasis diverts focus from the artists' intentions and the more important historical contexts. Indeed, most of Hammer's selections were made in consultation with John Walker, Director Emeritus of the National Gallery of Art.

Some observers believe residual anger over Hammer's pullback from donating his works to LACMA - ostensibly for reasons of space and curatorial control - have made the new museum a target for critics.

``His collection of European masters is second to no one's,'' contends Metzger. ``There really wasn't room for it at [LACMA] ... the community should be grateful to have it.''

The question remains how the Hammer museum will evolve. Its $30 million endowment is minuscule in contrast to the nearby Getty's ($3.4 billion), and overhead is high. Some 4,200 members have signed on. Fund-raising, donations, and bookstore sales will help.

``We'll have to earn our living, and that's a good thing for a museum to have to do,'' says the museum's director, Stephen Garrett, who directed the Getty Museum (1977-82) and Long Beach Museum of Art (1984-88) before being hired by Hammer in April. He plans to aim for ``a particular reputation within distinct parameters'' so that the community is not ``lost with early bronzes, followed by manuscripts, followed by costumes.

``I have no clear vision yet. It is still too new,'' he says.

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