One day in early 1978, industrialist Armand Hammer contacted a Danish art historian and asked him to take a look at a painting--acquired in a swap of artworks with the Soviet government--that he didn't much care for and wanted to sell.
The painting, "Dynamic Suprematism," was an important work--though heavily restored, the historian told Hammer--by Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, originator of Suprematism, the historic successor to Cubo-Futurism and a seminal element in the gene pool of modern abstract art.
So indifferent to the painting was the Occidental Petroleum Corp. founder that he held onto his Malevich for only a little more than two months, according to tax records of his privately incorporated Armand Hammer Foundation. "He hated it," said one prominent curator familiar with Hammer's reaction to the picture.
On June 30, 1978, the tax records show, Hammer sold the painting for $750,000 to a museum in Cologne, Germany, where it still hangs. The proceeds went to the Hammer Foundation.
Of itself, the transaction might be just one more episode in Hammer's decades of melding art and entrepreneurship in which the 92-year-old former physician has bought and sold hundreds of paintings, drawings and sculptures with a mix of his own and Occidental money.
Art has sweetened 50 years of Hammer business deals--whether it was the promise of a local museum visit by Hammer's international traveling collection, the right to purchase art at discount from one of his two New York commercial galleries or the favor of a personal tour of the collection at Occidental headquarters.
Three days from now, however, Hammer--frail and reportedly in deteriorating health--opens his own museum in Westwood, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. Ironically, he is counting on a heavily publicized Malevich show to stake an instant claim to reputation and legitimacy for the controversial facility he set out to build in 1988 after pulling out of a commitment to donate his collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Not surprisingly, even the opening exhibition--which falls, Malevich experts agree, in the blockbuster category--arrives in Southern California preceded by controversy. Four American museums removed 11 key paintings and six other works from the show because of concerns that Hammer's museum had been rushed to its opening without adequate testing of security and climate-control systems. It will still have 80 key paintings from collections in three countries.
"This exhibition has to be critically important," said Roger Mandle, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. "It is not only the opening shot, but one of the last shots. It's a critical moment for this man."
The boxy, two-story museum building was designed by the famed architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, whose earlier museum projects included the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Dallas Museum of Art. The Hammer complex includes 79,000 square feet of space built around an open court inside a squat concrete box, clad in gray and white Carrara marble, that fronts on three streets and is surrounded by 27 jacaranda trees. From street level, some people who have studied the structure say it looks like a shoe box wearing prison stripes.
The museum's fourth side was built into the existing Occidental Petroleum building at Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards. The museum entrance is actually through the oil company's Wilshire Boulevard exposure, in space formerly occupied by a bank.
"Most of the museums now being built are out of human proportion," said Alla Hall, a longtime Hammer associate, now museum director and chief curator. The Russian-speaking Hall was formerly a curator at LACMA. "This museum is very, very human-sized. When you come here, you will see that you are comfortable.
"Museums in the last 10 to 15 years have had to change their approach. There are more demands now than ever before. You have to teach, entertain, have parties and have things for the children to do. You almost have to have cooking classes. In a small museum, you can reach more people in your own community."
A granite- and limestone-paved courtyard and promenade--its surface heated by hot water coils on chilly days--takes up the center of the ground floor level. But the courtyard, planted in Chinese elm and liquid amber, is surrounded by discreetly locked doors leading to the museum's still unfinished formal restaurant and auditorium. A library was also left as stark, unfinished concrete.
Construction on all three facilities was halted in a frenzied attempt to bring costs within the $60-million limit set by the settlement of a lawsuit by Occidental shareholders who challenged the museum project as an inappropriate expenditure of oil company money and nothing more than a monument to Hammer. (Museum officials have said they intend to have at least the auditorium in operation by the end of next year.)
Though a trial court in Delaware, where Occidental is incorporated, ruled in the company's favor in the lawsuit, appeals in the case are pending before the Delaware Supreme Court. A separate Los Angeles lawsuit filed by the niece of Hammer's late wife, Frances, has also challenged the ownership of the art collection on grounds that Frances Hammer was inadequately represented by lawyers when she signed a series of community property waivers relinquishing rights to any of the art. No court action in that case is expected before next spring.
Occidental's contribution to the museum also includes a $36-million endowment annuity that yields about $5 million a year in operating funds. The money virtually immunizes the Hammer museum against operating losses in its formative years. The museum declined to provide numbers of memberships already sold, but officials said they had been going at a pace far faster than expected. However, Hall said the museum recognizes that it must expect initial interest to wane--and membership to decline--as the novelty wears off.
More than three quarters of the museum's permanent collection of European paintings and Leonardo da Vinci drawings will be on display at any one time--a somewhat higher proportion than at more conventional facilities like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. At the Getty, said a spokesman, 50% to 70% of some collections--including the best known paintings and sculptures--are on view at any one time. Hall said the museum's budgetary projections for the moment assume that Hammer--or perhaps Occidental--will continue to be the source of funds for acquisitions. She conceded that Hammer's advanced age lends at least some urgency to addressing issues of how the collection is to grow after his death.
The Barnes-designed second-floor galleries offer a commodious mixture of natural and artificial light. The Malevich exhibition will, almost certainly, seem more comfortable there than in the cramped space--split between two floors--to which the exhibition was assigned at its first venue, the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington. It drew such quarters there because, by museum standards, the show was booked late--a little less than two years before it opened. Space was such a problem in Washington that the show was switched three times between scheduled galleries before the artworks ever arrived.
Malevich is scheduled here until Jan. 13. It travels back East to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to be rejoined by the paintings absent from Los Angeles for display from Feb. 7-March 24.
The sort of visiting exhibitions the Hammer museum might display after Malevich departs remains a curiously closely guarded secret. Most museums routinely announce exhibition bookings at least months--and often as much as two or three years--in advance. Yet Hall and Hilary Gibson, the Hammer museum's administrative and fund-raising chief, declined to identify any future touring show they plan to host. They were mum even on what will immediately follow Malevich into the gallery spaces.
"I don't think that you can, right now, out of fairness to us, ask that we tell you what's coming," Hall said. "We'll be able to do things that other museums can't do. We can't do things that others can. We have plans. After this exhibition, there is something planned. Let us open this."
Gibson and Hall said the Hammer museum is actively negotiating for several visiting exhibitions, but declined to identify even the subject of any of them. Hall said the museum hopes to feature occasional small shows and that a recently located Leonardo da Vinci drawing might become the focus of a whole program of events, from lectures to a small show.
By all accounts, Hammer has pursued the Malevich exhibition with dogged single-mindedness, sometimes appearing to overstate his role in the overall organization of the show, but playing a starring role, nonetheless. He has seemed, for instance, to claim credit for paying the entire $1.5-million fee set by the Soviet government to provide the Russian works included in the show. In fact, the sum was split equally by three corporations--Occidental, International Business Machines and the Philip Morris Companies.
Mandle said Hammer developed something of a specialty in flying to Moscow in Occidental's private jet at crucial moments and coordinating his pressures to secure the exhibition with such high-profile gestures as producing emergency aid for victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake.
His earlier ambivalence to Malevich aside, Hammer became interested in opening his museum with a retrospective of work by the Russian Suprematist when a consortium of Russian museums led by the State Russian Museum in Leningrad and the State Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow joined with Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum to mount an impressive touring Malevich retrospective in 1988.
"He went after this like a dog on a mailman's leg," said Mandle of Hammer's actions on behalf of the Malevich project. The National Gallery, which opened the show in September for a run that ended earlier this month, planned and organized the Malevich show--with assistance from Hammer's staff in Los Angeles, which assembled and published the exhibition's catalogue. In Washington, the show was viewed by a total of 128,373 people, with its galleries jammed on weekends by throngs of visitors who seemed unaware of who Malevich was but who found his work nevertheless compelling.
In the end, according to curators familiar with the show's genesis, the Russians saw the Malevich tour to the United States as an opportunity to realize significant return on their investment. There was the $1.5 million in scarce hard currency, to be sure. But the Malevich exchange offered the Russians other--perhaps even more difficult to obtain--artistic resources, as well.
Malevich, born in 1878, evolved through several artistic styles including Realist, Impressionist and Cubist work. He became famous in his lifetime, but his work fell from favor under Stalin in the 1920s for political reasons. Malevich died in 1935. A few of his works had been shown in 1932, but the last Soviet Malevich exhibition had been in 1929--and its curator had been jailed for putting it on, according to Angelica Zander Rudenstine, an internationally known Malevich expert who did most of the actual organizing of the National Gallery show itself and is the official curator for its Washington and New York engagements.
As a result of Malevich's political difficulties, much of his work had been dispersed to obscure provincial museums in such cities as Kubishev, Saratov and Sverdlovsk. Even major Soviet museums, Rudenstine said, are almost completely lacking in conservation facilities--including temperature and humidity control systems--of the sort that most American museums take for granted.
The Malevich work was in surprisingly good condition, nonetheless, Rudenstine said. In fact, when the work started to be assembled, much of it appeared, ironically, to have benefitted from Malevich's years of disfavor. There was evidence, she said, that Russian conservationists and curators had quietly paid careful attention to maintaining the pictures, even though the artist had been officially denounced. Because the work had not been shown, it was almost entirely free of overexposure to light and other forms of atmospheric damage, she said.
To sweeten the deal and keep the Malevich work from going to Japan, Italy or any of a number of competing nations, Rudenstine said, the National Gallery arranged to re-frame and re-mat much of the collection. Scarce conservation supplies were shipped from Washington to Moscow for distribution to Russian museums unable to obtain even such fundamental commodities as rag cardboard, used to mount delicate artworks on paper and favored by conservationists because it lacks destructive acids.
The times played into Rudenstine's hands. The 1988 Moscow-Leningrad-Amsterdam Malevich show had marked the beginning of Western access to Soviet art that has defined the arts manifestation of glasnost and perestroika. "It's an extraordinary moment for so-called avant garde art," Rudenstine said recently as she sat in a borrowed office off the main East Building gallery area not far from where the Malevich show hung. "Since (Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev opened things up on the cultural and intellectual sphere, all kinds of things have been happening.
"When I was in the Soviet Union in February, there was a show of work by (the Malevich contemporary Liubov) Popova, whose work had not been seen since 1924. It's a very explosive and interesting moment and Malevich is one of the most important, exciting artists of the century."
But if Rudenstine and National Gallery curators who were themselves shuttling between the United States and the Soviet Union represented the key forces that were to bring to the United States the first multi-continent, totally international Malevich show ever mounted, Hammer's peculiar entree to the Soviet government and his familiarity with Russian institutions were also essential.
Ironically, Hammer apparently never saw the touring 1988 show, either in the Soviet Union or in The Netherlands. But he and National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown had been loosely discussing a collaboration for a Suprematist exhibition--with Hammer clearly seeing it as the debut show for his personalized Westwood museum.
But the Russians played their cards carefully. To begin with, they argued, the influence of the Soviet culture ministry--which had virtually dictated national arts policy before Gorbachev came to power in 1985--had ceded major power to regional ministries. Hammer's key strength--political and economic access to the Kremlin--appeared for a time to have been passed up by contemporary Soviet history as Hammer and the National Gallery managers pondered how to pry Malevich away from a variety of other suitors.
At times, recalled Gibson, Hammer played the negotiations for Malevich like a high-stakes poker game. On one occasion in Moscow, she said, Russian officials tried to back out on an agreement to give the Malevich show to the National Gallery and Hammer, awarding at least its key works to a competing Japanese exhibition, instead.
"They had promised him whatever he wanted for his opening exhibition, and he chose this," Gibson said. "They said, 'I'm sorry, you can have anything else besides this.' Dr. Hammer said, 'I'm going to call in my markers because you said I could have it.' "
Whatever Hammer said or did, it worked. Within days, Hammer announced to Brown that he had secured the exhibition. But there was a problem. Since he hadn't actually seen the 1988 Moscow-Leningrad-Amsterdam show, Hammer apparently did not realize it had been quite different in each of its three venues. He had secured rights to something, Rudenstine said, that turned out to be nearly impossible to define.
Later, when Rudenstine and Hammer flew together from London to Moscow to sign some of the contracts for the show, the reality began to sink in. "I think that flight may have been the first time that Dr. Hammer realized the show had been different in Moscow, Leningrad and Amsterdam. When he said, 'What we're getting is that show,' I explained to him that that was a moving target."
"I was struck by Hammer's instinctive interest in having this as his opening exhibition," said Mandle, who saw the 1988 Malevich show in a rambling auxiliary gallery at the Tretiakov in Moscow, and it became, he recalled recently, "an emotional experience about a 20th-Century exhibition I've very seldom had. It was in a big, barn-like building near Gorky Park. It was in the middle of winter. It was freezing cold.
"But there were so many people inside, it was incredibly hot. They use this grit on the streets instead of salt to melt the snow, and you could hear the scuff-scuff-scuff of people's shoes as they walked across the stone floor. All of those people and no other sound. There was so much curiosity about this stuff that had been buried for so long. No one was talking. It was like a church."
Somehow, Mandle said, Hammer grasped Malevich's lure and the symbolic role such a show could play in his personal museum plans.
"Over the years, in spite of the various sorts of publicity he's had, (Hammer) has operated as an extraordinary entrepreneur. The arts have played a role in his entrepreneurship.
"Even though his own collection may not represent a substantial weighting toward avant-garde art--and I would imagine he has bought what he likes--there is something about this moment that is really exciting," Mandle said.
"He's seeing this on the wave of glasnost , but it projects something he's trying to say about his museum. I think it's a very adventuresome idea."
* COMMENTARY: Christopher Knight on the Hammer Museum's collection. Page 84.