COMMENTARY : Hammer's Exercise in Superfluousness

Christopher Knight is a Times staff writer.

Typically, the opening of a new museum is cause for enthusiastic celebration. Especially among those for whom art is both a passion and a profession--artists, art historians, curators, dealers, collectors, critics and the rest--but certainly for avid members of the general public, too, the arrival of a repository for substantive works of art most often signals additional depth and breadth in a city's cultural life.

As there has never been anything typical about nonagenarian industrialist Armand Hammer, neither has there been any reason to expect this typical scenario to be played out at the opening of a new museum in Westwood bearing his name. (Its public debut is Wednesday.) And in this singular regard, the museum does not disappoint. For it would be difficult to imagine a more pathetic episode in the recent cultural life of Los Angeles than the opening of the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center.

This assessment transcends the decidedly shoddy events of late 1987 and early 1988, in which Hammer finally reneged on 17 years of repeated public pledges to bequeath to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art his collection of about 100 paintings; a scientific notebook written by Leonardo da Vinci; and a huge assembly of prints, drawings and small sculptures by the 19th-Century French caricaturist Honore Daumier--the print collection widely regarded to be second only to the holdings of Paris' National Library. Dismay over that about-face, which came as no small shock, is certainly warranted. Yet, what is actually at issue goes far beyond petty tyrannies and disputes waged within institutional culture.

A bit of background is necessary. As a trustee of LACMA since 1968, Hammer was obliged to hold the welfare of that museum in the highest regard, in all his dealings with it. This fiduciary responsibility called for special probity because, as an art collector himself, the trustee's private activities competed directly with those of his public charge. The ramifications of Hammer's sudden withdrawal from LACMA, which made a burlesque of that public trust, are anything but frivolous.

For example, when he acquired the more than 6,000 Daumiers that had been painstakingly assembled by collector George Longstreet, Hammer assured the County Museum in writing that the Daumiers would be donated to LACMA upon his death. The informal written pledge was made not once but twice, at the time of the acquisition in 1975 and again in 1980.

The pledge was not legally binding, because an authorized letter of immediate intent to donate the art would have jeopardized the potential tax benefits of the gift. Ethically, however, the pledge was very important, since LACMA had also expressed interest in purchasing the collection from Longstreet. In competition for the same prize, the museum judiciously deferred to its trustee--who subsequently went back on his word.

Such ethical slackness has a significant impact on the public welfare. For even though fine selections from the Daumier collection are on display at the new Hammer Museum, and thus have not been lost to public view, there is no way to know the extent to which their withdrawal from LACMA has damaged that museum's pattern of collecting, during the years it believed the promises of its own trustee.

To get some idea how, consider as representative the vivid case of Vincent van Gogh. Over the years Hammer added four canvases by Van Gogh to his collection, two of them minor, one of mainly historical interest, and the fourth, "Hospital at Saint-Remy," a great inferno of flickering color from the decisive year of 1889. LACMA would have been foolish, even imprudent, to commit strained resources to filling a formidable gap in its collection by acquiring a painting by the pivotal Dutch Expressionist, in the face of their own trustee's repeated pledges to bequeath them his. Now, when even a minor Van Gogh can cost many millions of dollars, it is unlikely LACMA will ever own one.

The public, as a result of Hammer's peevish withdrawal, has been permanently denied the opportunity to view within the larger historical context of its encyclopedic museum the work of a crucial artist. Multiply that sad fate several times, and the damage done to a museum of which Hammer was a public trustee is lamentably real.

(Why do I get the feeling that Daumier, who made his reputation as an artist by skillfully skewering egregious oligarchs and bourgeois manners, might, if he were alive today, number the Hammer Museum of Art among his graphic targets?)

As the Westwood museum prepares to open its doors this week, the most pathetic feature of all begins to come into sharp focus. The circumstance that prompted Hammer to break his many promises to LACMA is significant in this regard. As he was preparing to make good on 17 years of pledges, Hammer had demanded, against all principles of responsible museum administration, that his disparate collection be housed separately at the museum, in special galleries devoted solely to it. Wisely, LACMA refused. So Hammer withdrew and proceeded to build his own special galleries--a $96-million vanity museum.

Calling the Armand Hammer Museum of Art a "vanity museum" wouldn't necessarily mean it's horrid. To the contrary. Some of the greatest assemblies of art in the world are housed in monuments to self-centeredness. They can even boast a special asset.

A vanity museum can keep intact a facet of private, individual taste unique to a moment in history. Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is an invaluable documentation of late-Victorian feminine taste. Henry Clay Frick's collection in New York represents the aristocratic aspirations of turn-of-the-century robber barons. Norton Simon's collection in Pasadena signifies a refined, entrepreneurial taste unique to late-20th Century capitalism.

As for the Hammer collection, it's an almost pure embodiment of the modern corporate use of art as a tool for public relations. It was assembled principally to act as a touring ambassador of commercial goodwill for Occidental Petroleum Corp., subsidiaries such as Hooker Chemical Co. and for Armand Hammer himself. In that capacity it has traveled to 18 countries, when not hanging in Occidental's executive offices. The new museum might even be a first: a public art museum attached to a corporate headquarters, for which the art served as publicity agent throughout its life.

There is of course a catch in all this. For a great vanity museum, a gigantic ego is not enough. You've got to deliver the goods, too. Gardner, Frick and Simon did. The collections they assembled are extraordinary.

With only about a dozen superlative works of art, however, the splashy marble edifice at Wilshire and Westwood boulevards confirms one's worst fears: The Hammer collection is too thin, too frankly mediocre, to sustain a museum of its own.

Vanity production or not, there are standards against which the Hammer collection is appropriately measured. In business terms--which might be the most appropriate to use, given the collection's history, as well as the considerable outlay of funds made to this wildly expensive gambit by Hammer-locked Occidental--you've got to be competitive.

Before, the aesthetic competition consisted of the range of other privately assembled collections in the world. In this narrow field Hammer's ensemble was never close to being of the very first rank--a rarefied plateau reserved for the likes of such estimable connoisseurs as Switzerland's Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and L.A.'s Norton Simon.

The reason may be that unlike Thyssen and Simon, who each developed a superb eye in the passionate process of creating an extensive art collection, Hammer relied on hired guns to do his looking for him. Most notable was John Walker, former director of the National Gallery of Art, who among much else aided Hammer in building a superlative collection of drawings. One price of Walker's assistance was a commitment of those drawings to the National Gallery, a gift Hammer made in 1987. Ironically, the single greatest group of objects within his collection will therefore not be found in Westwood.

Still, compared to most private assemblies the Hammer collection constitutes at least a significant compendium of art. An occasional masterpiece even buoys the more abundant mediocrity that surrounds it.

Some question the authenticity of Rembrandt's great pile of a portrait, "Juno" (c.1662-65), but the commanding serenity in this image of the queen of the gods makes for a heck of a picture regardless. The same artist's "Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat" (1637) is a superb example of a "swagger" portrait of a fashionable Dutch gentleman, while John Singer Sargent's florid, full-length figure of "Dr. Pozzi at Home" (1881) might be called an early modern version of the genre. And Van Gogh's roiling view of the asylum in which he lived indicates some strength in the collection's Dutch pictures.

Two small panels by Peter Paul Rubens are fine, if modestly scaled, examples by the Flemish Baroque master, while Camille Pissarro's dense "Boulevard Montmartre, Mardi Gras" (1897) shows that small size is not necessarily an impediment to great painting. Likewise, Gustave Moreau's "Salome" (1876) is the smaller of two pictures by the artist, but in its hallucinatory web of shimmering color lies an intoxication missing from the more static "King David."

Of five canvases by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, only "Morning" (1865) and "Distant View of Mantes Cathedral" (c.1855-60) are first-rate. And although Thomas Eakins' "Portrait of Sebastiano Cardinal Martinelli" (1902) wouldn't grab a place near the top rung of his oeuvre, its simple gravity is compelling.

This handful of excellent works is certainly matched by a slew of unspeakable paintings, which include appalling canvases by Maurice de Vlaminck, Marie Laurencin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and others. But the more important truth is that the 80 or so paintings that remain do not fall at, or even near, either end of the scale; they cluster at the middle. These are historically notable oil sketches, academic trivia by the likes of Daniel Ridgway Knight or, most often, merely pedestrian examples by artists with celebrated names. Regardless of the artist's fame--Goya, Fragonard, Cezanne, Monet, Bonnard, etc.--they simply do not rank as museum pictures.

Then there is the 18-page Leicester Codex, the only Leonardo manuscript in the Western Hemisphere. Virtually anything by that master is worth cherishing, and it's marvelous that the Codex is in proximity to UCLA's Belt Library, which is devoted to Vinciana. But let's be clear. The Codex is notable principally as a scientific rumination, not an aesthetic one. The tiny drawings, which illustrate the copious text's analyses of the mechanics of water, are marginalia.

In sum, the 79,000-square-foot museum in Westwood feels superfluous, even silly. For the aesthetic competition has changed, and dramatically so. Hammer's holdings must now be measured against museum standards, which offer ample demonstration that a private collection does not necessarily a museum make. At the time of Hammer's abandonment of LACMA, conventional wisdom held that the County Museum had been dealt a severe blow, because its less-than-stellar collection needed to be bolstered by Hammer's art. From this week forth it will be clear to all that the reverse is also true: Hammer's wan collection needed bolstering by LACMA's, too.

Ironically, the unique feature of a great vanity museum--the capacity to keep intact a facet of period taste--has worked against Hammer's final ambitions. To paraphrase the public relations cliche: It doesn't matter what the painting says, as long as its famous name is spelled right. The list of famous artists was crucial to the collection's successful corporate use, but the overwhelming abundance of mediocre (and worse) examples is disastrous for the purposes of a museum.

So, the core of the travesty is this: At the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, the quality of art and its place in the cultural life of the city have pulled up a poor second to all other considerations. In conception, it sadly recalls "the old days," before the cultural force that is Los Angeles today blossomed from the Sahara of the Bozarts (to relocate Mencken's fabled description of the South). The museum arrives decades past its time, standing as a relic left behind in the march of events.

Hammer, whose famous business ties to post-revolutionary Russia are the original source of his personal fortune, might well have sensed the problem. To open his museum by hosting the important traveling exhibition of the Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich is itself a major public relations coup--or would have been, had the show not been seriously compromised by the withdrawal of a dozen works by several lending institutions, who feared for their pictures' safety in the museum's as-yet-unfinished building. Of course, there was never any need to build a new museum to house this important show; at Hammer's urging, "Malevich" could as easily have been presented at LACMA. But a landmark temporary display certainly would help divert attention from the unveiling of the Hammer Museum's mediocre permanent collection.

"Malevich" turns out to be a Potemkin village, a dazzling false front erected to conceal the mostly poverty-stricken permanent structure that languishes behind it. And in a few weeks, when the traveling show moves on, it is the flimsy collection that will be left behind as Armand Hammer's legacy to Los Angeles. For that, no pardon should be expected.

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