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.)