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Hammer struts its recent stuff

January 15, 2007|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

Culled from more than 300 pieces that have been acquired since 2004, "Hammer Contemporary Collection: Part I" (Tuesday through April 8) gathers an assortment of 52 works on paper, mainly drawings and photographs produced by American artists over the last 10 years.

The Hammer's chief curator, Gary Garrels, breaks it down: "We'll have a cluster of historical works by primarily New York artists." They include pieces by Abstract Expressionist painter Brice Marden, French-born Abstract Expressionist Louise Bourgeois and Minimalist painter Agnes Martin. "We then have a cluster of younger contemporary people who are based primarily here in L.A.," he says.

Why the emphasis on works on paper? "Our intention from Day One was to start with a focus in works on paper," says Hammer director Ann Philbin, who ran New York's Drawing Center before taking over at the Hammer in 1999. "It fits what we're doing as a continuation of the Grunwald Center," she says, referring to the Hammer's Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, which has a collection of more than 40,000 drawings, prints, photographs and artists' books dating from the Renaissance to the present.

Additionally, she says, "It's something we have expertise in, we care a lot about it, and it's a niche we can fill in this city."

"Drawings are often the way to get deepest into an artist's work," says Garrels, who was formerly chief curator for the drawings department at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"Generally speaking, a painting or sculpture is a finished work that doesn't show its hand, so to speak, that doesn't allow you the same kind of entry into the artist's mind. Drawings are a more intimate medium that allows you to understand an artist's process."

Though the focus of the collection is art of the last 10 years, the museum may acquire earlier works "as opportunities present themselves," Garrels writes in the exhibition catalog.

In fact, opportunity has knocked often over the last two years, with gifts to the museum that include the midcentury works by Bourgeois and ink-on-paper drawings by Marden that are in the exhibition.

"People who think of an artist as a quote 'painter' or 'sculptor' don't realize how important drawing is to their production," Garrels says. "We're interested in teasing that out and adding something that distinguishes the collection, given the resources we have."

The show's photography selection highlights artists working with the medium in "nontraditional ways," Garrels says. Citing works by Roy Arden, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari along with "this amazing younger generation coming up that includes Walead Beshty, Rodney McMillian, Christopher Williams and Catherine Opie," he notes, "These are not documentary photographs. They make one reconsider the nature of the photographic medium."

Exemplifying that approach are a pair of portraits by Los Angeles-based photographer Sharon Lockhart.

"Sharon does these large-scale portraits that come out of her three-year involvement with a community in Northern California," Garrels says. "She made very precise choices about what they're wearing and how they're standing, approaching it very much the way a classic painting portraitist might."

The unveiling of the contemporary collection continues on April 21, with the second part of the exhibition. The 37-piece show will include a sampling of recent sculptural acquisitions as well as what Garrels terms "an international spread of figurative pieces that are more highly charged narrative works."

The Hammer team's fascination with new work resonated with Michael Rubel, who belongs to Hammer's 23-person board of overseers. Board members together contribute about $100,000 to the museum's acquisition fund annually.

"Rather than competing with MOCA, or MoMA for a Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg, we could focus on younger artists doing more recent work without the 'Gee, we bought this!' " mentality, explains Rubel, general counsel at Creative Artists Agency and a longtime collector of contemporary photography. "It's not a matter of going after some singular trophy acquisition. Rather, there's this breadth of dynamic work, maybe a little more cutting edge, that creates a framework for future acquisitions."

There are also pragmatic considerations at play in the Hammer's decision to pursue recently produced works on paper, first and foremost. Philbin explains: "In this art market, three-quarters of a million dollars is not going to get us very far if we're collecting really good painting and sculpture, but it will get us very far collecting works on paper."

For Garrels, the Hammer collection represents an alternate approach that he hopes sets the institution apart. "Most museums think about painting and sculpture first and then think about works on paper as an add-on. We wanted to flip that and go the opposite way," he says. "We focus on drawings and works on paper as the leading edge of our collection."

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`Hammer Contemporary Collection: Part I'

Where: The Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays

Ends: April 8

Price: $5; seniors $3; students free

Contact: (310) 443-7000

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