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Queen for a day at the Hammer

OK, it's more like five months, but artist Jennifer Bornstein gets to fill in as curator.

June 11, 2008|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

Jennifer Bornstein was a kid in a candy store -- with almost half a year to gorge herself. When Hammer Museum curator Allegra Pesenti asked Bornstein to rummage through the institution's huge collection of graphic work and put together a show of whatever she fancied, the Los Angeles artist was thrilled. Five months later she was exhausted.

"I can't believe how much work it was," Bornstein says. "I thought it was going to be a breeze. It wasn't. I have a lot of respect for curators."

The result is a new exhibit, the first of an occasional series, in which artists become guest curators. Called "Houseguest: Jennifer Bornstein Selects From the Grunwald Collection," the inaugural show opened last week and runs through Sept. 14.

"The permanent collection is incredibly diverse," says Pesenti. "Yet the permanent collection is felt to be the sleeping side of the museum; the special exhibits get all the hype. Only a small part of the Grunwald Collection is on view. I really wanted to get it out and give it the dynamic presentation it deserves."

Pesenti says she was familiar with Bornstein's etchings (one of which was recently acquired by the museum) and decided to turn her loose in the Grunwald Collection, which contains almost 50,000 works on paper. During the next five months, Bornstein stopped by at least weekly, occasionally daily, sometimes digging through prints for eight hours at a stretch. "I'd get dizzy looking at all this work," says Bornstein, 36, whose own figurative drawings bespeak her love of draftsmanship.

Most of the time she had only a vague idea of what she might find whenever she ordered a box from the museum's storage since the archive's index doesn't include any picture of what is actually in the collection.

Rembrandt unframed

"I followed a train of thought from my influences, whatever caught my eye," Bornstein says. The first things she wanted to see were the Rembrandts. One in particular struck her: an etching of a student bent over a candlelight table, the light fading into outer dark.

"The opportunity to look at a Rembrandt print unframed was an opportunity I wanted to take advantage of right away," she says, pointing to the work. "I look at this with envy. I envy his skill. That blackness requires an enormous amount of obsession. It's absolutely gorgeous and beautiful."

The Grunwald Collection -- which started with a large gift of prints and drawings by Fred Grunwald in 1956 and has grown steadily over the years -- provided Bornstein with many revelations. There's an etching by composer John Cage. And a color abstraction by Man Ray. "I had no idea he made lithographs," Bornstein says.

Consider a 1932 sketch on a piece of notebook paper of a balding, bespectacled man named Marcus Rothkowitz (who became famous as Mark Rothko) by future Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb. "This strikes me for the subject and scale," Bornstein notes.

Or a tiny sketch of a woman holding an umbrella by Dan Flavin, best known for his florescent light bulb installations. "To find out he made etchings was really a surprise," says Bornstein. "That's what I wanted to include."

Bornstein originally selected 180 works, then reduced the number to 63 for the final show, in which the prints are bunched on three walls of a gallery no bigger than a two-car garage.

"I wanted as many works as possible, hung salon style," she says. "I wanted one not to notice the hanging. There's no hierarchy here. People will see relationships I intended and some I didn't intend. It's open-ended."

Pesenti agrees. "There's a language between the works," she says. "A story is being told. Jennifer saw stuff I wasn't seeing. It was a new experience for me to learn about the collection through her eyes. It's a good opportunity to bend the rules. You won't see this salon style hanging in a museum."

Pesenti says future houseguest shows will take place every 18 months or so. If the first show is any indication, viewers should expect to be surprised. Though Bornstein clearly loves the work of icons such as Rembrandt and Durer, she devotes more wall space to artists who are less than household names, such as photographer James Welling (four pieces) and silk screener Corita Kent (five).

"At first it was really a treasure hunt," Bornstein says. "The exhilaration of discovery and the disappointment of not finding something. I found things I wasn't looking for, that I never expected."

No theme

Her original idea was to do a show of portraits of artists by other artists. "I thought as a curator I should have a theme," she says, "but I had to discard it very quickly. As I dug deeper, I found I'd have to leave out too many wonderful things. It wouldn't have done the collection justice."

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