Sitting on the patio of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, James Elaine hunches forward in his chair, his pale blue eyes turning serious as he says, "This is not a career choice. This is my passion."
Elaine is curator of Hammer Projects, the museum's division dedicated to exhibiting the work of young artists, many who have never had a museum show. Since his 1999 arrival, Elaine has established this exhibition program as one of the most adventuresome in Southern California.
Elaine, 51, is a striking presence with wiry gray hair and prone to wearing exotic cowboy boots. "I am an artist," he explains with a slight Texas drawl. "I think I have a different perspective from an academic. I think of artists as my peers. I'm comfortable in their studios. It's something I love."
In the past three years, Elaine has arranged shows for 28 artists under the age of 40. "I don't think there is another museum in L.A. doing what we are doing the way we are doing it," he says. "We made a conscious decision that it was important for the Hammer in creating its own identity to give ourselves up to younger artists and to bring an audience here who had never set foot in the building before."
The UCLA Hammer Museum, as it is officially known, houses the Old Master and 19th-century paintings and drawings assembled by the late oil magnate Armand Hammer as well as collections of work by 19th-century French satirist Honore Daumier and the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, with some 40,000 works on paper dating from the Renaissance to the present.
Hammer Projects represents a philosophical decision by the museum to integrate the often segregated worlds of contemporary and historic visual art. For example, for the past few months, the late paintings of modernist Milton Avery were shown in the main gallery while the comic-book-inspired mural of Aaron Noble adorned the lobby wall. Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin says, "These are areas I'm comfortable in, from the historic work to the up to the minute contemporary."
The physical logistics of Hammer Projects is the result of turning an
architectural liability into an asset. In 1990, Edward Larrabee Barnes had designed an extremely formal museum to show Armand Hammer's personal collection. A capacious marble-floored atrium with a vast staircase leads to a patio where another staircase leads to the galleries. A visitor has to traverse three tiers of architecture before seeing a work of art. Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin and Elaine were nonplussed by the building's austerity. Standing in the glacial lobby, Philbin turned to Elaine and said, "We've got to get some art in here."
They began by commissioning artists to do enormous murals on the soaring interior walls, which can be seen through the street level windows. They also built an entrance gallery and converted an upstairs space into the vault gallery named for its convex ceiling. Both galleries accommodate small solo shows. Hammer Projects had its new homes.
Elaine's decisions are made with the input of Philbin, senior curator Russell Ferguson and assistant curator Claudine Ise. "We are a team," says Elaine, "representing different perspectives and tastes. It's a good way to define and broaden ourselves." Ise has organized the occasional Project show as well as overseeing traveling exhibitions while Ferguson organizes major exhibitions such as the Christian Marclay retrospective that opened at the museum last May. All four acted as curators of last summer's high profile "Snapshot: New Art from Los Angeles," which featured 25 up-and-coming artists. Elaine says, "That was an extension of Hammer Projects and really satisfying because we could show more artists. L.A. has hundreds of working artists."
Another big survey show, this one with a global perspective, opens later this month. "International Paper: Drawings by Emerging Artists" goes on view Jan. 26-Apr. 27, 2003, and features 23 artists from around the world.
"We see ourselves as creating a model for a nimble, responsive program that is the right scale for what we are trying to do," Philbin adds. Compared to a major exhibition, which can cost more than $500,000, the Hammer Projects are budgeted at between $20,000 and $35,000. Philbin calls them "great value."
"I've been told that some people feel our museum does too many diverse
things and doesn't have a clear identity. But what we give up in the way of a marketable identity, we gain back in excitement and unpredictability. I would always choose the latter. Museums usually can't behave this way but we are going to try and do it anyway."
As director of the Drawing Center, Philbin worked with curator Elaine from 1989 to 1999. When she accepted her post as director of the Hammer in 1999, she asked Elaine to join her and to create a series for emerging artists. Philbin says, "When I arrived here three and a half years ago, I felt there was a surprising lack of venues for young emerging artists. Unlike New York, there are not very many non-commercial venues for exposure. It thought it was appropriate for the museum to offer this, especially if you consider that we are attached to UCLA, a research university that encourages experimentation in all fields. We extend that thinking into our realm by giving artists a chance to do things in a laboratory kind of environment."
Rhode Island artist Kara Walker was the first artist to show in the Hammer Project series. Although she had won the MacArthur award and had numerous museum exhibitions to her credit, her selection represented a certain symmetry for Elaine and Philbin. Ten years earlier, when Walker was still unknown, they had been the first to exhibit her cut-out paper silhouettes of African American characters at New York's Drawing Center.
Meanwhile, Elaine was visiting artists' studios and galleries to familiarize himself quickly with the scene. In June of 2000 he showed L.A. artist James Gobel. Since then, the artist's felt collages of homosexual domesticity have had critical praise and commercial success at galleries in New York and L.A. "It got me more attention than I'd ever gotten before," Gobel says. Since fall of 2001, he has been assistant professor of art at Cal State San Bernadino. "I think it helped me get my job," he adds.
In October of 2000, Pentii Monkkonen exhibited a sculpture in the shape of a cathedral. It was spotted by collectors Erik and Heide Murkoff, who already collected the artist's work. They commissioned a similar architectural sculpture for their Montecito garden.
Although some 40 percent of the Project artists have been local, Elaine says, "It's myopic to only focus on L.A. We have a desire to help the community by bringing in national and international art. A lot of artists can't travel. They don't have the money. It's important to bring the art here. It lifts up the whole stature of the Projects Series."
Arturo Herrera, who lives in New York, was commissioned to paint the walls with a giant mural combining abstract poured forms with vernacular imagery in February of 2001. "That for me was the largest project I've done to date," he recalls. "Even though it was complex and difficult to execute, it was successful for me because it allowed me to push the work further. One direct result was that the Whitney Museum had me do an installation last September. They had seen the Hammer piece and were excited." Herrera also was included in last spring's Whitney Biennial.
In May of 2001, San Francisco artist Chris Johanson filled the entrance
gallery with an elaborate arrangement of buildings, cars and people making philosophical observations in little bubble captions. "It's cool their attitude about how they really foster young art," Johanson says. "What is awesome is that they are really into giving unknown artists exposure, they champion that." Johanson was included in last spring's Whitney Biennial. It probably helped that Elaine was the Western states advisor to the Biennial. Johanson also gained representation at Roberts/Tilton Gallery and Deitch Projects in New York. "It exposed me to that," he says. "I think that the mausoleum quality of the art world can be so stale. The people at the Hammer take more chances. They are just into tripping out on the new stuff."
Not all artists shown at the Hammer are untried. Ise has organized exhibitions of Frances Stark and Amy Adler, both of whom have received critical and commercial recognition. Now, the walls of the museum lobby are covered in round-cornered rectangles and squares of Popsicle bright colors. The vinyl decal geometry is courtesy of Jim Isermann, a mid-career L.A. artist who shows nationally, internationally and who has had a retrospective. In fact, he used similar vinyl decals in a different configuration as an installation at the contemporary art museum in Grenoble, France. Elaine explains, "As the Project series is evolving, we see it in a different light and trying to be flexible. But even in the beginning, we thought the wall drawings would have to involve more mature artists. It's a major undertaking for an artist to work on that scale. Plus, his work is perfect for those walls."
Most recently, the entrance gallery provided temporary home for modernist birdhouses inverted onto tree branches by Scottish artist Simon Starling. At the same time, the vault gallery featured a lamppost bent into a triangular reference to modern sculpture by Miami artist Mark Handforth. Like all the Projects, all three shows were accompanied by handsome brochures with commissioned essays so the artist's work is presented with context, history and analysis.
Many of the Project shows have featured elements of installation sculpture, which is what Elaine created as his own art when living in a New York loft. Now residing in a small house in Venice, he has taken up Super-8 film and video that he shows at festivals. He squeezes his art-making into the time that he is not visiting artists studios and galleries showing less-established artists like Dirt, Bliss, Post, Project and Hayworth, to name a few. He also visits studios when he travels, including during his summer vacation to his family's ranch outside of Dallas. "It's takes a lot of time," he says. "I came to a curatorial position through the back door but it's something I love. I love artists and I especially love lesser-known artists. The program comes out of my passion for that."
Seeing himself as something of a mentor to younger artists, he is pleased to see them achieve recognition but says, "It is not a foundational reason for Hammer Projects. It's not why the series exists."
"I have found people early on and encouraged them but I don't think of myself as someone who discovers people," he adds. "I think discovery is actually within the artists themselves. I'm lucky to be able to pick up on it."
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP has completed a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for W.W. Norton that is being published next December. She writes regularly about art and design.