Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hammer Time

Los Angeles

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Couldn't leave the art museums alone. I decide to visit one more, the Hammer Museum on Wilshire in the Westwood section of LA. It's run by UCLA and was started and endowed substantially by the industrialist Armand Hammer. We call people "industrialists" when they make a shitload of money in businesses that involve heavy lifting or deep drilling, as differentiated from ones where papers are shuffled and maybe people make pills or microprocessors or grow food. Of course, the industrialists themselves rarely do more than shuffle papers, take pills, use microprocessors, and eat food. Considering all that, "tycoon" would probably be a better word to describe Armand Hammer, since manufacturing medications, transporting food, and indeed making stationery and pencils were all part of what made him rich. Eventually, and probably most crucially from the standpoint of the securing of his fortune, he became a major stockholder in an LA-based company called Occidental Petroleum.

Armand Hammer's name is often merged in the popular imagination with Arm & Hammer, a brand of baking soda, and some people think the two are related. In fact, Arm & Hammer Baking Soda and its logo, property of a company called Church and Dwight, date back to the 1860s, almost forty years before Armand was born. But there are some odd and intriguing connections anyway. Hammer was the son of Russian immigrants Julius and Rose Lipshitz Hammer, who came to New York City before he was born. His father was a physician who also ran a small chain of pharmacies in the Bronx. According to the usual semi-reliable sources (i.e. Wikipedia), Julius was a committed socialist. It so happens that the logo for Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, a muscular arm holding a hammer, bears a striking resemblance to what later became the symbol for the Socialist Labor Party in the United States. Julius, it is said, led a branch of the SLP to split off and become part of the Communist Party USA after the Russian Revolution. So there is a bit of an "arm and hammer" connection in Armand's background, underscored even more by his lifelong close ties to the Soviet Union. He was, in a way, their capitalist ace in the hole, and was given a sort of one-man Most Favored Nation status by the Soviets, from Lenin forward. Having made his first serious money manufacturing patent medicines and expanding the family business, Allied Drugs, he then began exporting pharmaceuticals to the Soviet Union and also selling wheat to the Russians. He went to visit the USSR in 1921 and didn't come back until 1930. While there he ran a pen and pencil factory. Apparently his father Julius also had a stationery factory concession in the USSR for quite some time. Armand's time in Russia cut short his medical career, but he did get an M.D. degree from Columbia, and styled himself "Dr. Hammer" all his life.

Armand Hammer seemed to be able to move freely between the two worlds of Russian communism and American capitalism, and made plenty of money in both spheres, hobnobbing and supporting high-placed Communists over there and Republicans over here all his life. In the end I don't suppose there was a hell of a lot of difference between the apparatuses of the two parties. Money talks, bullshit walks. Whether he was a spy for one side or the other, or just a convenient go-between, he was left pretty much alone to do his thing. Without a doubt he was a supporter, for humanitarian or political reasons or both, of the Soviet Union, and he was a supporter of the GOP, too. He was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, but was later pardoned by George H.W. Bush. The last and cutest thing is that late in life he took a substantial position in Church and Dwight, maker of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, becoming one of its directors.

I wish I could say the museum is as interesting as the life of the man who founded it. I take trains and a bus out to Westwood, enjoying the ride through the heart of LA and across Beverly Hills, lured in large part by the promise that it holds the largest collection of works by Honore Daumier outside Paris, some 7,500 items. However, only a couple dozen are on display. Perhaps the rest are around somewhere, but they're not accessible. Other items in the rather small permanent collection exhibit include a nice handful of French paintings by the likes of Corot, Millet, Pisarro, and Boudin, and a few Van Goghs. Also one by Rubens entitled "Young Woman With Curly Hair." And wouldn't you know it, they've got two paintings by Rembrandt. That brings the total Rembrandts I've seen in the LA area to at least 15, which is about 5 percent of the 300 plus verified works of his in existence. Not bad, when you consider all the other major league venues that must have more than their share, including the New York Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Hermitage, and the Rijksmuseum. It's getting to the point where I expect to see a Rembrandt everywhere I go.

The rest of the displays aren't much to my liking. Because it's a university-run museum, I suppose they feel obliged to invite new young artists, and for that I applaud them. But the ones they chose were, frankly, kind of shitty. Lots of multi-media and conceptual stuff, which can be great, except that this just isn't very good. My recommendation to most of the artists in the "All Of This And Nothing" exhibition is not to quit their day jobs, if they have any. I did enjoy an unrelated display of some of the works of an Italian named Roberto Cuoghi, which included a nice statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu. If that name sounds familiar to movie buffs, it's because old Pazuzu figured prominently in the really awful sequel to The Exorcist, the one with Richard Burton.

On the afternoon ride back from the Hammer to Pasadena I begin to realize I'm getting tired of riding the trains. This will probably be the last time on this go round.

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