New installations and world-class classics at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles

[Maeve walks down memory lane and into one of her favorite museums, taking us through the Hammer Museum’s permanent collection and one site-specific piece. –the Artblog editors]

When I was in Los Angeles last month, I had the pleasure of visiting the Hammer Museum. It was always one of my favorites when I was living in the city, and upon visiting it recently, I can say definitively that it is my favorite museum in L.A. The variety of the classical and cutting-edge art and the quality of the installations make the Hammer Museum an absolute must-see for any art lover. It is a good fit no matter what you are looking to see, because there is always something new and something for any taste.

Kaleidoscopic entryway

Works by Maya Hayuk adorn the lobby walls of the Hammer Museum
Works by Maya Hayuk adorn the lobby walls of the Hammer Museum

What stood out to me on this trip was the front lobby installation by Maya Hayuk (a temporary, site-specific mural, which came down Jan. 26).  The large, abstract paintings–three, on three different walls–impressed me both because of their successful use of the somewhat awkward triangle-shaped wall of the front gallery area, and because Hayuk’s use of color was marvelous. The layers of translucent and opaque paints made for an engaging abstraction that worked visually from many distances.

As you walked up the stairs, you could really grasp the physicality of the paint and masked layers from close-up. From a greater distance, you could more clearly understand the color story and the works’ careful, harmonious use of bright colors. However, except for the one painting on the large wall, I was so close to the paintings in a relatively small space that I could never get far enough away from them to get a more comfortable look.

An impressive permanent collection

The Hammer Museum’s permanent collection is a delight. Although some parts of the collection suffer from a bad case of Everyone Is An Old Dead White Dude (a problem that is thankfully not at all shared by the contemporary collections and temporary projects), on the whole, the museum does contain really great work.

 Gustave Moreau, Soleme Dancing before Herod (1876)
Gustave Moreau, “Salome Dancing Before Herod” (1876)

Of course, both of the museum’s Van Goghs are lovely and perfect for someone who really wants to see a big-name artist when they go to a museum. However, my favorite painting in the museum is “Salome Dancing Before Herod,” by Gustave Moreau: a masterful example of composition, in which the painting’s arches impart a wonderful sense of scale, and the use of the figures in the space is great. The limited palette of rich reds and golds lends a warm and mysterious air to this painting. I have spent more time gazing at “Salome Dancing Before Herod” than looking at all of the other paintings in the gallery combined.

Like all great paintings, it holds interest even after longer observation.  It also photographs appallingly; photos render it flat in sad and unfortunate ways, and the details are all but completely lost. This painting really falls into the category of something to be seen in person and lingered over.

Vincent van Gogh, Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889)
Vincent van Gogh, “Hospital at Saint-Rémy” (1889) is part of the Hammer Museum’s permanent collection

Like I said, the Hammer Museum is for everyone–from the person seeking a big-name, classic painting, to someone looking for experimental installations, to someone wanting to attend a free artist talk or lecture. The museum is also a manageable size, so you can actually see the whole thing in a day without experiencing sore feet and the feeling that your head is going to explode with information. Also, the bookstore is a gem, and not to be missed.