Exhibitions which rely heavily on books and manuscripts, as a rule, have a limited visual appeal. Exhibited in museum display cases, books and artifacts lay solemnly behind glass; their covers cannot be touched, their pages cannot be turned over. There is something inherently frustrating about an exhibition, which reduces books to the role of beautiful butterflies, stuck on pins inside of a glass cabinet. The exhibition of treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles is a rare, maybe even a unique, exception to this rule.
The Hammer Museum had the good sense to ask LA based architects Tim Durfee, Iris Regn, and Louise Sandhaus to design an unusually energetic, almost theatrical environment for this show. Cleverly constructed display cabinets are joined together in a continuous swooping line, which plays delightful tricks with the gallery space. A white canvas tent is erected in the middle of a large gallery and serves as a reading room, with the appearance of a mirage in the desert. In spite of the charged atmosphere created by this design, the crucial decision to use white as its dominant color helps to keep things under control, maintaining a proper balance between the treasures and the way they are presented.
Fasten your seatbelts, guys, I want to give you a short list of some of the 350 objects on display. Oscar Wilde letters and photo portraits, Rudyard Kipling's writings, photos of Frieda Kahlo, Russian Avant-Garde book with illustrations by Kandinsky, Felix Mendelssohn manuscripts of his music, Anais Nin's handwritten diaries, 150 of them, which she kept since the age of 12, Amelia Earhart's notes of her famous transatlantic flight. How about that for starters?
19th Century pop-up books for adults and children that you will be unable to detach yourself from. A gigantic book open to an illustration of the 1850 Great Industrial exhibition in London. A Russian Stalin-era book on Moscow city infrastructure. David Lieberskind's architectural sketchbooks for his celebrated Jewish museum in Berlin. Frank Gehry's architectural model for a private residence in L.A. A Gertrude Stein portrait by Man Ray. And last but not least, a small painting by Picasso which he gave in 1909 to his patron Gertrude Stein and dedicated with the words "Homage a Gertrude." She kept it nailed to the ceiling in the bedroom of her apartment in Paris. You can still see the holes from the nails.