Escaping the Dog Days of Summer

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So, how was your Labor Day? Myself, I'm never sure what's the proper thing to do on this holiday – to honor it with an honest day of work or by taking it easy. Even here in Santa Monica it was hot, so I did my usual and fled to the air-conditioned sanctuary of museum galleries.

One of my favorite hideouts is the Hammer Museum at UCLA, with its variety of cutting-edge temporary exhibitions, collection of Old Master and 19th century paintings, and excellent bookstore. I had gone there a few weeks ago for a special event which drew a large crowd, so now I thought it would be a good idea to go back to see the two current exhibitions with fewer distractions.

at090908a.jpgThe retrospective of LA-based Larry Johnson, who is often referred to as an "artist's artist," got good reviews from many critics, but to be completely honest, his witty, often text-based works that celebrate and criticize our obsession with celebrities of all kinds left me cold. After a while, the sameness of these works gets to be too much, and one starts to crave something more visually stimulating than room after room lined with rather repetitive work. It comes as no surprise that the artist himself, needing a break, stopped working for almost six years and only recently resumed his practice.

at090908b.jpgThe other exhibition is a celebration of a generous gift to the Hammer Museum by one of its trustees, who donated a collection of 50 sculptures by 29 Los Angeles artists. Dean Valentine and his wife, Amy Adelson, are among the most-well known and avid collectors in Los Angeles, and the museum is able to present in the few available galleries only part of their large donation. To make space for the presentation of the gift, the Hammer chose to put its permanent collection of paintings into storage for a few months, which makes me rather sad, as I always like to end my visits there by spending a few minutes in the company of Rembrandt, Sargent and a few Impressionists. I wonder if the museum considered offering other institutions the chance to display highlights from Mr. Hammer's collection, instead of keeping them locked up? When the Musée D'Orsay in Paris, for example, decided recently to remodel its space, it made a smart agreement with a San Francisco Museum, the Legion of Honor, to send there next year about a hundred works from its celebrated collection. That's the spirit.

at090908c.jpg It's a short drive from the Hammer to the New Wight Gallery of the UCLA Art Department. A friend urged me to go see an exhibition presenting the works of its faculty, which includes a number of internationally recognized artists. Trying to avoid the usual parking headaches on the UCLA campus, I went there on Saturday, to find out, to my dismay, that on Saturdays and Sundays the gallery is closed. Considering that this exhibition runs for two weeks only, wouldn't it make sense to keep the gallery open over the holiday weekend?

at090908d.jpgBut never mind. I had a good time discovering that after several years in storage, the four majestic bronze bas reliefs by Matisse have been handsomely reinstalled in the sculpture garden, not far from the towering steel piece by Richard Serra. I had a sense of deja-vu, after seeing recently another version of this work in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it's installed to even better effect.

at090908e.jpgWhich makes me think about the special talent it takes to make an outdoor presentation of a monumental sculpture especially effective. One of the best examples I've seen in recent years happens to be in Ohio, in the garden of the Toledo Museum of Art. Just check out the photo on the Art Talk page of the KCRW website to see the Neoclassical façade of the museum through the majestic red arc of the Alexander Calder sculpture. Pure magic.

RELATED WORK: UCLA's Department of Art Staff Biennial Exhibition
On view at the New Wight Gallery through September 17

Second Nature: The Valentine-Adelson Collection
On view at the Hammer Museum through October 4

Banner image: Henri Matisse, The Back Series (I-IV), Museum of Modern Art, New York