This summer’s Hammer Project by artist Joseph Holtzman defies expectations on several fronts. If you are likely to assume that a project gallery at the super-cool Hammer would feature the work of a newly minted MFA art star, you’d be wrong. In fact, Holtzman is a largely self-taught painter—born in 1957—and this exhibition marks the first public display of his work. If you generally think of painting as applying paint to a canvas (and why wouldn’t you?!)… guess again. Holtzman’s canvases are polished slabs of slate or marble, and while he does indeed paint on them, he also carves into the paint with razor blades, making what he removes as important as what he applies to the surface. And finally, if you expect a contemporary painting exhibition to be mounted in what museum staffers commonly refer to as a “white cube,” you are in for a big surprise. The artist, who is widely known as a designer and interior decorator, has transformed Gallery 3 at the Hammer into a 19th-century domestic salon, complete with colorful wall treatments and comfy furniture on which visitors are invited to sit.
Six paintings line the walls of the gallery. Portraits of historical personalities, like Mary Todd Lincoln and Jane Austen, appear alongside more personal depictions of the artist’s mother, Frieda Holtzman, and Robert Offit, a close friend who died of AIDS. But these mostly abstract works are not straightforward likenesses. Rather, moments of representational imagery, and sometimes words in the titles, hint at the identity of the person depicted.
For example, in the painting about beloved author Jane Austen, Holtzman combines figurative and abstract elements, resulting in colorful swirling patterns and motifs. The title, Jane Austen, November 1815, may refer to the year Austen published Emma. The protagonist, Emma, is considered to be a vast departure from Austen’s prior heroines, and kids may be familiar with the storyline even if they haven’t read the book; it was popularized in the 1995 feature film, Clueless, which is loosely based on the novel.
The site-specific, immersive installation in which the paintings are hung amplifies the artist’s interest in space, color, and form. Felt has been applied to the walls in a manner that suggests wainscoting. The light green ceiling is illuminated and meant to cast a green hue onto the paintings. A large area rug fills most of the floor, and situated on it are two cozy love seats and three chairs.
The couches and chairs are slipcovered in historic textiles that depict classic seafarers and hunters, or bucolic towns. One textile produced during the 1950’s by Riverdale Manufacturing in New York is derived from Grant Wood’s painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), and depicts Revere on horseback. Holtzman has created a staged environment for his works, a setting that on the one hand evokes the formality of a 19th-century salon, while at the same time beckons visitors to sink into the comfy seating and spend some relaxed time considering the paintings.
Holtzman, who was born in Baltimore and is now based in New York, is a painter, interior decorator, and avid collector. In 1997 he founded the magazine Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors, serving as its creative director and publisher until he closed in it 2004. The award-winning Nest featured an array of imaginative dwellings, including igloos, a prison cell, and a child’s attic room, and was a personal expression of Holtzman’s eclectic style. The cover of the final issue featured a painting by Holtzman, signaling his determination to shift to painting full time.
While at the Hammer:
It’s always a good idea to schedule some playtime into your museum visits with kids. Fortunately, the Hammer has a few diversions to recommend. For starters, the second floor on which this Holtzman exhibition is located also boasts not one but two ping pong tables! Visitors are invited to grab a paddle and enjoy a game.
Next, head downstairs to the courtyard and take a seat in the clever spinning chairs (formally called Spun Chair) that are a remnant from the spring exhibition Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio.
Finally, if you plan your visit for Sunday, August 23 from 11 am–1 pm, you can attend a drop-in workshop to design your own pillow cover with artist Joel Otterson and others. For the past thirty years, Otterson has made sculpture that combines aspects of domestic handicraft with traditional sculptural materials. He will lead participants in an exploration of design concerns like utility (is your pillow for a couch? A bed?), aesthetics, and meaning.
The Hammer Museum is open Tuesday-Friday 11 am–8 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11 am–5 pm. Admission is free.
Hammer Museum / 10899 Wilshire Boulevard/ Los Angeles CA 90024/ 310/443-7000
Written by Stacey Ravel Abarbanel