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Green lasers and lots of red yard await at the fully realized Hammer Museum

Aug 21, 2023

The free Westwood museum has swung open the doors on an expansion that's been two decades in the making.

There's an animation you can watch on the Hammer Museum's website that tracks all of the Westwood institution's expansions and alterations since it opened in 1990. If you’re just staring at the map, the building's largely unchanging footprint doesn't make for a dramatic before and after—at least not compared to, say, a bunch of mid-century boxes that are transforming into an amoeba across town.

But a lot has changed—and improved—at the contemporary art museum since its opening. Now, 23 years after its Michael Maltzan-designed master plan was first hatched, all of the courtyard enhancements, restaurant openings, gift shop renovations and theater and gallery conversions have culminated in the Hammer's most significant (and near-final) transformation yet: the pedestrian-first additions of a 5,600-foot gallery, sculpture terrace and reconfigured lobby entrance—all, as has been the case for the past decade, free to visit.

Most visitors will still probably enter the museum from the attached parking garage. But if you do venture in on foot, rather than an unceremonious set of doors on Wilshire Boulevard, you’ll now be met with a proper grand entrance at the corner of Westwood Boulevard. (The clear signposting here should be particularly helpful come 2027—though, let's be real, probably later than that—when a Metro station opens on the other side of those 10 staggering lanes on Wilshire.)

Once inside, the light-filled lobby's zigzagging staircase continues to host large-scale pieces under the "Hammer Projects" banner. To inaugurate the reimagined area, Japanese-born, Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota has covered the stairs in a canopy of 800 pounds of tangled red yarn, part of a piece called The Network.

Over on the Glendon Avenue-facing end of the building, the museum has annexed an extra 5,600 square feet of gallery space by taking over a former bank. The street-level interior has been purposely left mostly unfinished for now, and for the next few months it’ll be filled with the mist and high-intensity green lasers of Rita McBride's Particulates. Like something out of a supervillain's laboratory, the ring of lights casts an eerie glow inside the hollowed out space—and as the sun goes down, you can gaze upon its glow from the sidewalk.

Just past that the corner, a curved nook that was once filled with planters now serves as a small sculpture terrace. To start, Sanford Biggers's cast bronze Oracle, which previously sat at New York's Rockefeller Center, presides over the intersection with a 25-foot-tall, torch-holding figure inspired by a mash-up of African masks and European statues.

Oddly enough, viewing these two installations from outside the museum is a little easier than inside at the moment: There's no path that directly connects this added gallery with the museum lobby, though the Hammer says the two will eventually be linked. For now, you’ll find a few ways to reach the galleries: along the sidewalk on Wilshire; down a hallway that links the garage with an adjacent office building lobby; or, from the museum's upstairs galleries, down the east elevators and into that same office lobby.

Back in the main area of the museum, the galleries look largely as they have in the past few years—which is to say filled with a diverse and excellent mix of contemporary artists. The main show, "Together in Time: Selections from the Hammer Contemporary Collection," celebrates two decades of building up said collection and reads like a greatest hits compilation of Hammer exhibitions past. You’ll see "Made in L.A." standouts like the late Luchita Hurtado and the return of eye-catching installations like Mike Kelley's colorful City 000, as well as works from John Baldessari, Lee Bontecou, Mark Bradford, Simone Forti, Noah Purifoy and about 70 others. (There's also Roland Reiss's unmissable The Castle of Perseverance, a 1970s living room set constructed entirely of particle board.)

Just across the courtyard, "Cruel Youth Diary: Chinese Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection" spotlights pieces from the 1990s and 2000s, while next to the revamped gift shop, the superlative "Bridget Riley Drawings: From the Artist's Studio" features eye-popping op art pieces in the museum's recently debuted space for works on paper. Elsewhere, a solo show in the Vault gallery features sculptures by Karon Davis while "Full Burn: Video from the Hammer Contemporary Collection" rotates every two weeks—and that's in addition to the small permanent collection of largely 19th-century French art. In other words, there's a lot of art to see—and all for free.

The Hammer Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 6pm.

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