Those who moved in various orbits around Armand Hammer -- in business, in philanthropy, in art -- always said "if he dies," never "when." Even at 92, he appeared so confident, so invulnerable, that it actually seemed he might live on indefinitely by sheer force of will.
It was thus more disappointment than shock that one felt on hearing that Hammer had succumbed at home Monday night to cerebral arteriosclerosis. Like him or not -- and many in the art world did not -- you couldn't help rooting for the man, especially during his beleaguered last months, when he managed to hang on long enough to see the opening in November of his final and most troubled monument, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in West Los Angeles.
Hammer, in fact, had been ill with what he called flu since September, following a whirlwind trip to Israel for a museum opening most foreigners skipped out of fears of war in the Middle East. Later he said he'd gotten a "chill" while visiting billionaire John Kluge, before coming to Washington to be thanked, at a National Gallery luncheon, for making the groundbreaking Kazimir Malevich exhibition possible. He had been losing ground ever since.
Last night he was to have had a belated bar mitzvah at the Beverly Hilton, which some cynics joked was this consummate businessman's last ploy to cut a deal with the Almighty. In fact, however, the "honorary" bar mitzvah was not his idea, but that of a friend who was organizing a benefit for the Jerusalem College of Technology and the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, Calif. Though he was only lending his name, the event was vintage Hammer: The nontraditional bar mitzvah was the pretext (no Torah reading was planned), Hammer was the star, and the public somehow would benefit.
Though he had tremendous influence on the art world, he never pretended to be a connoisseur, and wasn't one. He hung only paintings by his wife in his home. Once, when the Soviet government presented him with the rare treasure of a Malevich painting, he sold it.
Despite his benefactions in Los Angeles, Hammer is likely to be remembered most fondly in Washington, where he seemed to appear only to present gifts of art and money (and some unforgettable dinners) to the National Gallery, the Corcoran, the Washington Opera, the Smithsonian, the National Symphony, Ford's Theatre and the Capital Children's Museum among others. To the National Gallery he gave -- or will have given within the year -- what is surely his greatest artistic legacy: some 75 drawings, most selected by gallery curators, which constitute one of the great collections of old master drawings in America. It includes not only an exquisite Duerer, but what he liked to call "the triple crown," works by Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo. The 13 drawings already in the gallery's possession can be seen on a rotating basis in the Armand Hammer Collection gallery in the West Building.
Hammer also thrilled this city and many others with the gift of great exhibitions from the Soviet Union, which only he could have brought about, thanks to his unique connections with every Soviet leader from Lenin to Gorbachev (except Stalin). Starting with "Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings From the U.S.S.R." in 1973 -- the first time a big red banner with Cyrillic letters ever hung outside the National Gallery -- Hammer helped arrange "Master Paintings From the Hermitage and State Russian Museum" in 1975, "From Leonardo to Titian: Italian Paintings From the Hermitage" in 1979, "Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R." in 1986, and most recently, "Kazimir Malevich," which was seen here before it went to Los Angeles as the inaugural show at Hammer's new museum. The Soviets, as a measure of their respect, had offered him anything he wanted for his opening, and the Malevich exhibition was it.
"From the art perspective, and Washington in particular, he was enormously instrumental in getting great works of art here from the U.S.S.R. during a period when the Cold War made connections difficult," said National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown. "It's almost hard to turn the mental clock back to remember how hard it was just to communicate during those days: Letters were unanswered, phone calls were impossible. Armand had an office right there.
"The exhibitions he facilitated," said Brown, "were a window into the Iron Curtain that you wouldn't have in any other way. We were three years ahead of any other institutions in having a major show."
The Corcoran, where Hammer had been a trustee, also benefited handsomely from his largess. In addition to 2,000 Daumier prints, Hammer gave the Corcoran $1.8 million over the years, including $900,000 to keep the museum open free of charge for 10 years, $500,000 for the endowment, $250,000 for renovation of the Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium and $100,000 for conservation of the Daumier prints.
He benefited from the Corcoran association as well, showing his own collection "Five Centuries of Masterpieces" there in 1980, and his newly acquired "Leonardo Codex" during the first Reagan inauguration. Like a kid waving his hand to get attention from a new teacher, Hammer made other inaugural grandstand plays here with the help of the National Gallery, where he showed "American Paintings From the Armand Hammer Collection" in 1985 as part of the celebration of Reagan's second inauguration. On the occasion of President Bush's inauguration, he presented his papers and $100,000 to the Library of Congress.
In the inner circles of the Los Angeles art world, however, Hammer is not likely to be widely mourned, for a sense of betrayal remains there. After saying for years that he would give his old master paintings, his Daumier collection and his Leonardo Codex to the Los Angeles County Museum, he changed his mind -- after a confrontation with trustees over where and how his art would be displayed -- and decided to build his own museum.
The Los Angeles Times said of his new museum that "it would be difficult to imagine a more pathetic episode in the recent cultural life of Los Angeles than the opening of the Armand Hammer Museum." The best thing one reviewer had to say of the building was that "it is not a disaster." The question now is whether the museum will survive a pending lawsuit from the estate of Hammer's wife, Frances, who died just a year ago. Her niece, the estate's principal heir, is demanding half of the museum's art.
An art dealer, art collector and art benefactor, Hammer used art to pragmatic ends -- to help foster international peace, to raise money for worthy causes, to raise consciousness about himself and the company that made all his benefactions possible, Occidental Petroleum.
In the end, he used art and the art world used him, and both benefited immensely. Even Carter Brown played the game, though he did better than most by winning a clear-cut victory. He recalls that after Hammer pleaded guilty to charges of trying to conceal an illegal personal contribution to Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign, Brown, along with dozens of other influential people, was asked to write the judge in Hammer's behalf, noting his many benefactions.
Did you write, Brown was asked? He answered with a question of his own: "Did we get the drawings?"