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Collector Chara Schreyer: An eye for art enlivens the L.A. community

“When you’re an art collector, you need to cannibalize walls,” says Chara Schreyer. She sits in the living room of her Hollywood Hills home beneath L.A.-artist Mark Bradford’s 24-foot wide collage A Thousand Daddies (2008). In the corner, right besides a floor-to-ceiling window, looms Untitled (1969), by revered minimalist Donald Judd, a tower of ten stainless-steel boxes with red Plexiglas surfaces that make the wall glow pink. This sculpture used to be in Schreyer’s Tiburon home, in Marin County—the Los Angeles home, renovated in 2014 with designer Gary Hutton and architect Joe McRitchie, is her newest of five, since homes mean wall space and she puts none of the art she’s bought over the past 42 years in storage. She knew when she found this tiered house with its wide windows that the Judd belonged in this particular corner.

“Have you seen the Toulouse Lautrec film?” Schreyer asks, referring to the 1952 version of Moulin Rouge, in which the Parisian artist dreams that his drawings speak to one another at night. “In my mind, it’s kind of the same way,” she says. She too lies in bed imagining the various stories artworks in her collection could tell together. But even if she is a hoarder of walls, she does not over-fill them. “The empty spaces are just as important, because otherwise everything means nothing,” she explains.

In a 2012 interview, Schreyer said that she hoped to stop collecting so she could “stop buying houses.” “Everybody laughs when I say there’s going to be a day when I stop,” she says now, adding that her daughter just bought a home in West L.A. “Thankfully, at the moment I’m going to have fourteen-thousand square feet to hang.”

Schreyer, who belongs to three California art museum boards and has been one of ARTNews’s Top 200 collectors for 16 years running, arrived in Los Angeles in 1952 as a five-year-old who spoke German and Yiddish but no English. Both of her parents, Sala and Max Webb, had survived the Holocaust. Her father would go on to found S-W-S Construction Co., among the largest real estate development firms in California. The company bought up land in Porter Ranch, among other places, building thousands of model homes there, and its success allowed Schreyer to make collecting a lifelong vocation. Her family history permeates her collection. Above her desk in the Los Angeles house hangs a dramatic black-and-white Jeff Wall photograph of her father’s synagogue, Beth Israel on Beverly Boulevard. She installed an elevator up to the office so her father, who turned 100 in March, can visit the photograph whenever he wants, though he still worries that she overpaid for it.

A Matthew Ritchie oil in the master bath.
A Matthew Ritchie oil in the master bath. (Matthew Millman / © Matthew Millman)

“I was fortunate enough to be in the art world before it got this red hot and so expensive,” says Schreyer, “because it’s become so market driven.” She bought her first artwork by Venezuelan op artist Jesus Rafael Soto in 1975. Two Georgia O’Keeffe paintings followed. She sells nothing on principle, and recently bought back a Nam June Paik video installation that her first husband took in their divorce. When she lends to museums, she leaves a printed-out photo of the absent artwork. Nothing is in storage. All of this sets her apart. Unlike, say, Cliff and Mandy Einstein, she never unloaded her collection and started over to up its caliber. Unlike the Marciano brothers and Eli Broad, she will never build a private museum to double as her offsite storage, and thus her collection will never compete with local museums. She has begun promising certain artworks to museums—for instance, a Christopher Wool painting to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she has served on the board for 15 years. She became a trustee at MOCA Los Angeles in 2015 and has belonged to the Hammer Museum’s Board of Overseers since 2009. “I wouldn’t say I felt that it was an obligation,” she says of board membership. “But I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Schreyer returned more permanently to Los Angeles at a moment when the contemporary art scene here, perpetually growing, reached critical mass. Over 50 galleries opened between 2013 and 2016, including places of international repute like Spruth Magers and Hauser & Wirth; new museums opened, too (The Broad, The Main, the ICA). The city’s longtime status as New York’s stepsibling started seeming obsolete. “The New Yorkers were always very snobbish in ways that are breaking down,” says Schreyer, who has collected West Coast artists widely since beginning and rarely has time to visit New York. She also sees hope for L.A.’s traditionally weak collecting culture, often blamed for the inability of galleries to thrive here. This recent growth in galleries in the city means more options for young collectors starting out, she thinks. “People say, How do I get good at this? And I say, Just keep going, keep looking,” she says. “It’s so open-ended and wonderful, and that’s the best thing about collecting. Their collection doesn’t have to be of the caliber of mine or the people who throw a lot of money at it.”

From left, works by Robert Beck, Glenn Ligon and Robert Gober in the “disaster room.”
From left, works by Robert Beck, Glenn Ligon and Robert Gober in the “disaster room.” (Matthew Millman / © Matthew Millman)

Schreyer’s collection has the canonical diversity of a smartly taught post-World War II art survey class, more impressive given that she acquired certain artworks before they became celebrated and thus prohibitively expensive. “I collect these artists who are changing the course of history,” she says, walking past Ruth Asawa’s S. 437 (1956), seven lobes of woven wire suspended from the ceiling. Schreyer bought it at auction from a dancer who had been Asawa’s classmate. Nearby hangs experimental minimalist Robert Morris’s Untitled (1967), made of heavy-looking looping strips of gray felt, which Schreyer explains was inspired by Morris’s then-wife, artist and dancer Simone Forti. Lee Bontecou’s brown, gray and black wall sculpture, made of canvas, velvet and steel, hangs above the fireplace. It also seems in motion, stitched-together triangles angling toward one of the dark orifices Bontecou included in many 1960s works. “It’s really about storytelling,” says Schreyer of her pairings, though her stories tend to be intuitive. “You collect art unconsciously or psychoanalytically.”

Upstairs she has a glass-doored “disaster room”—her Tiburon house has a “disaster shed”—to commemorate life’s transience. “They say it takes seven generations to clear trauma from your mind,” she explains. “So when you’re a child of Holocaust survivors, you haven’t actually lived that, thank god, but you’ve lived it in many ways. I just have this idea that life can change on a dime. So I’m drawn to things that speak to that.” Against one wall is a raw plywood cutout by Cady Nolan of the silhouette of Patty Hearst toting a machine gun. Robert Beck’s ….dazed by its darkest day (2001), a clinical portrait of middle-school shooter Andrew Golden, fills the adjacent wall.

Paintings by Amy Sillmans and Jeff Koons hang in the hallway leading from the disaster room to the bedroom. The Sillmans is loosely expressionistic, the Koons characteristically slick, with blow-up toys overlapping bare midriffs. “I think they’re both contrasts in a way to my disaster room,” say Schreyer. “There’s a life force to both of them. I also have a very positive, forward-looking life force.”

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