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L.A. arts patron selling Cy Twombly painting to fund synagogue events center

Audrey Irmas, a longtime donor to Los Angeles art museums and Jewish causes, will sell a large 1968 “blackboard” painting by Cy Twombly that she's owned since 1990 and use $30 million of the predicted auction proceeds of more than $60 million to help build a new events center at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown.

The 55,000-square-foot Audrey Irmas Pavilion will be designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the firm led by noted Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

New York-based firm members Shohei Shigematsu and Jason Long will be the project’s design team, according to a Tuesday announcement by the temple, which is the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles.

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The release said that all proceeds from the Nov. 11 sale at Sotheby’s in New York will go to the Audrey Irmas Foundation for Social Justice, which has earmarked $30 million for the events center -- about half the building’s projected estimated cost of $60 million to $65 million.

The center is expected to open in 2019 as a venue not only for the temple’s celebrations of weddings and bar mitzvahs, but for gala events by other nonprofit groups, as well as meetings and conferences.

Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said “it was Audrey’s idea” to help fund the building -- as well as other future philanthropy from her foundation -- by selling the Twombly masterpiece.

“The thing we came to together was that she could take a piece of private art and transform it into something very public on the city’s greatest boulevard that millions of people will be able to drive by, experience and admire,” Leder said.

The Reform Jewish temple conducted an architecture competition overseen by Richard Koshalek, who worked closely with Irmas in the 1990s when he was director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art and she was its board chair and a key fundraiser.

Leder said that Koshalek was hired to compile an initial list of 24 architects -- from emerging ones to “starchitects” -- which the selection committee of synagogue members versed in cultural philanthropy narrowed to four finalists who gave presentations at the synagogue about six months ago.

When Koolhaas, Shigematsu and Long unveiled a model and drawings of OMA’s proposal, “the jury stood up to get a closer look and pulled out their cellphones to take pictures,” Leder said. “It was that kind of excitement.”

“I felt it was contemporary, but looked like it would belong” on a site just east of the Byzantine revival synagogue, which opened in 1929 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places, Leder said. "It's clearly in dialogue with the historic structure, but different."

It will be the first building Koolhaas' firm has designed for a religious institution, and although Koolhaas designed the Prada store in Beverly Hills, it is the first by the firm to be built in Los Angeles.

In the early 2000s the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was eager to do a tear-down and rebuild of its campus designed by Koolhaas, but the project was shelved after a ballot measure that would have provided $100 million in public funds fell a bit short of the 66% majority needed to pass.

Hollywood moguls including Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and three of the Warner brothers stepped forward to fund key features of the historic building, including the temple's dome, windows and a mural of biblical scenes.

The architecture selection committee for a building to stand alongside it included L.A. arts patrons who are also members of the temple. Among them were Eli Broad, LACMA board members Anthony Pritzker, Rebecka Belldegrun and Steven Roth, and MOCA trustee Bruce Karatz.

They picked the Koolhaas' firm's proposal over a less-heralded finalist, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. The final four who gave presentations also included L.A.’s Morphosis Architects, led by Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne, and Steven Holl Architects, known for its museum buildings.

Irmas and her husband, Sydney, an attorney and investor who died in 1996 at 71, paid $7 million in today's currency when they bought "Untitled, 1968" at a Sotheby's auction 25 years ago.

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For the record, Sept. 16, 11:05 a.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled Sydney Irmas' first name as Sidney.

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Last November, a smaller painting from the same “blackboard” series was auctioned by Christie’s in New York, fetching $69.6 million. That canvas, painted in 1970, is three-fourths the size of Irmas’ painting, which is 8 1/2 feet wide and nearly 6 feet high.

Sotheby’s on Tuesday issued an announcement of the coming sale, describing “Untitled 1968” as "one of the most important examples of Cy Twombly’s celebrated 'blackboard' series still in private hands."

In the series, made from 1966 to 1971, Twombly coated his canvases with gray paint, leaving an uneven backdrop for swirling, cursive-like writing he added in white crayon, evoking elementary schoolchildren’s writing exercises at a blackboard.

According to the description in last year’s online Christie’s auction catalog, the American painter, who lived mainly in Rome and died in 2011 at 83, began the series after he’d stopped painting for two years “following the traumatic debacle of 1964” in which critics had savaged a series called “Nine Discourses on Commodus” that showed Baroque and expressionist influences.

Robert Pincus-Witten, who had condemned the earlier work as outmoded, hailed the blackboard works, writing that “handwriting has become for Twombly the means of beginning again.”

L.A. art aficionados have regular access to one of the blackboard paintings -- a 1967 canvas that hangs at MOCA, which acquired it in 1985. It’s about 6 feet wide and 5 feet high.

Sotheby’s will display “Untitled 1968” in its Los Angeles showroom Sept. 24-25, then send it to London and New York over the following month and a half in hopes of generating buyers’ interest.

Irmas also gave a substantial gift to Wilshire Boulevard Temple in the late 1990s for the synagogue’s West Los Angeles satellite campus. It’s named the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus.

In 1992, the couple gave a major collection of photography to LACMA. Audrey Irmas is now a life trustee of MOCA, where in the mid-and late-1990s she co-chaired an endowment campaign to which she donated $3.5 million.

 

Follow @boehmm of the L.A. Times for arts news and features.

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