Where Art Is a Household Word

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"What would I be doing if I weren't doing this? Playing bridge three times a week? I like bridge, but art keeps me from doing that all the time." Audrey Irmas, the noted philanthropist and collector, laughs as she offhandedly says these words at the end of a wide-ranging conversation about her charitable efforts and love of art. She leans back on the cushy sofa in the den that is the homiest room in her elegant Holmby Hills residence and shakes her head at the thought of what could have become of her younger self--a '60s wife and mother happy just to buy from "those galleries in Laguna," as she puts it.

Hard as it is to believe now, as she sits surrounded by large-scale, major artworks by some of the late 20th century's biggest-name artists, there was once a time when Irmas and her now-deceased lawyer-entrepreneur husband, Sydney, had not yet decided to plunge seriously into the art market. Self-made and not particularly self-important, they only started collecting in the early 1970s at the suggestion of their daughter, Deborah, then a graduate student in art history. And they started small-scale, with photography as their first serious focal point.

"I was buying silly little paintings and loving them," Irmas says, "and Deborah said, 'You should collect photography.' And I said, 'Photography? Why? There's a million people who have the same thing.' "

Indeed, in the early '70s, photography was hardly considered an art form because of its ability to be infinitely reproduced, and very few serious collectors had taken it on. Deborah's intuition that all that would change, which would soon prove true, eventually persuaded her mother. But the Irmases wanted a focus. They chose photographic self-portraits, because they liked the psychological revelations they contained. Audrey Irmas also found she liked collecting.

"It was fun, and it was something we could do together," Irmas recalls of her jaunts to galleries with her husband. "We could go to New York and go to galleries. And when you're just starting out, there's lots of things you can buy. In those days, photos were just $200 or $300; I think the most expensive photograph I bought was maybe about $30,000. And Deborah really taught me how to look and to see."

As it turned out, photography was just an entry point. Audrey Irmas eventually found herself paying more attention to the paintings she walked past in museums and galleries en route to the photos than to the photos themselves. "In most galleries, photography's in the back," she says. "So on the way you see these things and you say, 'Whoa, that's pretty terrific.' "

In 1992, she and Sydney gave all the photos away, creating what is now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's prized Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection of Artists' Self-Portraits, a large and highly specialized selection spanning 150 years. The couple donated the collection two years before a major exhibition of the collection was mounted at LACMA and four years before Sydney died of leukemia, at 71. Irmas continues to buy for the collection, but now all the additions are gifts to LACMA.

Today, Irmas lives surrounded by big art. Paintings, sculptures and a sprinkling of works on paper cover virtually every corner of her home, which was designed by Santa Barbara-based architect Timothy Morgan Steele. It is a museum-like setting, a pristine presentation that now bears the mark of Irmas' strong links to L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, where she has served as a leading trustee for the past decade and where she has continued to enhance her appreciation for the contemporary art scene.

One favorite, she says, is Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's classic 1961 painting titled "Emeralds," which depicts in comic-strip style a spaceship pilot muttering to himself, "One thing's sure, he's still got those emeralds!" Her other favorite is a Cy Twombly untitled painting from 1968, an abstract scrawl of white curving lines on a gray plane of color, very different from the Lichtenstein though done close in time. "They're different," Irmas says, "but I often find that I am attracted to work from the 1960s, when, as one writer put it, artists were trying to not be as precious as they were with Abstract Expressionism. I love both these works because they're so gutsy. They're strong."

Irmas says the Lichtenstein's comic imagery makes her think of hours spent in her childhood sitting on the living room floor poring over newspaper comics like Flash Gordon. "I remember Los Angeles before we had freeways, and those comics told us what the future was going to look like," she says. "I really love the spaceship." She put the painting in a prominent place in her breakfast room so she can see it without having to consciously seek it out. "I pass it all the time during the day," she says, "and I love just having it there."

The Twombly, which she bought in 1990, hangs above a mantel in the living room. She said she had sought a work from this period for years and was thrilled when she got it. Nevertheless, she finds it amusing that its simple abstract imagery is sometimes difficult to explain to friends not in the art world. She neither makes apologies for it nor is inclined to educate.

"Here's a funny story," she says in her characteristic unabashed style: "I have a friend who's a high-powered divorce lawyer, and he had to go to New York to find out the value of some paintings because of a settlement. He came back and said to me, 'Can you believe this? There was a painting at Sotheby's that was just a bunch of scribbles on a blackboard, and it sold for $3.5 million!' I said, 'Yes, I know, I bought it.' "

Three major works prominently displayed in her home already are promised to MOCA--a wall-sized gold and lavender triptych by the German Sigmar Polke, plus two sculptures by the New York-based Robert Gober, one a finely wrought reproduction of an old-fashioned, ordinary utility sink and the other a window-like hole in the wall with prison bars above a small staircase. Irmas also owns many other works by artists who have been featured in MOCA exhibitions, a natural overlap for a committed trustee. It's not that the curators have told her what to buy--she's too strong-willed to be guided by someone else's taste, they say--but over the years her interests and the museum's have grown in many of the same directions.

Just this summer, for example, as MOCA's showing of the work of Andy Warhol was at its peak, Irmas purchased for herself a small Warhol portrait from an L.A. art gallery. You could call it coincidence--Irmas loves Warhol's work and had long sought one, she said. Or serendipity--often works by an artist pop up in the marketplace in the wake of such a significant show. But Irmas also was ready to jump, and after asking MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel to look at the piece, she did.

Sydney Irmas made his fortune in a variety of business ventures, much of it with Price Pfister, a Pacoima-based plumbing company. Although he and his wife collected the photographs together, he was supportive but less involved in buying the major paintings, Audrey Irmas says. "That was always my thing. He used to tell people, 'My wife is great; it doesn't really bother me what she spends, but she scares the hell out of me when she buys art!'

"He was a businessman; he liked to go out and buy another business venture, that's what turned him on. But when there was outside approval for the art, he'd take great pleasure in it." Strong art collectors are rare among women, perhaps because they often don't have the funds to pursue the ever-escalating prices of the market. Irmas says she has sometimes regretted not owning something after being timid about spending money and has learned to press forward when she loves a work, by now confident in her own vision of what she needs to own. "People collect for different reasons," she says. "I think the reason it really works for me is I'm a collector by myself. It's all my sensibilities, my taste."

Irmas says she never sells a work of art. If she gets something home and it doesn't work, she gives it to a museum. "I buy for pure joy," Irmas says. "It's not speculation; that's for stocks and bonds and real estate. Not art."

Architect Steele credits Irmas as having the vision for the design of her house, a space laid out to accommodate large works, which also need to be seen occasionally by large groups. A Tony Smith sculpture stands outside the front entrance; a classic painting of a contorted seated woman by the British painter Francis Bacon--the first major painting she ever bought--graces a wall just inside the front door. It is notable--though, she says, unintentional--that many of the works she has bought are of women or by women.

Irmas' living room looks big enough to be a ballroom. The east wall is dominated by three huge panels of Polke's larger-than-life untitled canvas from 1982, which includes images, borrowed from a work by Goya, of odd-looking faces peering down into a box. Across the room behind a dining table, the French artist Annette Messager's "Mes Voeux" (My Wishes), contains a collection of close-up photographs of body parts--lips, tongues, eyes, nipples--each image suspended from a string.

In a hallway, Gober's sink seems laughably out of place, but like all the best conceptual art of its nature, it actually works. Irmas says she doesn't like to turn the water on too often because it splashes too much on her floors, but she is careful to keep the mechanism in working order because that was the artist's intention.

The den has a recent painting of a large, abstracted L.A. street map by Ed Ruscha that she bought not long ago at a local gallery, and her bedroom is filled with work by the Italian Arte Povera artists, known for their use of low-tech, simple materials. (Many related pieces from these same artists have been on view in an exhibition at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary.)

Irmas says she is frequently asked to lend works to exhibitions, and she does so with mixed feelings. It's part of the delicate dance serious collectors have to do, recognizing that important art never belongs to any single person. "You're privileged to have it for a while," she says, "you know that it's a temporary thing, and when you die, it's going to pass on to the world. You have to care for it, and hopefully that's a short span in the life of the piece." Irmas said that she does not expect her three children, all of whom are adults, to want the collection, but she did not say where it might land one day.

She also said she doesn't lend her artworks to commercial shows, only to museums, and even then with discretion. "Since my husband died, it's harder and harder for me to let things out of the house; I love my art so much, and it's like members of my family, and I don't want to see them go. I really miss them. And when they come back, it's like my kid came home. I'm very attached."

"I do it," she added, "because I know I have a duty. People are wonderful to me, and I like to reciprocate."

With a motherly manner that is both friendly and matter-of-fact, Irmas invites a kind of honest intimacy even while she also gives the sense that she can be hard as nails when she wants to be. Neither purely socialite nor overtly intellectual, she travels easily in both circles because she has learned how to be smart, strong and comfortable with her position among L.A.'s elite. She has a hearty laugh and a huge heart, her admirers say. And when she talks about her late husband, she still tears up, without apology.

Her name, as well as that of her family, is often visible on lists of supporters of MOCA's many exhibitions and projects. She gave $500,000 to help pay for the 1998 "Out of Actions" exhibition of relics of early performance art, a show that as a result was dedicated to the memory of her late husband. She co-chaired the museum's most recent capital campaign, which raised $25 million for its endowment, and to which she gave $3 million. Last year, she stepped down from her position as chair of MOCA, which she had held since 1997, but she remains vice chair of the museum. She says that she gives almost exclusively to L.A. institutions because her roots are here: "We think, why should we give major dollars to a museum on the East Coast when we have the need here?" It is an attitude that is rare among L.A.'s arts patrons.

These arts activities stand beside the family's other major philanthropic efforts, which include support for Jewish causes, such as a Westside campus for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple named for Sydney and Audrey Irmas. The family's foundation, also named for the couple and overseen by Audrey and Deborah as well as Irmas sons Robert and Matthew, has also been a primary supporter of L.A. Family Housing Corp., an organization that helps homeless families and today provides residences for as many as 2,000 families. And last year they gave a large gift to City of Hope cancer center in Duarte for a research laboratory because, Irmas says, "it was very painful when Syd died, and they wanted us to fund a laboratory to help find a cure for older people with the disease."

"We do things that have meaning for us," she says simply.

"She is an extraordinary giver," says Schimmel, who has worked closely with Irmas for a decade and considers her a friend. "She comes from the traditional values of Judaism, believing that you need to give back to the community. It has sustained her in tough times. I believe that the same instincts have led her to support the homeless, Jewish causes and to build her art collection. It all comes from the heart."

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