"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."