November 13, 2018

Audrey Irmas will sell Twombly painting to benefit Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Since 1990, an early Cy Twombly “blackboard” painting has hung in the living room of philanthropist Audrey Irmas’ home in Los Angeles.

Irmas purchased the piece, “Untitled, 1968” — an 8-foot-wide canvas depicting rows of loops against a gray background — a quarter century ago for $3.5 million at Sotheby’s.

Now the painting will again go up on the auction block at Sotheby’s, this time for an expected $60 million, half of which Irmas will donate toward a cause close to her heart: funding 50 percent of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s planned 55,000-square-foot new events center in

Koreatown, just east of the synagogue’s historic 1929 Byzantine-Revival sanctuary, to be named the Audrey Irmas Pavilion. 

“I have loved living with this magnificent work by Cy Twombly for 25 years,” Irmas, a veteran donor to arts and Jewish causes in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “Similarly, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has been an important part of my family for generations, and when I learned of the vision for the new building and how it would enrich the wider community, I decided that now was the right time. … It was a difficult decision to part with such a treasured work of art, but the idea of bringing joy to so many makes me incredibly happy.”

In 1994, Irmas and her late husband, Sydney Irmas, donated $3.5 million to buy the land for the temple’s Westside satellite campus, which bears their name.  More recently, Audrey Irmas contributed $5 million toward creating the Irmas Family Courtyard at the synagogue’s Koreatown location — which was part of the temple’s massive $160 million building and renovation project.

The events center will host weddings, bar mitzvahs and nonprofit events, among others; it’s to be designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), led by the esteemed Rotterdam-based architect Rem Koolhaas, and should be “in dialogue with the historic sanctuary,” said the synagogue’s Rabbi Steven Leder in a telephone interview. “Almost everywhere you’ll stand, you will visually reference the sanctuary building; if you look to the west, you’ll see it from different perspectives and angles and heights. 

“Another feature that will be extraordinary is this stunning banquet room, which will be arched in a very dramatic way, with 36-foot ceilings, and will seat over 500 people. Then we’ll have a very large rooftop garden that will overlook the Hollywood Hills. You’ll see the Hollywood sign and the observatory and palm trees — it will be very beautiful and very ‘California.’ ” (No images are available of Koolhaas’ design, because it is not yet finished.)

A synagogue committee made up of art philanthropists, including Eli Broad, selected OMA to design the project last April, after narrowing down the 25 applicants to four finalists from around the world. Broad funded the $100,000 paid to each of those firms to present their designs to the committee; when Koolhaas displayed his plans, “The whole committee got up out of their chairs, pulled out their cellphones and started taking pictures,” Leder recalled.

The rabbi said he had no intention of soliciting Irmas when he showed her the early designs some time later: “I just trust her taste because she has an impeccable eye,” he explained. “And then a week later the telephone rang and it was my assistant saying that Audrey had called with a message: ‘It’s doable.’ Frankly, I wasn’t sure what that meant, but when I called her back, she said, ‘It’s the new building. I want to do it.’ ”

Irmas’ gift of $30 million will support a design by “one of the most visionary architects in the world,” Leder said, adding that the synagogue now needs to raise the other half of the funding. The architectural plans should be finalized within the next few months, with a desired opening date some time in 2019.

The challenge, Leder said, will be to erect a building that is impressive enough to stand next door to the temple’s iconic sanctuary. “It’s a powerful building and a landmark, so you can’t build something that’s just plain and ordinary beside it, because that would be insulting to its neighbor,” he said. “And I don’t think that visionaries and major donors would be interested in something that is ordinary.

“The whole campus in its entirety is intended to be inspirational,” Leder added. “Architecture to me is a form of prayer. So when people walk out of our grand sanctuary, they’ve got to see a new building which is equally thrilling and humbling.” 

Sotheby’s will display the painting in its Los Angeles offices on Sept. 24 and 25.  The auction will be held on Nov. 11.