The Schorr Collection

A recent show of drawings at the SBMA highlights longtime collectors Lenore and Herbert Schorr, who have gathered work by emerging artists on two coasts.

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For Lenore and Herbert Schorr, collecting contemporary art by emerging artists has been a lifelong passion that they’ve indulged in both New York and Los Angeles. As New Yorkers in the 1970s and 1980s, the Schorrs were best known as among the first collectors to champion the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who became almost a surrogate son to the couple until his death from a heroin overdose in 1988. Having begun with Picasso prints in the 1960s when he was a young executive at IBM in Westchester, Herb Schorr soon learned that he could afford paintings by artists such as Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston for approximately what he had been spending on modern master prints. This change in direction led the young couple to explore what was then a nascent scene in Soho and the East Village, where he and Lenore met not only Basquiat, but also Keith Haring and many of the other influential artists working in downtown New York at that time.

When they moved to Los Angeles in 1989, they did so in order for Herb to direct the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, a research program of the Viterbi School of Engineering that played a major role in the development of the Internet. At the time, due to the loss not only of Basquiat, but also of Andy Warhol, another of the Schorr’s circle of art world friends in New York City, Lenore said that “we vowed never to buy another painting.” Once settled in California, their vow to cease collecting didn’t last long. “A friend from New York called and said we should go to an opening at the ACME. Gallery. That’s how we met Laura Owens, and she was the first LA artist that we bought,” Lenore recalls. Once again, the Schorrs demonstrated an uncanny knack for picking the most durable and influential artist out of a pack of new talents then emerging on the Los Angeles scene. The Whitney Museum of American Art recently announced that Owens will be the subject of the first mid-career single artist retrospective at their spectacular new Meatpacking District location in November of 2017, a show that is sure to be packed with early acquisitions from the collection of Herb and Lenore Schorr.

“Every Moment is Unforgiven Now,” 2000, Jon Pylypchuk. Schorr Collection
“Every Moment is Unforgiven Now,” 2000, Jon Pylypchuk, Collage on wood board
Photo: courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Art

This is just one of the reasons why Santa Barbara Museum of Art curator of contemporary art Julie Joyce is enthused about a recent gift of more than 55 works the Schorrs have made to that institution. Joyce has known the Schorrs since 1999, when they were familiar faces at China Art Objects, the influential gallery space run by Steve Hanson and Giovanni Intra, then on Chung King Road in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Joyce was immediately struck by how the couple was “always involved in deep conversations with artists and dealers,” even as the effervescent Chinatown scene bustled around them.

For “Untitled: Drawing from the Schorr Collection” at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (on view October 23, 2016 – February 5, 2017) Joyce selected 14 works from as many artists, all of them younger figures active in the Los Angeles scene from the early 1990s through 2009. Ingrid Calame, Matthew Chambers, Julie Becker, Violet Hopkins, Aaron Morse, David Korty, Jon Pylypchuk, Jeni Spota and Dario Robleto are among the artists highlighted from the roughly 55 pieces the museum has received from the Schorr’s California period. (Although they still visit occasionally, the couple moved back to New York in 2014.) Joyce cites the couple’s “passion for learning” and willingness to “take a lot of chances” as having been the keys to their remarkable success in pursuing work that is both of exemplary quality and, as Joyce put it, “as contemporary as possible.”

Although there are a wide range of approaches on view in “Untitled,” it is nevertheless the consistency with which the pieces reflect a certain place and time that lingers in the memory. Joyce describesthe effect as “a window into the Los Angeles scene that coalesced around 1990,” and has grown steadily in influence ever since. Jon Pylypchuk’s Every Moment Is Unforgiven Now (2000), a collage constructed out of humble materials including scraps of fabric, felt, glitter, and glue, captures perfectly the characteristic blend of humor, irony, and pathos that swept through the Southern California art scene in the wake of such now-seminal figures as Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades, and Paul McCarthy.

Speaking with the Schorrs on a conference call from their home in New York, I got the sense that they are an extraordinarily well-honed team. Lenore picks up the call and keeps the conversation afloat while Herb hovers in the background at first, listening intently and evaluating the situation in relative silence. When his interest is piqued, however, he states his opinions without hesitation. For example, in regard to his initial forays as a collector, he is explicit about the research involved, saying that “at that time [the late 1960s and early 1970s] there were very few art advisors, and you had to know what you were doing.” Having amassed a substantial library and devoted many hours to reading the relevant journals, the Schorrs equipped themselves to participate directly rather than relying on the expertise of others. The popularity of conceptual and minimalist approaches in the 1970s left Herb Schorr unimpressed. “As a scientist I have been fortunate to work alongside Nobel Prize winners and other people who are involved with abstract thinking who can be said to have arrived at original ideas,” Schorr told me, “and when faced with a lot of what was represented as conceptual art, I felt that yes, there was thought behind it, but to me what it often showed was that the artist in question thinks, but what he thinks is a very little bit.”

“Hans Grimmelshausen – Brandschatzung einer Geburtsstadt,” 2003, Jörn Herold. Schorr Collection
“Hans Grimmelshausen – Brandschatzung einer Geburtsstadt,” from the “Datenschluessel” series, 2003, Jörn Herold, Black and white copy painted over with stain, latex, and gouache. Photos: courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Art

In reaction to this market bias, the Schorrs sought out young artists they felt demonstrated a recognizable genius in regard to painting and drawing. “Drawing” said Herb, “is a talent that is not given equally to everyone.” Fortunately for the Schorrs, and for the artists they collected, their preference for drawing and painting happened to coincide with not one, but two major moments of dramatic increase in interest in these forms; first the return to painting of the 1980s in New York, and then the rise of new approaches to painting and drawing that drove interest in the Los Angeles scene of the late 1990s. By the time that the Museum of Modern Art mounted “Drawing Now: Eight Propositions” in 2002, the Schorrs’ collection held significant works by dozens of young artists from the United States and Europe who had first come to public notice in Los Angeles.

The couple’s fundamental strategy remains what it has been from the beginning, and to hear it stated will warm the heart of any artist or curator. Once they have made a commitment to someone, they buy early and often, and when they have made a substantial investment in an artist’s work, rather than deaccessioning through the secondary market, they continually donate to major museums. “We give a lot of the paintings we buy to museums and we always have,” says Herb, citing his alma mater Princeton University as one of their primary beneficiaries. Thanks to the Schorrs, the Princeton University Art Museum can provide the school’s art history faculty and students with the opportunity to study major works by such American masters as Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning as part of their permanent collection. Although they no longer spend their days fulfilling such tasks as driving Jean-Michel Basquiat around to do his shopping, the Schorrs are far from finished with their collecting adventure. “We’re still doing it,” says Lenore. “We are continually looking for young talent, but we’re not going so much into the artists’ studios as we used to.” And why is that? “If you don’t buy anything, the artists get too disappointed, and we don’t like to let them down.”

—CHARLES DONELAN