The Schorr’s in their Marina Del Rey house with a Laura Owens painting to the left over the fireplace. Photo by Peter Bartlett

The Schorr’s in their Marina Del Rey house with a Laura Owens painting to the left over the fireplace. Photo by Peter Bartlett

PRIVATE EYE: LA Collectors Herb & Lenore Schorr

The Schorrs’ collection and career as collectors are bifurcated by their move to LA in 1989; before that, they were New York collectors, enjoying Soho parties and the tutelage of intellectual dealers such as Leo Castelli, plus the availability of great contemporary paintings to look at in person, starting with Abstract Expressionism. What coheres the collection, since they became “veteran bi-coastal collectors of emerging art,” is their speciality. As Lenore puts it, “We collect young art.”
One of the reasons I wanted to talk to them about collecting was about LA art specifically, the other is their apparently intuitive connection with young artists. They are well known as early adopters of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In an essay included on the Basquiat estate’s website, writer Fred Hoffman quotes Lenore as saying, regarding Basquiat’s inclusion of a flashlight in Acque Pericolose, a painting they acquired from the artist soon after it was completed: “For Jean, everything of value was in the mind.” I reached the Schorr’s by phone as they had just returned to LA from a junket to New York. 

Artillery: How did you start collecting art?
Lenore Schorr: We started in the ’70s. My husband liked Jackson Pollock when he was just a kid in school, and that is really unusual, because for most people it’s an acquired taste. I was in love with van Gogh. Herb had to pull me up to the contemporary world of Abstract Expressionism—Pollock, de Kooning, Guston. We’re basically transplanted New Yorkers. We did not arrive in Los Angeles until 1989.
Herb Schorr: The only LA artist we had was Richard Diebenkorn.
LS: It was a crazy time, the time of AIDS. We were friends with Keith Haring; he died soon after he came out to visit in LA. We were close with Basquiat; he died of a drug overdose. We used to spend time with Andy Warhol, and he died—I guess it was ’87. So there were a lot of changes in the art scene at the end of the ’80s and early ’90s.

And that’s when you moved. What was the first thing you ever bought together?
HS: Miro prints in the late ’60s. And then…
LS: We went to Picasso prints.
HS: In ’71, someone said, for the amount of money you’re paying for a Picasso print, you could buy a de Kooning painting. A small one.

What’s the difference between being a New York collector and an LA collector?
HS: We were educated.
LS: We grew up in the Museum of Modern Art and all the New York museums.
HS: The Museum of Modern Art was our bible, in a way. I didn’t realize it until recently, but that’s sort of the track. LA has wonderful collections, but I think they were a little later. They had their own community of artists who came up in the ’70s, but there were no museums here besides MOCA or Pasadena, and my impression is they didn’t show much LA art.
LS: We didn’t buy the hot artist of the moment—Julian Schnabel and David Salle—so I guess that says something about following your own vision.
HS: No, it says a little more. We started before [there were] art advisors. So you had to learn the damn stuff yourself, have a very big library, which I would advise people to do. The other thing is, before we bought our first de Kooning, we went and looked at every de Kooning painting we could find in the New York museums, plus books. There used to be a healthy inverse. Going to LA galleries, I would buy something that was so desirable in New York, I couldn’t get it; here I could buy it. A lot of LA collectors would only buy in New York. I think that’s changed.
LS: LA has many more collectors now than it used to have. But the galleries still sell more out of town than to LA collectors.

What else is in your collection?
HS: I’ll give you the California contingent. What we have in LA, almost all was bought out here. There’s Jonathan Polypchuk, if you know him, Monique Prieto, Laura Owens, Kevin Appel, Sanya Kantarovsky, a very young artist.

What happened when you walked into the first show you saw of Basquiat’s?
LS: I saw a few pieces hanging in Annina Nosei’s gallery in SoHo, and we liked them a lot. She sent us downstairs to meet the artist.

You got to see the basement?
HS: It had windows. It was not completely underground. We spent the afternoon looking at and picking out a picture. Annina said, ‘Well, that was the one I was gonna buy for myself!’
LS: We bought the painting and it was in the 1982 Documenta.

What did you see in that work, the first time you saw it?
LS: Basquiat was part of the continuity of New York art. I could see de Kooning, Rauschenberg and Twombly.
HS: And Picasso.
LS: Everything that we had learned was there. And he had his own message. It was his life in New York, as a young black man. I thought it was pure magic. And he used color brilliantly, which I’m very sensitive to.

What is the “signature” of your collection?
LS: It’s personal. It has a viewpoint. I need to see the artist on the canvas, a personal poetry. And one of the questions I ask is, How do I know it was made in 2012, or 2013? It has to bring something to the table, in a personal way.
HS: What I’m looking for is some sort of genius.
LS: And that’s hard to tell, at the time.

You set the bar even higher, because you’re looking for marks of genius from young artists.
LS: That’s the challenge, the fun. We keep looking. We get involved with the artist. We like to see what the second show, the third show, looks like—to follow the development. Some get better and more exciting. But sometimes you see the work of a young artist, and it jumps at you. It’s a little different or a little personal, and I haven’t quite seen it before.
HS: If artists are really very good, genius maybe, you keep looking at it, you get something from each time you look at it. We don’t buy things and put it in the warehouse, let’s put it that way.