Sam & Shanit Schwartz: Patrons of the Arts

Gorfaine/Schwartz composers agency co-founder and wife make it their mission to support artists of our time

Sam Schwartz, co-founder of the powerhouse film and TV composer agency Gorfaine/Schwartz, has been collecting art for 15 years. But judging by the veritable museum he and his wife Shanit call home, you’d think it was more like a lifetime.

Discreetly tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac above Benedict Canyon, the house is full of surprise and wonder. Once inside the security gate, what greets you is a bronze sculpture by Liz Craft that appears part mythical creature, part Hindu goddess. To these eyes, it’s a harbinger of things to come.

Cross the lawn to the left, where a colonnade flanks the pool, and you’re treated to a bird’s-eye view of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean beyond. One can spy the house of the late Dino De Laurentiis nestled below; Rupert Murdoch’s tree-shaded manse across the ravine; and, along the opposite crest, Paul Allen’s multimillion-dollar driveway that leads to a vast plot of land destined for a colossal estate — not unlike Sarah Palin’s bridge to nowhere.

Follow the walkway to the right and you face door No. 2, behind which a labyrinthine collection of contemporary art awaits your gaze. Within the 7,000-square-foot house itself — a monument of glass and marble encased in white dolomite brick — a remarkably diverse array of canvases, sculptures and installations is counterbalanced by a living space that’s more inviting than intimidating. Sink into one of the chenille-covered sofas and you might require a court-ordered summons to leave.

“It’s a really modern house in terms of architecture, and the art is super-contemporary but the furniture is comfortable,” says Sam and Shanit’s daughter — and art consultant — Alexys. “It’s not sterile.”

Schwartz and Michael Gorfaine co-founded Gorfaine/Schwartz, the Tiffany’s of film and TV composer agencies, 32 years ago in May. Schwartz met Shanit in Los Angeles not long after that, he by way of progressive Madison, Wis.; she from Israel, thriving as an actress before moving to New York and studying under Uta Hagen. She worked in theater before heading out West.

For Schwartz, the process of collecting began modestly enough. “I had this inkling of wanting to collect, but I had no idea how in the world I was ever going to have a Caravaggio,” Schwartz explains. “So when the time came, with business doing well, I realized through the help of some profoundly intelligent and experienced people in the art world that the journey was about (gathering) art of my time.”

While some early acquisitions are the work of famous names (Baldessari, Ruscha), most are of a more recent vintage, known only to those who make it their business to keep up with this arcane world of rising stars and renegades. Most of the artists represented have been the subject of solo shows in galleries and museums throughout the world, and the Schwartzes have been generous in loaning the art they hold. For example, a piece by Richard Hawkins, “Shinjuku Labyrinth” — fashioned from wood and photo collage, mounted on a table — was recently returned after stops at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hammer in Los Angeles.

The house has so many focal points it’s hard to get attached to any one space. In the living room near the piano stands a sculpture — a sort of cross between Picasso and Noguchi — by Aaron Curry, who earned an MFA at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. A nearby work, by Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, known for his large-scale copper castings, resembles a kind of undulating iron curtain.

Illustrative compositions by Raymond Pettibon, a former punk rocker who designed Black Flag’s four-bar logo, dominate the opposite wall of that same room.

A canvas by Sterling Ruby that hangs over the couch might be the biggest piece in the home. “Actually there are ones in storage that are that size as well,” Alexys says. “It’s just that there’s only one wall that can accommodate that size.”

In the hallway adjacent to the dining room, a Mike Kelley cityscape, inspired by the fictional Kandor of “Superman” lore, is lit from within, like a neon mecca.

The brightly colored, collage-like painting mounted over the den’s fireplace is by Franz Ackermann, a German installation artist based in Berlin. It’s one of the few commissioned works in the family’s collection.

Alexys, who earned her undergraduate degree in art history at Boston U. before studying at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Manchester, England, is particularly proud of spotting the works of such emerging talents as Colombian-born Oscar Murillo and abstract painter Mark Grotjahn before their prices rose through the roof.

But, as she explains, the Schwartzes don’t collect as speculators, treating pieces like so many IPOs.

For her father, the visceral impact of a work is more important than trying to intellectualize its value. “The idea of liking something is really good,” he explains. “The idea of hating something is really good. But the idea of indifference is not good.”

Without all the art, the house might be considered a gaudy example of Beverly Hills gigantism, replete with marble floors and crystal chandeliers. “It’s still the influence of the ’80s,” Shanit explains. “I didn’t want to gut the house, so I left it, and we just worked around it. And I left the chandeliers for a whimsical effect. There’s so much art here that it really doesn’t matter.”

The spacious kitchen, anchored by a black marble-topped island, is distinguished by maple cabinetry, oak floors, a Sub-Zero freezer and a couple of high-end Thermador ovens. (The industrial-sized outdoor gas grill by the pool is a Viking.) When asked who does most of the cooking, Sam quips, “She left at 5:30.”

Situated next to the den is a wet bar, with a wine closet tucked discreetly beside it, like the entrance to a speakeasy.

Upstairs in the master bedroom, the works of women painters such as Katy Moran, Karen Kilimnik, Gillian Carnegie, Kim Fisher and Elizabeth Peyton hold sway. But a beguiling figure above the bed, with a red ribbon wrapped around her neck like a noose, commands your attention. It’s by Martin Eder, a Berlin-based artist whose most compelling work, in its raw sensuality, evokes that of Egon Schiele.

Practically no wall space is left unadorned. A piece by painter and graffiti artist Barry McGee hangs over a bidet in the master bathroom, which is also equipped with a cedar-lined dry sauna and a glassed-in steam shower. A Muybridge-like series of floating figures by Vik Muniz, which combines photography and chocolate, bookends a deep-set oval tub that looks like a decadent candy mold. A skylight hovers directly above.

In fact, natural light suffuses the house to such a degree that the sunset on the day of my visit — a symphony of orange, mauve and gun metal blue — bathes the rooms on both floors in tones that shift by the minute.

A library is chockablock with art books, photos and invaluable tchotchkes, like a pair of boxing gloves signed by the Greatest himself, Muhammad Ali; and a White House photo of Alexys in the company of President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Shanit, a warm and gracious host, loves to entertain. In the property’s sprawling backyard, she has co-hosted fundraisers with Patricia Arquette for the actress’s GiveLove charity, raising money via art auctions curated by Alexys for eco-minded sanitation projects in Haiti to improve public health and create jobs.

The house also has served as a setting for Oscar parties, including one for “Slumdog Millionaire” the year it won the top prize; and another for Ennio Morricone, when he won an honorary Oscar in 2007. The Schwartzes also throw a soiree every year for L.A.’s Israel Film Festival, an event close to Shanit’s heart.

Indeed, the space is perfect for such affairs. At a recent private reception to kick off art fair Art Los Angeles Contemporary, more than 100 guests comfortably roamed the house, snacking on pass-around hors d’oeuvres and easily accessing the two bars spaced far enough apart to prevent gridlock. Then there’s that view …

Schwartz, a self-made man, doesn’t take his environs for granted. Some afternoons, away from his Burbank office, he’ll use the perch at the south end of the pool as his work space.

“I’m grateful every day that I sit out here,” he says.

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