This excursion to see Pinajian paintings two days before the end of the exhibit in the Antiquorum Gallery, barely a day after this unknown artist had gently been revealed to an unsuspecting world, transcends the conventional parameters of art appreciation. The Armenian artist Arthur Pinajian brings with him a compelling, Van Gogh-ish relationship with his sister, who was the breadwinner of the family and made it possible for Pinajian to immerse himself in his art without distractions. He also shares with Van Gogh the frustration of not being able to sell his work during his lifetime, only to have posthumous acclaim now, fourteen years after his death, as the story of how 7000 works of art that were destined for the dumpster were spared, preserved, resuscitated, and readied for exhibition is spreading on local television newscasts and the Internet.
The story of Pinajian is so compelling that the novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote about it, except he didn't. As Peter Hastings Falk explains in his preface to the monograph, 'Pinajian--Master of Abstraction Discovered':
"In 1987, Kurt Vonnegut published 'Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988), a novel about an eccentric painter whose life bears an astonishing resemblance to Arthur Pinajian...Both Pinajian and Karabekian, also known as Bluebeard, were Armenian Americans, raised by parents who survived the 1915 Turkish genocide of one million Armenian children, women, and men, and who then made their way to the United States where they brought up their families during the Great Depression."
(Vonnegut would have chuckled at his ability to base the life experience of one of his protagonists on an artist of whom he was unaware. This coincidence may have provided enough stimulation for another book.)
The monograph quoted above was published in 2010 and is one of a series of monographs about unknown or forgotten artists who are being rediscovered (or discovered for the first time). What is striking about this wonderful book, filled with incredibly accurate photographs and text from several contributors, is the passion and the enthusiasm and the love that flows from every page.
The Antiquorum, located on the fifth floor of the Fuller Building (41 East 57 Street, between Fifth and Madison), has been showing this exhibit, entitled 'Pinajian--Lost and Found' since February 13 of this year. The exhibit is scheduled to close on March 10. Liana Piretra, an art advisor with Antiquorum, speaks with a similar passion and enthusiasm, revealing that all the paintings that were oil on board (masonite) had one type of frame--pure wood (no poplar here), painted white; and other paintings that were oil on canvas were in another type of frame--also pure wood, also painted white, but with a simpler design. The frames are unobtrusively free of ornamentation and rectangular; their white color gently accentuating the off-white character of the canvases.
And finally, the paintings themselves. After six paragraphs of introduction, what is it about these paintings that makes them special?
The black lines provide the skeletons for Pinajian to build upon. In most of these abstract and semi-abstract works, the black lines are broken. They are not a continuous stream, which has the profound effect of coercing the viewer to travel from the end of one line segment to the beginning of another. Some of the line segments don't immediately link to others, so the eye actively searches for other lines to continue the journey. This act of starting and stopping, picking up speed and then slowing down, creates the initial movement in many of the paintings.
And then there is the thickness of the paint. One is surprised to stand inches away from these paintings and discover the paint to be applied thinly. The off-white of the canvas shows through. What appears to be solid, thick paint from a distance turns out to be anything but. One of the small semi-abstract paintings, which resembles Leonardo's 'The Last Supper' in form, but not in color, is an example of this. The thick, lusciously yellow paint is surrounded by other colors and textures that vary in many ways. Some of Pinajian's brushstrokes are like watercolor, others like crayon, and others are more opaque, playing and coexisting with the off-white of the canvas. As noted above, the paintings would have lost some of their authenticity had the exposed canvas been hospital white. And the white of the frame would have competed with the white of the canvas instead of happily coexisting with it.
The colors that are applied on top of the black lines are the muscles and the ligaments of the paintings. At first glance, the colors seem contained within the confines of their black borders. Upon closer inspection, however, the edges where the color and the black paint meet are presented in a way that is reminiscent of more realistically rendered paintings with lost and found edges. (If one were to follow the contour of a Rembrandt painting, for example, one would discover that in some areas, the contour is clearly delineated from the background behind it, whereas in other places, the contour disappears into the background, the separation between the two forming more of a mist.)
This change in the quality of the edges is a subtle one, just as it is with Pinajian. In some areas, the colored paint shimmers against the black line; in other areas, the black line acts as a bar-like border for the colors. This difference in character creates further movement and energy. Another way that movement is created is through asymmetry. A form that appears in the center of a painting is usually static and calm, perhaps too calm, because the negative shape on the left isn't much different from the negative shape on the right. With painting 394, for example, Pinajian divides his canvas into three equal rectangles that are next to one another, but within each rectangle, the compositions are more asymmetric. The middle rectangle has most of its color in its upper half, the outer rectangles have most of their color in the lower two-thirds. These impasto paintings, while spontaneous in some ways, appear to be planned out in other ways.
Pinajian's paintings from this exhibit may be divided into two different, complementary styles. Many of the paintings on the left wall have a Maurice Prendergast quality about them. The areas of off-white canvas that are not painted over are larger and may be seen easily from a distance. The colors are applied to look almost like bricks. Unlike pointillism, in which small dabs of color are placed next to one another, covering the canvas beneath them, these brick-like brushstrokes are much larger and spread apart.
From this small sample of his work, one can see that Pinajian loved to experiment. He was influenced by cubism and futurism and Mondrian and the Fauves and, one would imagine, his fellow Armenian artist, Arshile Gorky, whose life and career were cut short by suicide in 1948.
Pinajian's life comprises many elements of a feel-good story. He had the freedom to do what he loved to do, supported by a devoted sister, unencumbered by the constraints of working, fortunate to escape the heartbreaking extermination of one million of his fellow Armenians. And then, after living in relative obscurity for decades, he is discovered. Most of us have hidden parts of ourselves that have been ignored and beaten down by tedious jobs or tedious relationships; hidden talents (sometimes even from ourselves) that if given the opportunity to shine, would captivate the world around us. Instead, these talents are relegated to one's internal dumpster. With Pinajian, this longing for others to see that special part of ourselves is vicariously fulfilled.