Tribute: Work on Paper by Antreasian, Boghosian, Hagopian, and Nakian

This exhibition honors the Modernist generation(s) of Armenian and Armenian-American artists with a selection of works on paper by four draughtsmen of note. It is, admittedly, a glancing reflection of the outsize contribution made by artists of Armenian descent to the Modernist “adventure.” But the small constellation assembled here represents, if anything, a roster of significant figures whose profiles have receded since their postwar heyday – and who clearly merit restoration to recent art history. There is no doubt this restoration will happen. “Tribute” seeks to speed the process just a bit.

The elder statesman in this foursome is Reuben Nakian. Born in New York at the end of the 19th century, he emerged in the 1920s, participated in the WPA art program in the ‘30s, and fell in with the Abstract Expressionists as that movement emerged during and after World War II. Nakian was a sculptor among painters and, frequently, a figurative artist among abstractionists. Even as such, his approach to artmaking mirrored the active, improvisatory method of his Abstract Expressionist peers – which, if you think about it, is remarkable for a sculptor. Most Ab-Ex artists working in three dimensions had perforce to formulate their works before fabricating them; Nakian did not. Employing a free-wheeling, improvisatory approach unusual in three dimensions, he realized a series of monumental free-standing works, entirely non-objective, around the time of his mid-‘60s Museum of Modern Art retrospective. Subsequently, however, Nakian turned to terra cotta, as well as bronze cast from plaster, to realize myriad deft variations on Graeco-Roman myths and legends. These Nakian inscribed in clay or assembled in plaster as evident but evanescent – literally fleeting – images of interaction between humans, deities, and animals. Whether captured in solid form or described on paper, Nakian’s turbulent meditations on what the gods wrought brim with both carnal and spiritual energy.

Although influenced by Abstract Expressionism, Garo Antreasian, born in Indianapolis shortly after World War I, was as lucid a composer of geometric form as Nakian was a volcanic spewer of abstracted figuration. Antreasian’s geometry is anything but minimalist, however; it responds to alphabetic ciphers, woven patterns, the decorative arts of the Middle East, and other evocative sources. His exquisite sensitivity to tone as well as line reflects his primary involvement – indeed, his “day job” – with print media (he was a co-founder of pioneering print workshop Tamarind Press, and was associated with the Los Angeles-established, Albuquerque-based center until his death in 2018). Antreasian’s sensitivity to value and the gray scale bespeaks this delicate quality in his unique work. He never gave up printmaking, but after retiring from Tamarind Antreasian concentrated on drawing and painting. As you might imagine, his drawings retain and even amplify his prints’ crystalline vibrancy – and equally their sly playfulness and diffident charm.

If Nakian consorted with the Abstract Expressionists and Antreasian employed a geometric language, Varujan Boghosian, their fellow Armenian-American, tacked to a Surrealist (if not a downright Dada) direction with his collages and assemblages. It was for the latter, dominated by wood and found objects like doll heads, that “Bugsy” Boghosian, born in Connecticut in 1926, made his mark in 1960s New York. But, as he concentrated on his two-dimensional work, the following for his collages expanded accordingly. Whether romantic or caustic, witty or brooding, their poetic concision and startling superposition of elements can prove as addicting as chocolate. Sometimes they hint broadly at a social or even political message, but such a reading ultimately proves illusory: however much these off-center rebuses might conjure the antique or engage readily recognizable elements and graphic tropes (old-fashioned photogravure illustration, for instance, or figures clipped from sentimental greeting cards), their messages are hermetic and alluring, tantalizing mysteries whose ties to old conditions or new demand interpretation even as they resist it. It’s a game of context and cognition, surprise and deflection, Boghosian (who passed away as this show was being assembled) loved to play with his audience and himself. 

Hagop Hagopian was also born into the Armenian diaspora – in Cairo, in 1923. The one non-American in this “Tribute” show, Hagopian was also the only one to repatriate to Armenia itself, during its days as a Soviet republic. Trained in Paris, Hagopian established himself as one of Armenia’s foremost realists. In fact, his distinctive approach to landscape – as well as still life and the figure, often within the landscape – made Hagopian perhaps the leading portrayer of his ethnic homeland. In his paintings and – perhaps especially – in his pastels and other works on paper, Hagopian captures not just the arid terrain and vast sky of Armenia, but the bright, dusty air that characterizes the southern Caucasus. Color diffuses into tone in Hagopian’s depictions of vineyards, stands of trees, distant mountains, and the occasional village. It is a remarkably consistent vision, requiring a technique held steady for decades in order to distill a country into its optical, and sensual, essence.

If the four very different artists here share any one factor besides their heritage, it might be the contradictory nature of their most salutary qualities. What seems to be the most prominent characteristic of each ultimately turns out less central than another, related characteristic. Hagop Hagopian, for example, seems to be a renderer of places; rather, however, he is a purveyor of atmosphere itself. Varujan Boghosian specialized in juxtaposition, but what really provoked him, and provokes us, is apparition, what happens between the juxtaposed elements. The piles of letters and patterns in Garo Antreasian’s work would seem to indicate a preoccupation with language, but it is structure that motivated his elaborate geometries. And Reuben Nakian’s storytelling, however dependent on image, was a matter of conveying the event, the moment not just of the picture/object but of its making. Another common factor, this exhibition demonstrates, is paper: all four artists, towering figures in the Armenian diaspora and in modern art, relied on paper-supported media to explore and develop their ways of working – and of meaning.

Peter Frank

Los Angeles

October-November 2020