NEW YORK — To launch Rediscovered Masters, art historian Peter Hastings Falk presents “Lost and Found: The Pinajian Discovery,” the first in a series of exhibitions dedicated to deserving late career artists and/or those have passed on and whose achievements have been forgotten or overlooked. A stellar example of one such notable but neglected artist is Arthur Pinajian, a 20th-century American painter who died in 1999 at the age of 85 and whose much-lauded abstract landscapes in “Lost and Found” are showcased in New York for the first time.
The exhibition of Pinajian’s paintings, on view in New York for the very first time, will run from February 13 through March 10. It will open on February 13 with a benefit for the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR). The benefit will be hosted by Antiquorum at the Fuller Building at 57th Street and Madison Avenue.
After Pinajian’s death in 1999, five decades of accumulated artwork were found stacked up in the one-car garage and attic of the Bellport, NY, cottage he shared with his sister. He had left instructions for his collection to be discarded in the town dump. At the last moment an artist cousin refused to let the garbage truck haul away the paintings. Instead, Prof. William Innes Homer (1929-2012), then dean of American art historians, was asked to examine the life’s work of the unknown artist and was stunned by what he found: a large body of extraordinary abstract landscape and figurative paintings by a gifted artist who was completely unknown in his lifetime. Homer urged Falk to head the project. Soon a team of art historians was conducting research into the life and art of Arthur Pinajian.
As a boy growing up in an Armenian community in West Hoboken, NJ, Pinajian was a completely self-trained cartoonist. During the Great Depression, he became one of the pioneers in a new medium: the comic book. In 1940, he created “Madam Fatal,” the first cross-dressing superhero, for Crack Comics. After World War II, he enrolled at the Art Students League in Woodstock, NY. For 22 years, his life revolved around Woodstock, albeit largely reclusive, while he passionately pursued his painting. His admirable poetic color combinations are linked to the tonalities of his better-known fellow Armenian, Arshile Gorky (ca. 1904-1948). Late in life, he moved with his sister to Bellport. There, he strived for visual and spiritual conclusions regarding flatness and color that parallel the goals of the Abstract Expressionists.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 128-page hardcover book with essays by art historians Falk, Richard J. Boyle, and the late William Innes Homer; art critic John Perreault; conservator Jonathan Sherman; bestselling author Lawrence E. Joseph, owner of the collection; and, Pinajian’s artist-cousin, Peter Najarian. The collective essays present one of the most compelling discoveries in the historyof 20th-century American art. Dr. Homer writes: “Even though Pinajian was a creative force to be reckoned with, during his lifetime he rarely exhibited or sold his paintings. Instead, he pursued his goals in isolation with the single-minded focus of a Gauguin or Cézanne, refusing to give up in the face of public indifference. In his later years he could be compared to a lone researcher in a laboratory pursuing knowledge for its own sake. His exhaustive diaries and art notes make it clear that he dedicated all of his days to his art. He was passionate and unequivocally committed.”
It is interesting to note the astonishing resemblance between Pinajian and the hero in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, a 1987 novel about an eccentric painter. Both Pinajian and Karabekian, a.k.a. Bluebeard, were Armenian-Americans, raised by parents who survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide who then made their way to the United States where they raised their families during the Great Depression. Both men then served with the United States Army during World War II in the European theater, each earning a host of ribbons and medals, including the Bronze Star. After the war, both abandoned their careers as illustrators for higher artistic pursuits, joined the Art Students League in New York, and hung out with the Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. Both eventually moved to Long Island’s East End near the ocean, where they kept their paintings tightly locked away in a garage.