Arthur Pinajian, who died in 1999 at the age of 85, was a native of Union City, New Jersey, the son of Armenian Holocaust survivors, who found considerable success as a comic strip artist for Quality, Marvel and Centaur Comics during the Depression. He won a Bronze Star during World War II, then used his GI Bill funds to reject his commercial art career and take up studies – as so many did during that creative period in American cultural history – at the Art Students’ League in New York City. Eventually he settled into his own idiosyncratic version of the archetypal modern artist’s story, renting a small garage studio in Woodstock, and then splitting time between there and an apartment in West New York, New Jersey, living as cheaply as possible so that he could dedicate his time to the wildly individual challenges of abstract painting and bringing his own creativity to a discernible personal style.
As with so many of his day, Pinajian matched his own self-taught way with illustration to the masters of Modernism whom he started studying at the Arts Students’ League, both downstate and in Ulster County when he followed teachers upstate to Woodstock, where he then stayed on. He copied famous artists and worked his way through Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism. Eventually, like so many of the town’s crowd in the 1950s, he found resonance with Surrealism and the up-and-coming wild creativity of Abstract Expressionism.
He kept meticulous journals of what he was thinking as he painted: the philosophical explorations behind the endless progression of works. On paper, he wrestled with issues of color and composition, and stuffed each completed book away with the paintings as he finished them – and kept moving on.
He seems to have painted every day and, after his first rejections for exhibition, focused solely on the painting until, by the early 1970s, he moved in with his sister Armen, who had also never married and who supported the two of them with her secretary’s salary. By 1974 they had moved into a modest one-story cottage in the South Shore community of Bellport, where each lived until their death: first Arthur, in 1999, and then Armen in 2005.
“He thought he was going to be the next Picasso,” remembered a cousin of the two, John Aramian, in a 2007 interview. “They believed he would become famous and this would all pay off for them one day, but it just never happened. So he became frustrated and withdrew from everything and just painted.”
The story took a turn when that same modest Long Island house was put on the market and bought by a writer, Larry Joseph, who brought in a friend, Thomas Schultz, to help fix the place up for possible resale. When the two found a dirt-floored garage filled with artworks and journals, they grew intrigued, and before long realized that they had uncovered something: an entire art career in one lump.
By 2007, their efforts to value Arthur Pinajian’s work had taken them to some of the top critics and scholars in the field of modern American art of the postwar period, as well as into The New York Times via a story about their discovery. Now, three years later, the WAAM show opening this Saturday, July 24, with a reception and several special events, is the first of a planned tour of a retrospective that not only travels to the Boston area and beyond starting this autumn, but has also produced a book filled with essays by such noted art writers as former Village Voice critic John Perrault, Richard Boyle of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Peter Hastings Falk of Who Was Who in American Art and art biographer William Innes Homer.
“Call it dumb luck,” noted the Pinajian home’s buyer and art trove’s discoverer Joseph, in one of the new book’s essays. “A tipsy conversation with an old friend led to our coincidentally acquiring what we now believe, and what at least one esteemed scholar certifies, to be one of the most massive and impressive overlooked art collections of the past half-century.”
“To our knowledge, no articles were written about Pinajian and he exhibited and sold his paintings only rarely. Despite this neglect, he pursued his art steadfastly and with incredible determination,” writes Homer in his essay. “What is so remarkable about Pinajian is his wholehearted dedication to the process of painting. 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 researcher in a laboratory pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Pinajian’s work is uneven; but when he hits the mark, especially in his abstractions, he can be ranked among the best artists of his era. It is satisfying to contemplate his more successful works – doubly so because they capture the excitement of visual Modernism and exude a painterly integrity that is rare in our time.”
And to think that the artist himself instructed that his works be cast off in the town dump after his passing. “The Arthur Pinajian story might be seen as a cautionary tale: Conform to art world norms, or your art will not be seen. Look what happened to Pinajian: He painted every day, but virtually no one saw his art. He received no reviews; not one of his paintings or works on paper made it into a New York gallery or a museum. When he died, his art was left to rot,” adds Perrault. “Fortunately, the Pinajian story has a happy ending. Destined for the dumpster, his art was rescued at the last minute; and now there is a small but growing consensus that he was onto something quite special. Instead of being a stockbroker who ran off to the South Seas like Paul Gauguin…his South Seas was North Jersey, and then, for the last 26 years of his uneventful life, a tiny bedroom in a summer cottage on the South Shore. His Tahiti was inside his head.”
The current show, “Pinajian: Master of Abstraction Discovered” opens at the Woodstock Artists’ Association and Museum galleries this Saturday, July 24, alongside several group and solo exhibitions featuring contemporary local artists, with a 4-to-6 p.m. opening reception.
Other events surrounding the departed artist’s rediscovery include a 2 p.m. gallery talk with Peter Hastings Falk, at the gallery, and a visit to Pinajian’s old studio (now a private residence) earlier that same morning. The show stays up into October.
The Woodstock Artists’ Association and Museum is located at 28 Tinker Street, near the Village Green in the center of Woodstock. For further information call (845) 679-2940 or visit www.woodstockart.org.