by Hrag Vartanian
No other city can boast that they are the epicenter of art—frankly, it is in the city’s blood and a facet of its identity. Artists, collectors and dealers flock to Manhattan feeding the engine that powers the world’s art industry. Throughout New York’s history and until the present day the role of Armenian Americans has and continues to contribute to the art world’s rich mosaic.
FOLLOWING THE MASTERS
The number of Armenian artists who have called New York home is long, but two stand head and shoulders above the A-list that make New York proud, Hovsep Pushman and Arshile Gorky. Both artists arrived during the roaring twenties but their paths diverged as Gorky became a beacon of Western modernism and Pushman, already a world renowned artist, painted canvases with the philosophical meditations of everyday life’s experiences expressed through his oriental still-lifes.
At a time when the art scene was gripped with the energy of modernism, Pushman’s one-man show at New York’s Grand Central Art Galleries in 1932, consisting of 16 paintings, was completely sold on opening day at the highest prices.
Pushman’s landmark copyright lawsuit in 1940 against The New York Graphic Society for reproducing a painting, bought by the University of Chicago, without his permission was decided, at that time, against the artist. Upon Pushman’s death in 1966, the decision was reversed and the law now states that the artist retains all rights to the creative work on the canvas. Thus protecting artists’ rights for future generations.
Originally from Dikranagerd, Pushman lived in Chicago, studied in Paris before settling in New York and establishing his Carnegie Hall studio in the late 1920′s. His canvases collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts are products of another era depicting serene tableaus of oriental objects with contemplative titles.
When Gorky arrived, he quickly jettisoned his Armenian name, Vosdanig Adoian, for the downtown tones of Arshile Gorky. He announced in the city’s media that he was the cousin of Russian writer Maxim Gorky (untrue), and got down to the nitty-gritty business of making art that mattered.
Often described as the bridge between European modern art and its younger and quirkier American counterpart, Gorky became what New York art critic Harold Rosenberg claimed was the inventor of the New York artist archetype—a tortured individual tirelessly re-inventing himself. The Picasso of Washington Square, as Gorky was also known, was an attraction for New York’s radical painters, including Willem de Kooning, John Graham and Stuart Davis, and he befriended other contemporary Armenian artists, like sculptors Reuben Nakian and Raoul Hague. The three Armenians attended the Art Students League in the 1930′s and the triumvirate was referred to as The Armenians by fellow students that noticed that they sought out each other’s company.
Jackson Pollock and the other hotshots of 1950′s painting knew Gorky had shown the way through the wilderness of American provincialism. When he died in 1948, as a result of a suicide that punctuated three years of tragedies, the whole art community mourned his loss. His life and work did more to raise awareness of the Armenian Genocide in America than any political, academic or cultural initiative.
Struggling for recognition throughout his career in New York, Gorky’s paintings today hang in all major museums and sell in the millions. He single-handedly injected American art with an Armenian consciousness and paved the path for future Armenian Americans to follow and expand.
DEALING WITH THE CRÈME DE LA CRÈME:
Dikran Garo Kelekian & Hagop Kevorkian
A world away from New York, a cluster of important Armenian connoisseurs emerged from a city in the heart of historic Armenia, Kayseri. Prominent among them were Hagop Kevorkian and Dikran Garo Kelekian—two sultans of style that settled in New York and helped America acquire a taste for Eastern artifacts.
The determination and foresight of these Armenian connoisseurs opened American eyes to the arts of the Middle East as part of the global heritage.
In 1893, at the World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, a chance meeting between American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt and antiquities dealer Dikran Garabed Kelekian initiated a friendship that would last decades. Through the artist, Kelekian met many members of America’s industrial elite, including the Havemeyers. Future clients and friends of the boisterous Armenian dealer included such notables as the Astors of New York and the Walters of Baltimore.
Kelekian inaugurated his first New York gallery soon after his Chicago visit and curiously named it, Le Musée de Bosphore. The city’s late nineteenth century tastes were staunchly European, so when in 1898 Kelekian arrived at a private New York auction he was unchallenged in his efforts to buy a collector’s “Persian” ceramics en masse. Puzzled, Kelekian assumed that the city’s public “had not the opportunity of seeing [and] cultivating a taste for this line of art,”—he knew what needed to change.
Limited not only to historic works of art, he enthusiastically collected the works of modern painters. In the early years, he collected Renoir, Matisse, Seurat, Cézanne and Picasso and in later years received pleasure from the work of the Americans Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Jacques Lipchitz, Reuben Nakian and Jacob Epstein.
The 1922 auction of his modern paintings at New York’s Plaza Hotel was a defining moment for modern art in America. At the vanguard of contemporary tastes, the landmark sale perked mainstream interest for works not yet institutionalized in the city’s museums.
He befriended many artists during his lifetime and many of them immortalized the Kelekian family in portraits that hang on the walls of some of the nation’s great museums. Two portraits in particularly offer insight into the two most prominent of the Kelekian clan, one is a portrait by Cassatt and another by Avery.
In Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, the pastel by Cassatt portrays Kelekian’s son and is a rare portrait of a little boy done by an artist known for her sensitivity portraying young girls. The work is simply entitled, Portrait of Charles Dikran Kelekian at Age 12 (1910), and resonates with the sitter’s dark and soulful eyes. Eight years later the sitter would follow in his father’s footsteps as an international connoisseur, building on his legacy.
Milton Avery’s portrait of the elder Kelekian hangs in the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum. An uncommon work by an artist who was not predisposed to portraits, in Dikran G. Kelekian (1943) the connoisseur sits in front of a rust-color Coptic textile and towers over an ancient Near Eastern green copper bird. He sits thoughtfully assuming a patriarchal air in his thick glasses, Borsolino hat and wing-collared shirt.
The elder Kelekian owned galleries in Paris and Cairo in addition to his New York headquarters. In January of 1951, he died in his eighties after decades as a prominent figure in New York’s art world.
Like Kelekian, Hagop Kevorkian arrived in New York in the late 19th c. and was welcomed into the homes of the best and brightest. Kevorkian was a ceremonious, formal and sophisticated character and graduated from the American-funded Robert College in Istanbul. He was an eager student of archeology and during his lifetime he collected manuscripts for J. P. Morgan and consulted the Astors.
His gallery on 57th Street was a fixture amongst the chic Uptown galleries, and his present-day legacy is well recognized by his Foundation’s generous donations to many institutions.
The list of Kevorkian bequests is exhaustive. One only has to set foot in The Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the vestiges of that heritage. The 18th c. Ottoman Nur-ad-Din room and a special exhibition gallery bear his name, in addition to numerous manuscripts throughout the Islamic galleries.
The Brooklyn Art Museum’s Kevorkian Gallery displays the Assyrian reliefs he gifted to the institution. His gifts reach beyond the New York’s borders and at the University of Pennsylvania a visiting lectureship attests to the joint excavations he undertook in Turkey during the 1930′s.
“He was one of a small group of very clever Armenians that dealt with the crème de la crème of the country’s elite. As much as he dealt to the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. or the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, he, like his contemporaries, didn’t announce his gifts or generosity like people do today—it simply wasn’t done,” explains Ralph Minasian, President and Treasurer of the Kevorkian Foundation that supports projects around the world.
In New York, after the philanthropist’s death, his Foundation established the Kevorkian Chair of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, while at New York University the list of bequests is endless: the Kevorkian lectures in Near Eastern Art & Civilization, a professorship of Islamic Art, a professorship of art conservation and most famously the Philip Johnson-designed Hagop Kevorkian Center of Near Eastern Studies perched at one of the city’s most elegant locales overlooking Washington Square Park. Kevorkian’s association with New York University began eight years after the philanthropist’s death as the trustees of his Foundation decided that New York University would be a perfect site to establish a bequest.
Minasian, who first met Kevorkian at the age of 10, describes him as an enigma outside of his small circle of friends and acquaintances, “If I were to describe him I’d say he reminded me of the French actor of the forties, Adolphe Menjou—very reserved and sophisticated. He was best known for his Persian and Islamic art collections, as well as a small but important collection of Armenian material. He had a long career which ended on February 10, 1962 in Paris where he died attending the Musée du Petit Palais show of 7000 years of Iranian Art to which he had lent many objects.”
ESMERIAN COLLECTS HIS THOUGHTS
Ralph Esmerian is a rare individual with style to spare. His office in Rockefeller Center is packed with some of the most marvelous objects America has ever produced. His collection of American folk art rivals, if not surpasses, all others and appropriately he is Chairman of the American Folk Art Museum’s (AFAM) Board. If there are any questions about his refined eye they are quickly answered by gazing at the iconic Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog (c.1830-35), by Ammi Phillips in his collection that defines the American folk aesthetic.
“When I was told there was an American Folk Art classic coming onto the art market, I couldn’t believe what it could be. AFAM was the third museum in line to be offered the work, but the first two turned it down because of the price. I felt we had no choice and we had to have it because it would give us an institutional sense that we’re here. We paid an enormous price but got something that is truly sensational,” Esmerian says about the painting he purchased in 1984 and immediately transferred to the custody of the Museum. AFAM used the image extensively in developing its public image. The U.S. Postal Service even recognized its status as a national treasure by reproducing it on a postage stamp two years ago.
Esmerian’s taste should come as no surprise. A wholesale jeweler by trade, he is the fourth generation of a tradition that began in Constantinople and continued with his grandfather and father in Paris and now finds itself comfortable amongst the skyscrapers of New York.
From his family he also developed his love of collecting. His father, Raphael Esmerian, acknowledged his Byzantine sense for color and taste in collecting that set him apart from many around him and he attributed this to his Armenian heritage.
“Being around my father helped cultivate at least an awareness of objects on walls, sculptures standing in rooms. He was a really great collector of Renaissance bindings and rare books—that was his love,” Ralph Esmerian explains. “He collected jeweled objects, like Fabergé, and he didn’t own any stocks or bonds.”
As a child, the younger Esmerian egged his father to buy him some of the minor ancient objects the Metropolitan Museum sold in their bookstore. After college, he traveled to Greece and there uncovered a love of ancient pottery.
He returned to America soon after, and “I realized what a fantastic country this was, being away for two years I saw things with a different perspective. It gave me a neat feeling that I was part of a very unique culture in human history. That got me interested in folk art. My father couldn’t understand how one of his own children could possibly like that type of pottery, quilts or weather vanes—he didn’t think it was art.”
Raised in a home steeped in 18th Century French furniture that seemed roped off to the world of a child, folk art was the other extreme, Esmerian admits, “The marvel of folk art is that it is decorative, beautiful in its own primitive way, and needs to be handled and lived with—I welcome that informality. One of the things that draws me to folk art is that we’re the ones who call it art. The people who made the furniture did so for very practical purposes. They had to earn a living and for 50 cents or a nice lodging people would carve a piece of wood into an eagle and give it to a bartender or someone as payment.”
Stacy C. Hollander is Senior Curator at AFAM and the author of the opulent catalogue, American Radiance, documenting Esmerian’s recent donation of 300 objects valued in the tens of millions. She easily stacks the superlatives to describe Esmerian’s generosity, “His promised gift is an institutional changing moment. It can be compared to the Abe Oldrich Rockefeller collection at Colonial Williamsburg. He only acquires marvelous works that seem to sing.”
The comparison to the Rockefellers is certainly fitting, as Esmerian’s own history is intertwined with the family whose name is synonymous with New York royalty.
In 1934, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased a stunning sapphire from an Indian Maharajah. It was Esmerian’s father, Raphael Esmerian, who was asked to regularly appraise the jewel. In the early 1940′s, Pierre Cartier asked for Esmerian’s father’s advice on improving the stone—a testament to his reputation no doubt.
In 1971, Raphael Esmerian brokered a deal for its sale to a private client and upon that individual’s death the family sold the stone to Ralph Esmerian in 1980 for $1.5 million. It was sold six years later to an American collector who sold it again a year later, but this time for a whopping $2.85 million. The jewel is now in another private collection but the Esmerian family name will forever be associated with what is simply known as the Rockefeller Sapphire.
Ralph Esmerian’s personal missions have included guiding AFAM to a permanent home. Last December, AFAM opened a new $22 million 30,000 square-foot building on West 53rd Street designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates.
Under his direction, AFAM is claiming a prominent position on the national museum circuit, and for Esmerian it is a dedication informed by the pleasure he continues to receive from collecting, “Mine is a very personal collection. Collecting is a very selfish business and it should be, because you’re constantly inside yourself questioning how you’re seeing something. You ask, how am I really reacting to this, why do I like it, where does it fit in the marketplace? You must have deaf ears to the world.”
THE BIG BOYS IN THE BIG CITY:
TONY SHAFRAZI & LARRY GAGOSIAN
In 1974, Tony Shafrazi arrived from Iran, approached Picasso’s iconic Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and sent the usually staunch art world into a tizzy. He did the unthinkable, as The New York Times reported on March 1st, 1974, “stunned visitors looked on helplessly in the third floor gallery where the huge antiwar painting hangs, the man drew a can of spray paint from his pocket and scrawled the three words [kill lie all] in foot-high letters across the gray, black and white masterwork.”
Witnesses said that the act was unthinkable, but cultural critics have since seen the gesture as a stroke of brilliance. Shafrazi years later explained, “I wanted to dwell within the act of the painting’s creation, get involved with the making of the work, put my hand within it and by that act encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history.”
His reputation as artist/bad boy still lingers and as the patron of New York’s art world Andy Warhol reveals in his published diaries, in the aftermath of the Guernica incident people were saying MoMA refused to acquire any of his gallery artists. It was a move that hurt Shafrazi and was unusual considering his stable encompassed the hottest in town, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and graffiti artists that until Shafrazi took them on were considered nothing but urban nuisances.
Today, Shafrazi’s roster includes David La Chapelle, Dennis Hopper, Sandro Chia and Michael Ray Charles. An innovator by nature, he helped fuel the eighties art frenzy in New York and his longevity accompanied with his solid shows make him a force to be reckoned with in the New York art world.
Warhol also reveals some interesting tidbits about the other Armenian on the first rung of New York’s dealer hierarchy, Larry Gagosian. It reads like a head-butting contest of some of New York’s most powerful art personalities: “And Gagosian told me, ‘I got your Rorschach Test for my California show,’ and I said, ‘Where did you get it?’ He said, ‘From Leo [Castelli],’ And I said, ‘Oh really? Did you buy it?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s consigned.’ I said, ‘Well you can’t have it.’
“I got mad and tough. Because it’s just one more show not to have. And Larry, I don’t know, he’s really weird, he got in trouble for obscene phone calls and everything. He’s weird.”
Warhol’s tidbit is only one of a cluster of stories that surround Gagosian and the high life he seems to lead, but one thing you can’t say about Gogo, as he’s referred to by adversaries of which there are many, is he’s understated.
The 50-something art dealer, is private nowadays and seems to collect collectors as much as art. The well-known clients that orbit around include cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder, media mogul David Geffen, advertising touchstone Charles Saatchi and publishing giant S. I. Newhouse, and his art collection…well, everyone knows his stockpiles are vast though its contents are more like the Loch Ness Monster, only sporadic reports, but evidently his Pollocks alone are worth over $8 million.
Born in Los Angeles, as the only son of an Armenian stockbroker, Gagosian began in the seventies selling prints in Santa Monica and by 1985 opened his first New York gallery—today there are two, one uptown on Madison Avenue and the other in hipper-than-thou Chelsea. His gallery shows are star-studded events and his gallery publications rival any art press. When he opened his London gallery he had 20 women wandering the space wearing nothing but Gucci stilettos.
Always a step ahead of the game, Gogo sightings make fodder for gossip columns and his patronage can make a lukewarm restaurant hot. His gallery shows often dwarf exhibits at neighboring museums and like King Midas, his touch is pure gold.