An Artist Unearthed

To disobey a person’s wishes in the event of their death seems an inconsiderate thing to do. I know I’d be pissed if the instructions I left behind were ignored. But in some rare instances it might be wise to respectfully defy the wishes of the deceased. Such is the case of Arthur Pinajian, an Armenian-American artist who died in 1999 and whose body of works were discovered in 2007 in a dilapidated cottage in Bellport, Long Island. With no heirs or loved ones with a vested interest, Arthur Pinajian insisted that after his death his artwork be thrown in the garbage – specifically, dumped into the Brookhaven landfill. His sister, with whom he lived, knew of Arthur’s wish for the works to be discarded but allowed them to languish – paintings, drawings, and notebooks in disorderly piles, under a leaky roof, splotched with mold and mildew. After she died a few years later, two investors, Thomas Schultz and Lawrence Joseph, purchased the property with the intention of renovating it. Little did they know that the angels of fortuity would drop an enormous stash of never before seen art in their laps. Serendipity happens, folks. Believe it.

I feel a bond with this story for two reasons. One is that Pinajian was Armenian, as am I. And when a talented Armenian receives positive attention that makes me happy. The other is that I am an inveterate saver. I can’t bring myself to throw out anything that holds even an iota of value, whether it be sentimental, historical, or practical. I never would have been able to carry out Pinajian’s wishes, and how lucky we are that his discoverers couldn’t do it either. As Thomas Schultz himself explained, “I didn’t want to be the person responsible for throwing a man’s life’s work into a dumpster”.

I was thrilled to see the Pinajian exhibit when I was in East Hampton last week. Howard Shapiro, the curator at Lawrence Fine Art Gallery, was kind enough to let me take a few pictures which I’ve posted here. It’s just a miniscule sample of a breathtakingly versatile artist who, at his best, rides neck and neck alongside Picasso, Gauguin, Kline, Mondrian, and his Armenian brethren Arshile Gorky.

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While Pinajian may not have found his way into the upper echelons of the fine art world, his life and career were not at all misspent. A child of Armenian Genocide survivors, Pinajian grew up in New Jersey and became a self-taught and well-respected cartoonist. He created comic book illustrations during the 1930s and 40s. He won a Bronze Star for valor in World War II, and attended the Art Students League on the G.I. Bill. Pinajian was personally acquainted with his contemporaries, the abstract expressionists who dominated the postwar art scene, and experimented vigorously with style and color. But he was, for whatever reason, unable to break through into Pollock and de Kooning levels of acclaim.

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There is something really bittersweet about this kind of story; an artist toils away in the shadows for decades and can’t get a gallery owner to return his calls, and then after he dies is “discovered”, purely by chance, and galleries clamor to hang his work, some of which is selling for tens of thousands of dollars. My mother owns a Pinajian, a small abstract pastel of gentle colors.

Some good reads on the Arthur Pinajian journey from obscurity to posthumous recognition:

Arthur Pinajian: An art world genius lost, found, and now worth millions

Who Was Arthur Pinajian? Master of Abstraction Discovered

The Pinajian Discovery

Short video on YouTube about Arthur Pinajian

Revealing the Art of Arthur Pinajian, Armenian Weekly

Arthur Pinajian website

and the Facebook page of the Estate Collection of Arthur Pinajian

18 thoughts on “An Artist Unearthed

  1. There are probably many reasons why he didn’t succeed to be recognized during his lifetime. As you say it’s a rather “bittersweet” story.
    However let’s imagine he didn’t want to be recognized (in a conscious way or an unconscious one). To be recognized maybe very “heavy” to bear. You are under the spotlights; you have to paint even if you are not in a mood of creativity. People are judgmental about your work. To be recognized may restrain your freedom and, why not, annihilate your creativity.
    Maybe he gave his best in his art by staying in the shadow. Maybe we would not have the opportunity to admire today such an explosion of artworks if he had had to paint.

    • artmodel says:

      Drawing Aficionado,

      You make really great points about the pursuit of public recognition. The issue of one’s freedom being restrained is especially salient because I read that in one of Pinajian’s journal entries he expressed annoyance at having to produce work that would satisfy gallery owners’ taste, rather than stay true to his own vision. Indeed, the consensus of Pinajian’s work now, after the discovery, is that his work is authentic, bold, and genuine.

      This is not to say that the famous successful artists necessarily compromised their visions. But perhaps other factors facilitated their ability to navigate fame and attention: personality traits, supportive critics and benefactors, ambition, etc. It’s certainly possible, as you suggested, that Pinajian consciously or subconsciously shunned the spotlight.

      Thanks for your insightful comments!

      Claudia

  2. Alan Appel says:

    Great paintings. Must see the real things Thanks for a great posting.
    Still looking forward to your coming out to White Plains.

  3. Bill says:

    Great posting — and an really impressive body of work. You have to wonder how many other artists like that are out there.

    You raise a really important issue — what does happen to all that art after the artists die? So many of us worry about using archival materials, etc. — yet the sad fact of the matter is that most of our work (the work that isn’t purchased by the Met) will eventually find its way into a landfill. (Cheery thought for a Monday morning, eh? But it’s true.)

    I think that I’m going to buy cheaper paints next time — or, since you hang onto stuff, we could just leave it all to you in our wills 🙂

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      If anyone bequeathed their artwork to me they can be sure of one thing: none of it will end up in a dumpster! It’s funny because artists themselves have various levels of saving. I know many who throw away a lot of their sketches and paint over old paintings to reuse canvases, etc. Didn’t Michelangelo destroy drawings that he disliked so that no one would ever see them?

      As for you Bill, keep using the archival storage sleeves and the good paints. That’s an order! 😆

      Thanks for your comments.

      Claudia

      • Bill says:

        Vasari said that Michelangelo destroyed many of his drawings “so that he would leave nothing that is not perfect.” I suppose that this implies that the drawings that he did leave were perfect. Well, come to think of it. . .

        Since I must follow the guidance of the Muse, archival storage sleeves and good paints it must remain. 🙂 Seriously, though, the one thing I never do is to destroy anything in the presence of the model. You can’t expect someone to bust his/her rear end for you, then just casually destroy the results.

        • Hi Claudia, hi Bill,

          May I put 2 cents in your discussion?

          Some years ago I sold a watercolor to a couple of old persons. They passed away and the heirs sold their house and scattered everything, including – I suppose – the watercolor. Recently I received a phone call from my frame-maker. He had been asked by a client to frame a rather damaged watercolor bearing my signature. I discovered that during several years the watercolor had passed from hand to hand in a number of “attic-sales”, to end in the hands of this client who loved it and wanted it to be reframed.

          Strange experience to discover that the watercolor had had its own life aside from me… and had survived.

          To push the experience further I now – when drawing in the outside, in a park, a café…- leave from time to time a small drawing on the bench or the chair or the table. It may be destroyed by the rain or put in the bin by an unknown or lovingly kept by a waiter or a passer-by.

          To better describe what I clearly want to do is to throw bottles at the sea. I mean that a drawing is like a message in a bottle. Many of my drawings will sink (if not all of them). But, maybe one – just one of them – will reach a shore and will be read by someone. And I feel there is a tiny bridge between myself and the future / and this “someone”, despite the fact that I may never hear / know of him / her, despite the passing time (including the fact that I may be dead when this person discovers the drawing).

          • Bill says:

            Speaking for myself, I think that’s great — both the story about the watercolor and the practice of leaving the drawings behind.

            I don’t think that I could bear to do that. Most of my drawings are quick practice sketches that I’m not proud of — I destroy most of them as soon as I reasonably can. I keep the 10-15% that I do like (I’m a collector at heart), file them by pose and/or model, post them on my blog, occasionally review and (even more occasionally) exhibit them. I guess they mean something to me — in a way that I imagine they probably won’t/wouldn’t to someone else. But that’s just me — I greatly respect both your attitude and approach — I think it speaks of a certain generosity of spirit.

            Have you ever tried mail art? It sounds like you would enjoy it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mail_art

          • artmodel says:

            Drawing Aficionado,

            I love the story of your watercolor! How great of your frame maker to call you! That’s awesome. Objects go on little journeys, often for years and years. When I browse through antiques stores I think about where the pieces have been over time, whose hands they passed through, etc. It’s fascinating. And your practice of leaving a small work behind in a public place? I love that too! Your approach to art creation is truly free and benevolent.

            Thanks for sharing these stories and ideas. I enjoy your comments immensely 🙂

            Claudia

  4. CBrown says:

    I’m a big comic book fan, but I’d never heard of Arthur Pinajian. But when I googled him, I realized that I was familiar with one of his characters: Madame Fatal. Madame Fatal was an obscure character published by Quality Comics from 1940-42. Obscure, but still known in comics circles for having the distinction of being the first cross-dressing crimefighter. Madame Fatal was a man who disguised himself as an old woman in his fight against crime! The title in which this character appeared was called “Crack Comics.” I’m not making this up.

  5. rob says:

    I read about him several years ago and was really impressed with the quality and quantity of his work. I think it’s great you are sharing him with your audience. (P.S.-I commented on your last reply.)

  6. fredh1 says:

    Wow, this is an artist new to me, and what an interesting story – an artist who worked in both comics and abstract modernism, who desired to be forgotten. In my experience some of the best artists I know are shy or humble, but the art world is only interested in the big loud egos.

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      Writing this post made me think of the “discovery” of Vivian Maier. I believe you were the one who first brought that story to my attention. Some similarities, yes?

      And I couldn’t agree with you more about artists’ personalities. The art world enjoys, and to some degree promotes, the big flashy egos, like any other fame-oriented community. Introverts don’t always fare well, which is unfortunate.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  7. Thomas Schultz says:

    Thomas Schultz here. It gives me great pleasure to read the wonderful comments about Pinajian’s body of artwork . I was the one who refused o throw the works in the dumpster back in 2007. Now, major collectors and institutions have acquired his work. I look forward to the day when I take my three daughters to the MET and view a Pinajian I saved from destruction.

    • artmodel says:

      Thomas,

      Thanks so much for writing a comment! This blog post on Pinajian continues to receive many views. His life story – and your discovery of his “lost” works – really touches people, as you can gather from the comments here. I felt honored to see his work at the Lawrence Fine Art Gallery over the summer. And bless you for saving his art from the fate of the dumpster! What a tragedy that would have been. And yes, a Pinajian on the walls of the Met Museum would be a amazing triumph. I hope it happens 🙂

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Claudia

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