SET IN STONE
I was doing and said, ‘ How about if I compounded this material for you with color and let’s see what it does.’ He made me some sample paint. It was highly successful. He began to market it as the paint that’s now called Liquitex.”
Antreasian, at the age of ninety-four, is professor emeritus in the University of New Mexico’s art and art history department, and continues to produce new work, some of which is on view in Garo Antreasian:
Systematic Abstraction at Gerald Peters Gallery. The exhibit features recent paintings and wood constructions, the latter inspired by historic and contemporary gaming boards. “There’s something kind of jolly and yet also intriguing about the designs of game boards,” he said. “They oftentimes have a mathematical regularity and geometric construction; I’m talking about things like Parcheesi, Monopoly, chess boards, things of that sort. Many of them are ages old in their evolution, very colorful, and intriguing in their designs. In a way, [wood constructions] were not so challenging to put together, and I thought it would be kind of fun to do that. So those works, in my view, are lighttempered, hopefully attractive, and are a continuum of earlier work of a deeper and more challenging character.”
Antreasian was born in 1922 in Indianapolis, the son of Turkish parents who had fled the Armenian genocide of 1915. In high school, he encountered an influential art instructor, Miss Bard, who asked him to report on the school’s defunct lithography press. “There was hardly any written knowledge in English of the artistic process of lithography,” he said. “She assigned my buddy and me to discover the secrets of what that machinery did.” Antreasian and his friend found inadequate books on lithography at the local library but learned all they could from them. Then they took their research a step further and went to visit a commercial lithography printing house in
Indianapolis, run by a German immigrant. “He loved to reminisce about those old days as an apprentice in Germany. He would help us and give us guidance. That’s what got us started. Always, thereafter, lithography was a magical ‘something’ that kept tantalizing me because I never could get my hands on the real story. Consequently, something about my inner being and wanting to know kept me reaching to grab a hold of something that was just beyond my grasp.” Antreasian recounts these early years in an autobiography and monograph published in January by UNM Press called Garo Z. Antreasian: Reflections
on Life and Art, with an introduction by art historian and critic William Peterson.
Antreasian attended the Herron School of Art and Design (where he later taught) before serving as a Coast Guard artist during World War II, in which he was witness to the invasion of Okinawa and a kamikaze attack on the Allied naval fleet. Early in his career, Antreasian, a painter as well as a lithographer, composed narrative scenes with figurative imagery, but his work went in a different direction in the 1950s. “My imagery was going gradually from naturalistic to more and more abstract — figurative abstraction at first — and eventually to pure abstraction,” he said.
After the war, the lure of lithography would eventually lead him to a fateful meeting. “Lithograwwphy was slow to take hold in America,” he writes in the monograph. “It was only during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War that the process of printing from stone became a healthy competitor of letterpress printing, which utilized wood engravings for its pictorial component.” But woodblock printing became more popular at the turn of the 20th century, and lithography, because of its technical challenges and materials, was more sporadic.
Antreasian took his concerns about the dying art of lithography to the Print Council of America, which published his article “Special Problems Relative to Artistic Lithography” in its house journal, News of
Prints. “I was told that the article provoked a lot of attention on the East Coast,” he writes. Soon after, he was asked to comment on a proposal submitted to the Ford Foundation by California-based printmaker June Wayne (1918-2011) and saw that she shared many of his concerns about lithography. “There was less than a handful of guys doing lithography in America in the ’50s,” he said. “June Wayne discovered me, in a way, because of the experiments I was doing in lithography in the Midwest. Here she was on the West Coast, also interested in furthering the knowledge of lithography.” As he states in the monograph, “The rest is art history as far as I’m concerned.” Antreasian was
the Tamarind Lithography Workshop’s first technical director and master printer. Tamarind relocated to Albuquerque in 1970, was rechristened the Tamarind Institute, and is now part of UNM. It remains a premier center for lithography nationwide.
Antreasian’s practice involves experimentation in new mediums and exploring various surface treatments by compounding chemicals. “For many years — as long as I can remember, actually — the surfaces I painted on were wood panels,” he said. “When I was in Indianapolis in the ’50s and ’60s, I used to paint on canvas, the traditional way, with oil paint. I never really liked oil paint. I didn’t like stretching canvases. If you had to make corrections, you had to scrape off the paint. It takes too long to dry. All of those things interrupt my natural flow of work.” After the war, he took advantage of the proliferation of synthetic polymer resins that dried quickly and were easy to compound with water. “It was perfect for my needs,” he said. “For a short period of time there was a company in the Midwest that was producing lacquers for the auto industry, but a small department in that company was producing heavily thickened paint in a lacquer base that dried very quickly. It smelled good, despite the fact that it was highly toxic. It’s amazing I didn’t kill myself using that stuff.”
Antreasian’s geometric compositions draw on ornamental patterns and motifs. He takes inspiration from a broad range of sources: African art, Middle Eastern art, graphic design, and architecture among them, but he still works more or less abstractly. His compositions hint at familiar objects but remain equivocal. His
Unknown Tribe from 2003, for instance, is reminiscent of a stained-glass window. But his works aren’t signifiers. While his monochromatic prints from the 1990s, reproduced in the monograph, recall the letters and symbols of a written language, nothing explicit presents itself. Rather, these architectonic, hard-edged compositions recontextualize their source inspirations to the point of obscurity, leading the viewer away, rather than toward, anything specific.
Whether he is painting or making lithographs, Antreasian has remained committed to moving his practice in new directions while still primarily working two-dimensionally. “These were endeavors to deal with things I didn’t know much about, but they led me forward, led me to keep exploring and finding. That’s the bedrock of my entire background.”
Left to right, Game Board, 2015, acrylic on wood, courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery; Swatch Book, 2012, acrylic on wood, courtesy UNM Press; China Syndrome, 2004, acrylic on wood, courtesy UNM Press