Throughout my tenure at Indiana University as a student of English and art history, I spent an enormous amount of time under the eyes of a mural representing the storied history of the place. The figures of prominence, rendered in thick acrylic, moved about in an intricately ordered world wherein each scene was distinct, yet netted to one another. We talked of the technique employed by the artist, Garo Antreasian, and of the unprecedented materials he used and the composition he so carefully spread across an enormous plane. Professors ushered whole classes into the space to look up at the mural and with great frequency I trudged across campus to have lunch underneath it, its colors and geometry forever ingrained in my mind. At that time I couldn't have guessed that years later fate would bring me to Antreasian's doorstep in Albuquerque.
The murals that Antreasian painted are just a fraction of the work he has produced in his lifetime. An innovator in the field of lithography—a complex, chemically based printing process—Antreasian is the founding technical director of the Tamarind Institute and an ever-inventive abstract painter whose works are housed in more than 60 museums across the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Just a week before his 94th birthday, Antreasian sat down with me at his dining room table to discuss his past work, his current inspirations and his recent publication through UNM Press, Reflections on Life and Art.
In the book, which he painstakingly wrote by hand, Antreasian looks to his past to illuminate his process and the origins of that mysterious spark that has moved him to create throughout his life. The book is at once the chronicle of a life as well as a meditation on the things that make us who we are—in Antreasian's case, a tireless, unflaggingly curious creator.
Alibi: What inspired you to write down your memories?
Antreasian: I've had a long and rich life, as time has gone by I started reflecting on some of the early times and one thing leads to another when you do that kind of introspection … Once I got started it was endless, it kept coming out of me.
What was the actual process of writing like?
I often read books about artists and I never get a feel for who that person is … there are things that shape a person, that make them who they are. I'm very proud of my beginnings—my Armenian heritage [and] the stories of my parents. As I've gotten older my Armenian-ness has become more important to me. It's always been there, but it is much more so now than it ever was before … Your roots make you who you are. That was the rationale for my book. I wanted to spend a lot of time on what I think of as my shaping process. In my way of painting, too, I arrive at what I have through all the layers of work I have to do to get there. That's the reality of the process and of life.
Was part of the impetus for writing your memoirs borne of the frustration you felt when you traveled to Armenia in search of your family's history and were unable to uncover much of it?
That was a terrible experience. I had such hopes, which were naïve. I knew all of that stuff was destroyed when they burned Izmir. I have a very romantic spirit and I thought just being there and standing in that neighborhood, I'd have a good feeling. I didn't. Everything was dead in that area [the neighborhood where Antreasian's family is from]. And to think it was once a very vibrant Armenian neighborhood … and it was eradicated. That trip, though, in one way was very exciting because I became acquainted with Islamic art. There's an irony for you.
Writing a memoir like yours involves looking backward at your life. As you reflected, is there any advice you wish you could give your younger self?
That makes me feel like I'm being asked to be a wise man. I'm not sure that you get wiser as you get older. Something that I believe very strongly [is this]: it’s just hard damn work. If you can work hard and you believe in what you're doing, you'll be okay. I don't believe in talent very much … I don't know what that thing is in some people that keeps them driving towards a goal. The goal is unknown, but you know when you're headed in the right direction, but to get there you have to work you ass off.
How does that ethos apply do your work in lithography?
My introduction to that process, I still can't understand. My high school art teacher introduced a buddy and me to this decrepit old machine. And there was something about the not knowing … To begin with, it’s magic because its invisible. You make this drawing and you have to process it with chemicals and make the drawing disappear. You begin to think everything is lost, and then you make it all magically reappear. To witness that, never having so before, it’s magical. There's something tantalizing about the unknown. [That initial experience] influenced the whole of my nature. The driving force was to find the answer. I still feel that there are things in that medium that I don't know and I'm too old to try now, but if I was younger, I could grab them. You can't infuse that sense [of wonder] in someone. That mystery kept me going.
Have you uncovered the crux of any of those mysteries in your process?
It's like in a painting, you don't know what's underneath those layers. You work and you work and if you're lucky, you make something that makes you think, “That's pretty good, I didn't quite expect that.” They grow out of themselves. Every time I go into the studio, I paint on a wall now, not an easel, and that wall, I call it a groaning wall. It's a blank wall and a blank piece of canvas or wood, you're facing it, you have this wonderful idea and you get going with it and pretty soon you don't recognize where it is going. The thing is leading you … so you have a constant war when you're facing the wall. At some point, you have to regain control. Sometimes you can't, and then, in my case, I destroy the piece. In its destruction, finally I'm in control again. I'm trying … to explain the thrill that idea still has. The quality in mankind to invent is pure magic.
Can you talk about art as an activity and also as a profession?
I describe it [the art world] as being on a train. I was in first class [once], leading the conductor. But gradually, you get moved back, you get moved back, you get moved back and before you know it, you're in third or fourth class and you have no idea where the train is going. Then, finally, you open your eyes one day and you realize you're not even on the train anymore. Sometimes I'm not very happy about that, but I understand it. I'm wondering who’s in the front now. Oftentimes it’s not the artist, it’s the megalomania of what we call the art market. Art is now a commodity. The museums don't run these things, the critics don't run these things, the moneymakers do. It's all cocktail talk and competition. I'm just talking about the grotesquery of the time now. I look at it with wonder.
Throughout your career, you've worked in many mediums and experimented a great deal. What's interesting to you now, in art and in life?
Even in my old age I have curiosity about what's going on. I have to know what's happening, even if I hate it. I'm still engaged. I think that's what keeps me alive. In terms of my art, I just finished my latest group of paintings [for a show titled “Systemic Abstraction”] at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe. Their driving force was board games—I started making images that came out of those, but I transported them into my own abstraction. With the book published too, I feel like a whole cycle of my life has completed itself. Now I'm ready to think of some new pictures … I'm not going to be idle, but I don't know what I'm going to do yet. If it doesn't reveal itself … I'll find a way.