Garo Antreasian: A print pioneer

On November 3rd, 2018 artist and printmaker Garo Antreasian passed away. He was a mentor to a generation of printmakers, including Ken Tyler, and he changed the face of the discipline in the United States.

Garo Antreasian at Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco, 1990
Garo Antreasian at Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco, 1990

We are fortunate to have Garo Antreasian’s memoirs, Reflections on art and life, to tell the story of his work in his own words. Often, an incomplete portrait of a person is left to history. This is what Garo himself encountered when beginning his memoirs, with a recollection of his father:

‘I am saddened to say that there is very little I can relate about my father’s life… for reasons unknown to me he seldom spoke’[i]

Garo had to piece together a more complete picture of his father from conversations with his extended family and from his aunt’s diary: One passage read that at age 16, Garo’s father Zareh Moses Antreasian, took his gun and his dog and his family didn’t see him again for 18 years. He had joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, active in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. It is speculated that he was involved with the unsuccessful Yildiz Palace bomb plot, which intended to assassinate Sultan Abdul Hamid II on July 21, 1905. Later he escaped prison, through a generous bribe to his captors. Zareh made his way to the United States, dedicating many years thereafter to ensuring the safe passage of his wife, Takouhie. She was fortunate to gain safe passage across the Atlantic in 1921, as one year later, her former neighbourhood of Izmir burned to the ground in what is now known as the Great fire of Smyrna, a deliberate destruction of the ethnic Armenian and Greek communities in Turkey. Later in life, Garo would make a pilgrimage to this, his mother and father’s neighbourhood, hoping to rediscover something of his family history. He would leave bitter and frustrated, both the fire and the rise of Turkish nationalism meant that no trace remained of this previously vibrant community and Garo’s link to his family’s past.

There is another part of Garo’s life that reflects this story of frustration. His artistic life was similarly directed and shaped by the unknown. Garo’s major contributions to American artistic history were a response to an incomplete portrait, as he realised that the art of lithography had been almost wiped from the face of the American artistic landscape. He had a natural curiosity and an unnatural drive to understand this little-known medium, a drive that was shaped by a series of incidents in his youth. Garo would become a major figure in the revival of lithography in the United States.

Born in 1922, Garo did not speak English until he began school. The children in his Indianapolis neighbourhood would try to speak with him only to realise he could neither understand or respond. Garo communicated by sound or gesture until his English developed in the first years of school. Naturally shy, Garo spent most of his time alone, absorbed in the escapism his imagination provided. This introspective nature later developed into a love of libraries and the world made accessible through books. These gave Garo insight into a cultural world that extended far beyond his typically suburban neighbourhood.

Having displayed a natural talent for drawing on the chalkboards of his school, a young Garo was encouraged by teachers to explore his artistic talents. This was communicated to his parents and his father decided to purchase Garo a set of oil paints. Housed in a fine rosewood box, this painting set made a deep impression on Garo. For a migrant family living amidst the Great Depression, an extravagant gift like this would have been cherished.

In high school, Garo’s art teacher, Sara Bard, set a research assignment that would become a pivotal moment in his life. Expecting a page or two of information, she pointed to a disused lithographic press and set Garo and a classmate the task of deciphering this ageing and mysterious mechanical device. Finding only sparse information on lithography’s history at the school library, Garo was suddenly driven beyond a typical learning environment for technical instruction. He began contacting printing businesses in the local area. He soon met an ageing business proprietor, Mr Oval, who as a teenager had apprenticed in lithography in his home country of Germany. Mr Oval cajoled Garo to continue investigating well beyond what was required for the assignment, at one point giving Garo his very own lithography stone: something which, later in life, Garo would realise was worth thousands of dollars. Within a school term, to the astonishment of both the teacher and his classmates, Garo began to pull small lithographs from the once lifeless press.

Backed by such positive experiences, Garo enrolled at the Herron School of Art. This school’s lithography program had been cancelled a year before his arrival, and once again Garo found lithography presses but no instruction in the art form. It was only after convincing the head of school to give him a spare key to the press room that Garo would begin his first lithographs, working after-hours.

As with most lives of the time, Garo put his daily concerns aside when America joined World War II. Taking the advice of a mentor, he enlisted as a combat artist in the Navy, recording America’s experience of war in the Pacific using a small paint set kept in a hastily purchased business briefcase. Having produced harrowing Social Realist works during his first years at art school (inspired by artists such as Ben Shahn and memories of the Great Depression), he was adept at recording the horrors of the Pacific theatre of war. The most astonishing works he produced during this time were some of the first depictions of Kamikaze attacks by Japanese pilots. Such suicidal warfare was difficult to comprehend when first encountered by American troops and Garo later learnt that the American war censors destroyed all his depictions of this phenomenon. The potential for such images to demoralise the American war effort had been deemed too great. All that remains of Garo’s output during this time are prosaic watercolours of ruined buildings and naval dockyards.

Following the end of the war brought about by the catastrophic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Garo returned home, where he was soon to marry his fellow Herron classmate Jeanne Glasscock, a talented weaver whose optically intriguing textiles rival Garo’s prints. Taking on poorly paid work as a commercial artist, Garo continued his study at Herron Art School, while Jeanne would raise their first-born son, David.

Garo supplemented his income with artistic commissions, including murals for American corporations such as WFBM Television and the First National Bank. These projects posed a series of technical problems for Garo, with the expense and drying time of oil paints, and the dull impermanence of latex house paints. The 1950s saw an explosion of newly-available plastic technologies and on a small scale, Garo had been experimenting with synthetic polymer binders for paint pigments. Garo turned to a recent acquaintance, Henry Levison, with his need for artist-quality synthetic paints. Levison, a chemist, was also experimenting with plastics at the time and agreed to produce gallon lots of Garo’s homemade art materials. As a result of this collaboration, the now widely-available Liquitex brand of acrylic paint was born.

Despite this ground-breaking work with acrylic paints, Garo remained committed to the medium of lithography. He “became enchanted with its early history… and the many facets of its process seemed akin to the arcane pursuits of ancient alchemy, operating as if by magic to produce results of great beauty”[ii].

But the unknowns of this alchemical lithography were also the cause of great vexation – an impasse that led to an extraordinary series of events that changed both the trajectory of Garo’s life and the state of lithography in the United States.

In 1959 Garo penned ‘a plaintive lament’ titled Special problems relative to Artistic Lithography in the News of Prints journal. Here he expressed his frustration with the comatose state of lithography, in particular, the lack of educational resources. At the same time, on the West Coast of the United States, artist June Wayne had independently been experiencing similar frustrations. Working on an artist book to accompany the poems of John Dunne, she had embarked on a fruitless search for technical lithographic expertise in the United States. The only workshop capable of realising her vision was in France. June Wayne’s lament was not published, but instead delivered to McNeil Lowry, the Ford Foundation’s director for the arts and humanities program. Soon after speaking with June Wayne, the stars aligned and Lowry came across Garo’s article. Lowry then asked Garo to look over Wayne’s proposal for a lithographic training facility. Buoyed by the prospect, Garo recommended it wholeheartedly. June Wayne’s newly-formed institute, Tamarind Lithography, began its life with Garo Antreasian, an artist who had taught himself lithography, as its first technical director in 1960.

Tamarind, while primarily oriented towards training printmakers rather than facilitating artists, produced an astonishing body of prints, among these were experiments performed by Garo, including ‘spectrum rolling’, the process of blending two or more colours using a roller to create a blended spectrum to be applied to an image. Garo came to grasp this technique after a sleepless night puzzling over the print Jane Avril (1899) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This print displayed a smooth tonal blend of blue and yellow in its depiction of a snake and had intrigued Garo for many years. Falling asleep, Garo suddenly was struck by a thought: Rushing to the workshop he recreated Toulouse-Lautrec’s tonal-blending technique, which quickly became known as ‘the rainbow roll’ at Tamarind Lithography. This technique quickly spread among Tamarind printers and was later applied to works such as Jasper Johns’ Color Numeral series.

A rainbow roll being prepared by Kimberley Bursic for Frank Stella’s ‘Imaginary Places’ series at Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco, 1997

Other breakthroughs occurred under Garo’s directorship. Ken Tyler, another Herron student, would receive a scholarship to work with Garo at Tamarind Lithography, and was assigned to investigate the appropriateness of different metal plates for lithography. An ambitious student with a background in engineering and the metal industry, Tyler reported that zinc printing plates would soon be superseded by aluminium plates as a more reliable product, which proved to be true. Along with this research, Tyler quickly learnt the intricacies of lithography under Garo Antreasian’s instruction. Garo’s time as technical director ended in 1961, and following Irwin Hollander, Tyler became technical director in 1963.

Kenneth Tyler and Garo Antreasian at Tamarind Lithography, Los Angeles, 1963. Photo: John Wilson

As an artist, Garo was caught between worlds. His practice reflected a wide range of influences throughout its evolution, a fact that Garo saw as part of the modernist dialectic, his art following a progressive path towards greater resolve. Despite his early forays in Social Realism and themes such as community and inequality, Garo’s work was retinal: it focused on line, colour and composition of abstracted shapes.

While Garo focused on his duties at Tamarind during the early 1960s, major shifts in art were underway in America. In his memoirs, Garo reflects that an increasingly postmodern artistic ecology was beginning to appear. He resumed his artistic practice after leaving Tamarind in Los Angeles only to see the artworld ‘completely torn apart, fragmented and reassembled during this period’[iii]. He was suddenly confronted by the rise of conceptual artistic movements and reflected that ‘there was less and less consensus about a unity of purpose and achievement in the art world’[iv]. Reflecting on what he saw as splintered and individualistic movements, Garo further reduced any didactic or authorial elements in his own work: his abstractions reached new levels of polished perfectionism with his Quantum Suite series in the late 60s and he then began to assign indexical numbers as titles in the 1970s, such as 77.6.1, reflecting the record-keeping system at Tamarind. Garo wrote that his generation of artist ‘seldom discussed art theory. They would rather leave that to the art historians and theorists’[v] and of his own work he said that ‘rarely do I find that I can impose my will on the work entirely with success. It is as if the work has its own inner logic that defies predetermination‘[vi]

Later in life, Garo would resume painting as his primary mode of expression following time partaking in overseas residencies – while in Turkey researching his family history, he would encounter Islamic Art and begin to find great resonance with its non-representational forms, adopting motifs from this tradition.

One of Garo’s fondest recollections from later in his life was his solo exhibition at David Findlay Jr Gallery in 2013. It had been over 50 years since he had shown in New York and the opening night brought together friends from throughout his life and career. Painter Will Barnet, then 102 years old, was to attend, something that touched Garo deeply, as he passed away a fortnight later. Other guests included Ken and Marabeth Tyler: Garo writes of how pleased he was to see them both and later learnt that they had purchased one of the major works from the exhibition – a fact he became aware of when he saw a photo of it hanging between a de Kooning and a Motherwell in the Tyler family home.

Garo is survived by his sons David and Thomas Antreasian, and his brother Berj. He is fondly remembered by all of us here who work with the Kenneth Tyler Collection for his pioneering work and contributions to the field of printmaking and art.

-David Greenhalgh, Curatorial Assistant, Kenneth Tyler Collection

[i], Antreasian, G. (2015). Garo Z. Antreasian: Reflections on art and life, University of New Mexico Press, p. 21

[ii] Ibid. p. 101

[iii] Ibid. p. 143

[iv] Ibid. p. 143

[v] Ibid. p. 165

[vi] Ibid. p. 14

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