Marcos Grigorian: Back to the earth

by Gregory Lima

Published: Saturday October 20, 2007

The late Marcos Grigorian shown at the hall housing his paintings, Earthworks, installations, and extensive collection of regional cultural artifacts. Hovik Malians for the Armenian Reporter

Galleries

The Marcos and Sabrina Grigorian Collection

Yerevan - Circle back on Nalbandian Street to the rear of the huge National Galleries and at a modest door a few steps on is the placard of the Near East Museum. You'll find it one flight up and to the right. There you'll enter to the perfunctory photograph and to the celebratory data that is the necessary vestibule here of honored artists, and now, opening your eyes just that bit wider, you begin your travel in the quirky world of Marcos Grigorian.

Marcos was born in 1925 in Russia, his parents Western Armenian survivors of the Genocide who then again moved on, this time to Iran, where he grew up to manhood, created his first significant work, and had his major initial influence.

He was to become one of that brilliant band of international Armenians of the 20th century who brought fresh invention to ancient pursuits, embraced the languages and tested the concepts of other cultures to more clearly define and reinvent their own, and bring brought resonant original expression to the concept of being an Armenian in the modern world.

Marcos Grigorian is credited as being a driving force and a father of the modern Iranian art movement, of which he was initially an integral part. He was to have an influence as a teacher and friend on the formation of other Iranian and Armenian artists who rose to international prominence. His own work is installed in major collections and he has the special distinction of being included in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art along with Arshile Gorky and the other towering figures in 20th century art.

I knew him personally in Iran as a young artist and years later again in New York at his Gorky Gallery in the Madison Avenue building on trendy art gallery row he purchased following his success. In 1992, disconsolate upon the death of his beautiful and beloved daughter Sabrina, he packed up, disposed of his chic art gallery, and came to Armenia, the home of his dreams and his heart.

Armenia had just declared its independence from the Soviet Union and had entered the extraordinarily difficult period of drastic social adjustments, contentious relations with neighbors, armed conflict, and the ongoing blockade of its east and west borders, while it tried to reorient and build a sustainable market economy. It was at this time he donated this collection in the name of his daughter to Armenia. Seeking a place to house it, the economically hard-pressed government in 1993 found space in the Art and Literature wing of the Armenian National Galleries, where it has since remained pending other outcomes.

After all these years it still looks like the temporary exhibition of two museums in a large closet.

Earthworks

In my judgment the visible Marcos Grigorian legacy is his Earthworks. They may be understood as part of the Abstract Impressionist movement to which Arshile Gorky gave birth. But I relate them to his grappling with the theme of the Armenian Genocide and the issues related to the question: To whom does the crust of our earth belong and what promise of home can we make to the newborn?

His Earthworks occurred when he put down his brushes and canvas and no longer painted. He went back to the earth, plunged in his hands, clasped them as claws in the mud, and pulled out in his touch intimations of his own mortality but the ultimate immortality of mankind.

His Earthworks gain resonance when seen in the context of their complementarities with, and perhaps their influence on, the conceptual thinking of specific other artists. The actual subjects may seem far removed, but the same elemental approach has resulted in works that, in my judgment, are related and of astounding beauty. One such artist is Parviz Tanovoli and his sculptures of a nightingale emerging from a cage and its cry into the void - the heech, the vast nothingness that holds the shadow of God. Another is Sirak Melconian, who looks beneath the skin of the earth to the tensions in the tectonic plates, and we can feel in our own belly the unseen knots of grinding care and sometimes the fragile equilibriums in our swollen hearts. This is the company where his work ultimately belongs and its significance is revealed.

The rest of the work, with few exceptions, is like a large orchestra tuning up for the performance at a later hour.

Auschwitz

At the museum his work is shown as going through three phases. In the first he returns to Iran from studies in Europe, holding a diploma from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. This phase is covered by the first canvases in the collection, the young artist in color bursts of paint that establish his bona fides as a relatively conventional artist who can paint recognizable faces if he wants to. It is followed by a second phase, which flirts on the edge of the Picasso of the Demoiselles d'Avignon.

This second phase culminates in a massive, signature work on Auschwitz. With international attention riveted on the Holocaust, he declares, "My cry has now become the world's cry," and he attempts to depict the horrors of the mass murder of innocents in paint.

It is a project of overarching ambition with dubious prospects from the start.

To paint an ultimate horror that will not drive you away in revulsion, that will instead draw you to the canvas, engage your mind, and have you come away with a sense of witness: that would be profoundly difficult. I would be in awe if it could be done in paint.

But to attempt to go further, which to my mind the theme of Genocide and Auschwitz demands, to create a shared experience in living time not as a mere happening but as a shattering convulsion in the body of humanity: that would be virtually impossible. Media other than canvas and paint may offer possibilities, but even then within the culture, and within the body politic, a profound feeling for the event to be depicted must already exist.

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