Wedged between a hair salon and yogurt shop, Stephanie’s Fine Art Gallery is a narrow, unpretentious exhibition space and frame shop in a strip mall on Foothill Boulevard in La Canada. There is no “Stephanie” here. The owners are Linda and Sepon Stepanian, Turkish-born Armenians who have run custom frame shops in this area for decades now. They also represent a few high-caliber international artists, selling to a loyal local clientele. “We love this business,” Linda Stepanian says.
The room’s veneer is pastel contemporary, dominated by the frame business, yet these days all the exposed walls in the front area and a small loft are covered with masterful abstract geometries and landscapes that instantly plunge the viewer back into the striking milieu of mid-20th-century Abstract Expressionism. These small, powerful works, though newly revealed to the world, look uncannily familiar, perhaps unseen pieces by William De Kooning or Lee Krasner or someone else from the New York School. One knockout painting, a slanting patchwork of thick black slashes filled in with dense primary colors, is listed for $125,000.
This heady flashback of 1950s structural color comes courtesy of the late Arthur Pinajian (1914-1999), an unknown New York painter whose enormous body of work, unearthed posthumously, has been heralded by art historians and valued at upwards of $30 million. The art historian William Innes Homer described Pinajian’s work as an “exhilarating discovery rarely available to scholars of any stripe.”
For Los Angeles businessman and author Larry Joseph (“Gaia: The Growth of an Idea”), who became the owner of the massive archive in 2006 through an accident of fate during a house purchase, Pinajian’s posthumous artistic ascent has been a six-year roller coaster of enthusiasm, near-bankruptcy and renewed faith.
In an act of “dumb luck,” as he describes it, Joseph had made plans to buy and flip a small cottage in Bellport Long Island—with the sweat equity supplied by his friend Thomas Schultz—when masses of unframed paintings and notebooks were found heaped in the home. Though the work was filthy, Schultz, who had studied some art in college, advocated that they examine the work closely. (“Thomas is the real hero,” Joseph says). Since there were no heirs or family claims to the art, Joseph requested that the collection be included in the purchase and sale agreement when he closed on the house.
Afterword, the two men began digging out a pile that numbered over 3,000 pieces, mostly oils, as well as some in acrylic, watercolor, brush and ink, pencil and crayon. In the garage they found abstracts, landscapes and still lifes. The attic contained hundreds of erotic nudes and figure studies. They also found Pinajian’s Bronze Star from service in World War II, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, as well as countless notebooks filled with sketches and musings, including the declaration, mid-way through his life: “I can’t expect from art anything else but the pleasure of working at it.” According to reports from his cousin Peter Najarian, when Pinajian died at age 85 in 1999, he told his sister to throw all his work in the trash. Though Najarian stopped her, some work had already been discarded.
Given our current Web-centric, hyper-documented world, this discovery may be one of the best and last stories we’ll hear of the proverbial artist “toiling in obscurity.” Born and raised in an Armenian community in Union City, New Jersey, Pinajian was a precocious student and self-taught cartoonist who’d earned freelance work at the New York Daily News by age 18. In the 1930s and early ‘40s he became one of the pioneering American comic book illustrators/writers, penning original tales of superheroes named “Hooded Justice” (1939) and the cross-dressing “Madame Fatal” (1940). Before he left for the war, he illustrated an adaptation of “Hopalong Cassidy,” and he returned to that job for a time after D-Day.
His growing restlessness with his commercial work–culminating in a powerful lunge toward abstract expression—appears to have coalesced in 1948. In July, one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionism movement, fellow Armenian Arshile Gorky, took his life at age 44. By September, Pinajian began a series of notebooks exploring his theories of abstract art. In 1950, he enrolled at the Art Students League in Manhattan on the G.I. Bill. and studied there for six years. That Pinajian didn’t completely forego realism, but continued to experiment with combinations of abstraction, realism, surrealism and comics, is one of his strongest identifiers, aligning him with both Gorky and Willem de Kooning.
Never married, Pinajian lived his entire life with his sister Armen, first in Union City, then later moving to their Bellport cottage in 1973. Early on he spent summers alone in Woodstock, New York as well. At each of these rural spots, he became mesmerized with a certain view: In Woodstock, he painted hundreds of views of Overlook mountain, creating an outpouring of abstractions that outline the 3600-foot peak. In Bellport, when his textured landscapes grew more representational, he painted the salt marshes of Great South Bay. “You can’t be a phony cubist,” he wrote in his notebooks. “You have to know nature and its ways to be convincing in your own mind.”
Today, these convincing landscapes hang on clean walls in homes La Canada, Pasadena and Palos Verdes as well the St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank. Some have double or tripled in value. (The Stepanians took a risk to sell the work starting in 2010, before anyone else would, after Joseph asked a mutual friend if he knew any gallery owners connected to the Armenian community.) Many more works remain unstretched and unframed, though now carefully stored in Bellport. Thomas Schultz, who originally planned to gut and flip Pinajian’s cottage, moved permanently into the tiny home. Though he had to renovate, he retained an exposed square of paint-splattered floor and kept the bedroom wall where Pinajian would tack up a fresh piece of canvas each day. In town, Schultz opened Gallery 125 in an old Bellport Feed Store to house and sell Pinajians and other works.
Larry Joseph spent six years trying to get interest from a New York City gallery, staging shows in outlying areas while he waited. (“Dying flies” is how he remembers Boston.) By 2012, he decided to sell his Cheviot Hills house in order to rent Madison Avenue gallery space himself. Then in March of this year, “lightning struck,” Joseph explains. Thanks to a slow news day, a front page article on the Pinajian story appeared in Long Island’s Newsday newspaper just days before the New York show was about to close. The response was overwhelming. When the gallery rental ended, Joseph moved the show down to Studio Vendome in Soho to extend his show for three months. By the end of his stay, he’d sold $500,000 worth of paintings.
Joseph brims with wishful plans for the coming year: definitely a Centennial celebration of Pinajian’s birth, maybe some European exhibitions, hopefully a museum purchase, plus the first showing of Pinajian’s erotic nudes.
He also recognizes his new role as custodian of the Pinajian legacy. “The exhilaration is a funny thing,” Joseph says. “It’s always changing, what you’re happy about. At first I was happy just not to lose my shirt. Next I was happy to make some real money. But now I’m getting lot of pressure, which is righteous pressure, to not sell the best works unless the buyer agrees to donate them to a museum to save Pinajian’s legacy.”
[I wrote this for Pasadena Magazine, which is now run by Maria Russo, an inspirational reporter and editor. Try it today!]