A landscape dissolves into reds, yellows, and greens. A mountain in New York State is filtered through an artist's imagination, rendered on canvas in angular patches.
These were among the visions of Arthur Pinajian, an unknown Armenian-American painter whose death in 1999 prompted little more than the rental of a dumpster. The dumpster was to be filled with decades' worth of his writings and pencil sketches and a garage-full of paintings that numbered close to 6,000.
Today, Pinajian's work hangs on the well-lit walls of a SoHo gallery. Leading art historians say that, at his best, he ranks among America's finest abstract expressionists. His estate has been appraised at $30 million. After several kind twists of fates, Pinajian has been vaulted out of obscurity and is now gaining improbable posthumous fame.
The first twist came with a real estate venture by a man named Thomas Schultz. It was 2005 when Schultz stumbled upon the cottage in Bellport, New York that was the longtime home of Pinajian and his sister.
"I came into the house to look at it with the purpose of figuring out if it was a good house to flip (i.e. to buy and resell for profit) and I walked among all of this art. I was intrigued by it because it was so vast. I knew what I was looking at was someone's life's work."
Cousins apologized to Schultz for the mess left inside -- thousands of canvases, some badly decaying, that were stuffed into the attic and piled in the garage. They said the artist, who had never been recognized in his lifetime, had left instructions for all of his work to be thrown away. A dumpster was ready out back.
In The Right Hands
Schultz's business partner put up $300,000 for the house and offered an additional $2,500 for the entire body of artwork.
The enormous collection had not only been spared, but had fallen into the right hands. It turned out that Schultz knew a relative of the late William Innes Homer, at that time one of the most-respected scholars of contemporary American art.
After several months of study, Homer made an excited call to noted American art historian and appraiser Peter Hastings Falk. In an interview with RFE/RL, Falk maintained that Pinajian's works rank with some of the masters of American abstract expressionism.
"If you look at the history of abstraction in America, certainly the headlines are given to [Jackson] Pollock and Franz Kline and [Willem] de Kooning and all of the stars of that period who are now ensconced in the pantheon of American art history,” he said. “And it's long been thought that no one else could ever crack into that elite rank because, of course, everyone has been discovered and art historians already know everything. The really fun thing about this is here is the dean of American art historians who is just simply astonished -- and I was, too. That's what makes this such an extraordinary story."
Falk is now the exhibitions director and chief curator of Pinajian's estate.
Pinajian was born in 1914 in New Jersey. His parents had fled the mass killings of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks.
He worked as a comic-book illustrator in the 1930s, creating "Madam Fatal," a character considered the first cross-dressing super hero.
He would later study fine art in New York City.
Painting ‘Morning, Noon, And Night’
Falk says Pinajian had a "breakdown" in 1948, a year in which he wrote a lengthy manifesto on what it means to be a great artist. From then on he led a near-hermetic existence, depending on his sister for financial support. Art consumed nearly every waking hour until his death.
"When we went to the house, he was always laughing and joking and talking about the old times,” recalls Aram Aramian, one of Pinajian's cousins. “He had a good nature about him. But all he wanted to do was paint -- paint, paint, paint. Morning, noon, and night. Every day. Three-hundred and sixty-five days out of the year."
While Pinajian tried everything from erotica to realism, Falk says he achieved his best results in "lyric, rhythmic, abstract landscapes." He puts the total value of Pinajian's work at $30 million, a figure that was recently revealed to the public.
Pinajian's first New York City showing in March generated significant interest. That was the site of the highest price paid so far for one of his paintings, $100,000.
"I still feel that the elevator is on the ground floor in terms of value," Falk says.
Thomas Schultz, who helped save the collection, has given up his day job to become its full-time registrar. He says "a major Los Angeles-area museum" recently acquired a piece.
But he insists his work is about inspiration far more than money.
"I bought the Pinajian cottage from my partner,” he says. “I'm currently living in it. I look at the trees here on the property that he captured in some of the beautiful landscapes that we now see. So it's almost like I'm on sacred ground. It's been life-changing. [My life is] all things Pinajian, basically. I wake up every day and I think of Pinajian and what I could do to bring the recognition to him that he deserves. I feel like he's finally getting that."
Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.