Charles Garabedian dies at 92; California artist's colorful paintings belied dark themes

Charles Garabedian, modern artist of mythological themes, who was raised in East L.A., fought Air Force missions in World War II and studied history before his late-bloomer drift into painting, died Thursday at his Santa Monica home from prostate cancer, said his wife, Gwendolyn. He was 92.

Garabedian was known for bright, cannily cartoonish oil paintings in which scenes from Greek epics, even savage ones, were awash in cheerful color.

His work married wisdom with childlike innocence. The colors were pretty, the themes often dark.

The figures in his paintings wore enigmatic smiles. Dreamily entwined, or braced in ambiguous postures, their attitudes reflected Garabedian's: "There are no absolutes," he told a Times writer in 2011. "There is nothing you can really count on. And I think it's better that way."

The UCLA-trained Garabedian won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1977 and a Guggenheim fellowship three years later, and his work is included in numerous collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Yet despite honors, Garabedian never gained a large public following. His career was marked by long periods of obscurity.

Admirers occasionally sought to place him with John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, and other late 20th-century artists who tested East Coast constraints and injected an imaginative California sensibility into contemporary art.

But mostly, Garabedian was not known for his influence; he was known for his independence.

"He makes no compromises," said his longtime friend and fellow artist Ed Moses said of him in 2003. "He is just into the painting as painting."

Garabedian quietly rejected the role of artist-as-salesman. Talking of mainstream art, he once said, "I just can't do it."

He spoke of painting for himself, and his children and grandchildren. "You want to know who you are," he said in a 2003 interview. "You look over the body of your work, and say, 'That's who I was, and who I many become.'"

This internal drive won him a passionate following in West Coast art circles, where critics and fellow painters saw him as an artist's artist. Among them, he gained a kind of anti-fame for not being famous — "notoriously under-recognized," is how one gallery director put it.

Garabedian was born Dec. 29, 1923, in Detroit, the youngest of three children of Verkin and Eglia Garabedian, Armenians who had fled the genocide. When he was 2, his mother died. His father, an autoworker disabled from by accident at work, sent the children to live in an orphanage where they remained until an uncle retrieved them seven years later.

The uncle took them to East L.A., where Garabedian went to Garfield High School, then the Air Force. Stationed in England during the war, he served 30 missions as a waist gunner on a B-24, his wife said.

Afterward, he studied literature on the GI Bill at UC Santa Barbara and got a degree in history from USC. He worked in a factory and at odd jobs, including as a Union Pacific night yard man. Garabedian met the artist Moses, a neighbor, who took him to an art class, his wife said. He took to it. He was 31.

He earned a master's degree at UCLA and was in his early 40s when his first gallery show finally came in 1965. He followed the advice of one of his teachers, Elliot Elgart, who had told him, "You're too old for technique, go for the poetry," Gwendolyn Garabedian said. A solo show at the Whitney Museum in 1976 established his national profile.

Over the years, he was neglected and rediscovered — and appeared unfazed either way. He taught at UCLA and elsewhere, and toiled at his sunlit Westside studio on Washington Boulevard.

A reporter once found him there, at work on a painting he'd been perfecting for 13 years.

Sales were "not important as a sign of success," he said, but they were "important to buy groceries."

Claremont Graduate University professor and critic David Pagel, writing for The Times, has characterized Garabedian's work as "user-friendly pictures" of "archetypal stories." He sometimes used plaster, cardboard and other materials. But most of his work consisted of paintings on canvas, nearly always of human beings, at the edge of caricature.

"He was trying to make something beautiful," said his wife. Of his figures, she said, "on first look sometimes they look a little homely or gangly, but they resonate."

His early work was informed by crime and television. "Daytime TV," which Pagel called "riveting," is a comical yet curiously poignant swirl of images — a gun, a disembodied hand — alongside characters who appear appalled to find themselves trapped inside a television set.

In later years, he returned repeatedly to his favorite themes, Greek mythology, and especially "The Iliad," which his wife said he loved for its operatic quality. Broken Greek temples and red-brick walls distinguish these paintings.

He painted Agamemnon, ridiculous and cursed, as he prepared to slay his writhing daughter, and Dido lolling on the beach, locking eyes with Aeneas.

He rendered mythological characters as pink and vulnerable, yet also tragic — at once childish, knowing and self-aware. "There is no escaping from his wily art," Pagel wrote.

Besides his wife, whom he married in 1963, Garabedian is survived by his daughters Claire Garabedian and Sophia Octeau, and three grandchildren.

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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