He still remembers Georgia O’Keeffe on roller skates. Growing up as a painter’s son in a small New Mexico town, Peter Sarkisian got a firsthand view of many of the art scene’s luminaries — including the times when they set aside the brush and played party games with his family.
In the abandoned school building that his parents converted to a living space, Sarkisian sometimes felt removed from mainstream society. Still, he witnessed the business end of the arts: the collectors who stopped by the house, the shows in New York, the revenues that paid the bills for years.
In time, Sarkisian became a renowned artist himself. But when visitors attend the “Sarkisian & Sarkisian” show at the Orange County Museum of Art, some of them may wonder who the second Sarkisian is.
More than 30 years ago, Paul Sarkisian, who had won raves and drawn hefty commissions in Los Angeles and New York, walked away from the scene. While his son racked up shows worldwide, the elder Sarkisian stayed in New Mexico, honing his craft and living the speculated-about life of a J.D. Salinger or Bill Watterson.
Was it a conscious decision to add a layer of mystique to his work? According to the younger Sarkisian, not at all.
“A lot of those guys are off the grid, but they’re not really off the grid, because there’s somebody there making sure that you know they’re off the grid,” Peter said last week at the museum, where the show was in the process of being installed. “When my dad went off the grid, he was really off the grid.
“Those guys knew exactly what they were doing. They were instrumental in their own disappearance, so to speak. My dad just kind of dropped out.”
Now, the elder Sarkisian has dropped back in. Nine years ago, SITE Santa Fe put on an exhibit of his work — his first in nearly a quarter-century. The OCMA show, his first since 2005, marks a career milestone for him and Peter: It’s the first time they’ve displayed their work together.
In some ways, it’s a joyous moment for Peter. But he admits to a few pangs of regret.
His mother, who served as one of his first art teachers, won’t be able to attend — she died of cancer a year and a half ago. His father, nearing his 90th birthday, has trouble staying focused at times and can no longer travel on his own; he wasn’t available for an interview about the OCMA show.
Still, seeing that double Sarkisian name posted in the museum brings a sense of closure: the father who shirked the professional art scene for decades and the son who embraced it, hung on the same gallery walls.
“At least I get the opportunity to share this with my dad,” Peter said. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to do this together.”
An old-school upbringing
It’s almost inevitable that a conversation will turn to the Elvis piece.
One of Paul’s paintings — yes, it is a painting, believe it or not — features a collage of images including a full newspaper page reporting on the rocker’s death. The text is so fine and accurate that the average viewer might swear it was a photocopy, but the artist actually set every one of those letters by hand.
It’s one of many optical tricks that feature in both Sarkisians’ offerings in the show. Paintings feature false three-dimensional depth through color and shading; video installations play with perceptions of space and gravity. It was a connection Peter didn’t consciously seek, but in the past few years, he’s grown to realize how much his approach mirrors his father’s.
Paul’s work has sometimes been labeled abstract illusionism or trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”); Peter says his father dismisses both of those terms. Whatever label applies to it, the elder Sarkisian’s work has been long in demand. Los Angeles Times art critic Henry J. Seldis wrote in 1971 that he could not “think of any single talent that has impressed me so much as that of Paul Sarkisian.”
For the 1960s, and a while afterward, Paul was a common figure on the California art scene, teaching and exhibiting at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and elsewhere. It was a commission, though, that led him and his family to a more austere part of America.
According to Peter, his father had been itching to move out of the Los Angeles area, but his search narrowed when he got an invitation to produce a lithograph series in Albuquerque. While driving around New Mexico, Paul came upon tiny Cerrillos — population 114 at the time — and found himself flush with ideas when he happened on the abandoned school.
“You could fit half the Orange County museum in the gymnasium,” Peter recalled. “It was a full-size basketball court with double nets.”
In the new rural setting, Peter learned to read by kerosene lamp and went with his family once a week to haul water in the back of a pickup truck. The TV got two stations. O’Keeffe, and others who relished the desert environment, became part of the Sarkisians’ inner circle.
‘He’d just had enough’
Throughout the 1970s and into the next decade, Paul continued to paint and exhibit prolifically around the world. Then, in 1981, the second activity stopped.
According to Peter, Paul had fallen out with his gallery director in New York, and his wife’s illness required more time at home. At the same time, a deeper restlessness had set in.
“When he just dropped out, he’d just had enough,” Peter said. “He was just pushing too hard for too long, and he didn’t want to do it anymore. It got to the point where he was producing paintings, and the gallery was calling and more commissions were coming in. They were saying, ‘Three paintings from this series have been commissioned,’ and he didn’t want to do that anymore.
“He wanted to follow a process, and wherever it led him, that’s where he wanted to go.”
While Paul retreated to his workshop at home, his son’s career surged. Peter, who returned to his native state to study at the California Institute of the Arts, moved on to the American Film Institute and then to directing short films for the festival circuit. When a group of artist friends asked him to contribute installations for an early-'90s show in Santa Fe, he got his break on the gallery scene.
As Peter’s reputation grew, he made the acquaintance of Dan Cameron, now the chief curator and interim director of OCMA, who featured his work at shows in New York, Istanbul and New Orleans. Eventually, he visited Peter’s family in Santa Fe and got to know the previous generation.
“Paul Sarkisian was always sort of spoken of as someone who’s kind of like the paterfamilias, a kind of presence in the household around which everything else resolves,” Cameron said. “I did not have a consistent sense of what Paul was doing at that time. All I knew is that he was mostly a painter, and there were some realist works around. They were very intriguing.”
Another person intrigued by Paul’s work was Louis Grachos, then the director of SITE Santa Fe, who gave the artist his first gallery show in nearly a quarter-century in 2005. The exhibit, titled simply “Paul Sarkisian,” featured one painting from the early 1970s with the rest from the mid-'90s on.
As comebacks go, it was a bittersweet one.
“He was very excited, and then, ultimately, there’s this feeling of feeling let down after something like that,” Peter said. “After 25 years, you’ve produced an amazing body of work, and, you know, I guess maybe he thought he would be right back where he was in 1971, kind of right there in the thick of things.
“At the end of the day, though, it was one show at SITE Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And this show — there’s more potential in this show for kind of reconnecting him with his roots than that show at SITE Santa Fe ever could have achieved.”
From Elvis to El Paso
Some of the artist’s fans from two states away are eager to visit those roots too. Anne Wrinkle, the New Mexico museum’s director of external affairs, said some of her colleagues plan to trek to Newport Beach to see a man they consider a local institution spotlighted again.
The other week, she added, Paul stopped by the museum to express his excitement about the upcoming show.
“He’s a dear fellow, very dear,” Wrinkle said. “And so committed and dedicated to his work.”
“Sarkisian & Sarkisian” will comprise 24 paintings by Paul and 24 video sculptures by Peter. Some of the latter’s installations feature images of a tiny man floating in a coffee mug and another scrawling graffiti on the open pages of a dictionary. Paul’s contributions include the storefront scene “Untitled (El Paso),” the 1971-72 work that appeared at SITE Santa Fe, and more abstract works.
Paul plans to attend the invitation-only reception Saturday evening; his 8-year-old grandson is on the guest list as well. Is he an artist too? Peter said he’s shown some interest, although he acknowledged that the same goes for most 8-year-olds.
For Peter, having three generations of Sarkisians in the room will be enough.
“I just spoke to him a little while ago, and he’s on the verge of tears because he wants the excitement of all the young people hanging the paintings,” Peter said about his father. “He wants to be here, and he’s in New Mexico.”
If You Go
What: “Sarkisian & Sarkisian”
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays from April 13 to July 27
Cost: $12 for adults, $10 for students and seniors 65 and older, free for children under 12
Information: (949) 759-1122 or https://www.ocma.net