For decades, artist Arthur Pinajian created vivid, abstract canvases under the cover of anonymity, painting thousands of landscapes and figure studies in varying abstract Expressionist styles. He worked out of a small cottage in Bellport, N.Y. that belonged to his sister Armen — it was here Pinajian would create and store his vast collection until his death in 1999 at age 85.
Much like Vincent Van Gogh, the Armenian American painter, who began his career as a self-taught cartoonist in the 1930s, received little recognition or money in his lifetime. It was not until 2006, when business partners Lawrence Joseph and Thomas Schultz bought Pinajian's former home as a real estate investment and discovered thousands of paintings, drawings and sketchbooks being stored there, that his talents as a painter were brought to light.
“The garage floor is all dirt, at least, I think it's all dirt, but I can't tell because most of it is stacked with paintings. There's got to be a couple thousand of them. And there's at least a thousand more in the attic,” Schultz told Joseph, who recounted the tale of discovery in the 2010 art book, “Pinajian: Master of Abstraction Discovered,” edited by art historian Peter Hastings Falk.
Today, Pinajian's works have hung in swanky New York galleries, ranging from several thousand dollars to half a million each. Earlier this month, news stations across the country lined up tell the story of the discovery of irreplaceable treasures almost marked for the trash heap.
An important part of maintaining and passing on Pinajian's legacy as an artist is being done in the heart of La Cañada, in an art gallery on Foothill Boulevard. Stephanie's Gallery, run for the past 15 years by Linda Stepanian and her husband, Sepon, was selected by the owners of Pinajian's collection to officially represent and sell the artist's works.
It started in 2010, when Joseph was referred to the gallery by a friend. After a brief meeting, arrangements were made for Stephanie's to sell and showcase pieces of the collection.
“The moment he came and we met I was ready, and he was ready to trust me,” Linda Stepanian recalls. “My clients were very excited when they found out I was bringing a new discovery to the gallery. Pinajian's art has a power you cannot miss.”
Since then, Stepanian has introduced the collection to art collectors and brokered the sale of several more to buyers worldwide. She arranges annual showings of Pinajian's work, often alongside personal effects that provide small clues to the man behind the mystery, in exhibitions open to the public.
This year's show runs May 1-3 in the Zorayan Museum of St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank. It begins with a reception Wednesday, May 1, from 7 to 10 p.m. Stepanian says the space is a fitting location for the more than 50 paintings that will be displayed there.
“I thought it would be nice to take him to a church where he belongs, because there's that connection,” says Stepanian, who is also Armenian American. “We share the same background, where we came from, and the same traditions. So for me, it's my responsibility to do the right thing for this man. I couldn't do this when he was alive, but I can walk in the right direction for him now.”
The Stepanians admit that every time a news segment runs about Pinajian's work or an exhibition is held and people hear about the master who almost wasn't, Stephanie's gets a round of calls and emails from all over the country.
“It's a very interesting story. Basically, two partners wanted to purchase a cottage in New York, and then....” Sepon Stepanian says, fanning out his hands over all the Pinajian paraphernalia spread out on the desk in front of him.
What: “Lost and Found: The Pinajian Discovery,” an exhibition and sale of Arthur Pinajian works
When: May 1 to 3
Where: St. Leon Armenian Cathedral's Zorayan Museum, 3325 Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank.
Information: For times or a private viewing, contact Linda Stepanian at (818) 790-4905 or visit stephaniesartgallery.com.