Aram Saroyan – A writer revisits his love of art

By NANCY CARPENTER

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Photos courtesy of Aram Saroyan

Aram Saroyan, 2023

Aram Saroyan, who resides in Newport Beach, is the son of the late Armenian writer William Saroyan, who in this country in the early ‘30s literally placed Armenia on the map. We might as well get any curiosity about the name behind us. At least Aram would like to do that. As he puts it in his short story “The Musician” from Artists in Trouble, “There is a specific gravity known by children of the famous that I’m certain is quite different from the gravity that holds most people to the planet. It is, I would say, a more horizontal force.”

Aram, like his father, was a writer, and occasionally still is, although these days he thinks more about his art. (Arguably, do writers ever stop writing? Actors stop acting? Artists stop art-ing?)

Which brings us full circle. We can’t ignore what Saroyan-the-Younger indeed wrote: Trio, a portrait of an intimate friendship between his mother Carol Matthau, and her closest friends Oona Chaplin and Gloria Vanderbilt; Last Rites, the Death of William Saroyan; Still Night in L.A, a detective story packed with beautiful people and murder; and Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, to name a few. His concrete poems have received numerous honors (suggest googling “crickets”) and invited, shall we say, confusion (“lighght”). If asked, he explains, “Yes, horribly misspelled and on purpose for a word that comes off as either verb or noun. Lights are lights, whether lit or not. The spelling is to suggest just that.”

But it is his art he wants to talk about, and for good reason. He has a solo show Writing with Colors at the Francis Gallery on Melrose in L.A., from June 28 (opening reception 6:30-8:30 p.m., RSVP 323.413.2327) through August 31. Coincidentally, if alive, his father would be 116 on closing day.

Two well-dressed Saroyans

Or maybe not. Saroyan Senior was a writer who hobnobbed with his closest contemporary Steinbeck, was a contemporary of Hemmingway and Faulkner, those alliances providing Saroyan Junior with a heavy dose of exceptional literature. Yet it was father who introduced son to the world of visual art.

As Aram explains it, his parents divorced before he was 8, giving him not only a bicoastal childhood, but placing him overseas for summer vacations with his father. It’s 1959 and his father, whom he called Pop, was working in Paris on a script for Darryl Zanuck. Aram was just shy of 16n and about to live on the Right Bank with his younger sister Lucy, which, for most mortals, sounds exotic. But they were teenagers often left on their own during the day in a place with a language neither spoke nor a culture they understood.

“Today I wonder whether during that summer my father instinctively allowed us to be a little bored, for that situation yielded an unexpected dividend for me.”

Pop had met the Russian painter Serge Poliakoff who’d gave him a book of reproductions that he placed on a coffee table in the apartment, there to be opened by bored teens. As Aram remembers, the paintings seemed to him “simple-minded.” Yet when he routinely denounced them, his father remained uncharacteristically quiet.

Then, a transformation. “It happened, I don’t doubt, because Pop chose not to argue or mediate my experience.” Over time the work began to engage him and he saw a visual serenity he gradually found “deeply satisfying.”

This was a contrast to an earlier exposure to the absoluteness of photography when at age 14 he apprenticed under Richard Avedon at his New York studio. Unwavering photographs are the polar opposite of unencumbered abstracts.

During that year in New York, Saroyan got in the habit of photographing reflections in puddles left by rain. Seeing the images was one experience. But, for example, rotate an upside-down red Third Avenue bus in the original print to right-side-up and an abstract appears.

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When ink meets up with water, no controlling what happens

There were more enticements in the Paris apartment. “Pop had watercolors and old-fashioned pens that were filled from an ink well,” he explained. “At some point I noticed that water affected the consistency of the different colors in a variety of random ways.”

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These drawings and paintings make for an impressive collection of his earliest work. Yet he returned to writing, published a magazine in the early sixties (“One way to get published is become the publisher.”), and for a dozen years from 1972 to 1984 lived in Bolinas, north of San Francisco, a haven for American poets. Two of his three children were born there, along with many of his literary works. Bolinas recently made front-page news as a town without a post office for 15 months and counting. Does the absence of a P.O. make for a sanctuary?

Writing meshing with art

Where does the written word stop and art start, and why make the leap?

“I got tired of the minute scrutiny involved in writing and wanted a field where I was essentially untutored so I could be free. Rather than being dictated by my mind I could simply go into impulses with color and line.” He paused for a few seconds. “I wanted to be freed of my mind.”

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Art can be playful and provocative

Question: Are you saying that visual art is easier than writing?

Answer: It can be easier. Less can be more. But in writing, the less has to be very precise.

Art gave him a freedom to make mistakes with a sole objective to see if he could correct them. Not by cutting them, but by following his own instincts. “Relative to writing, I didn’t know what I was doing. I know a whole generation of writers. Do I know a whole generation of painters? No.”

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Untitled from that summer in Paris, 1959

Back to that 1959 summer in Paris and a little store of miscellaneous items where he found an original pencil drawing of a man’s head, signed “HM” for Henri Matisse, and for the unthinkable price of $150, a lot more money back in the day. Aram described it as a “bad drawing” in a series that were published in a book that came with the drawing. “Matisse of course was a master draftsman who could render any subject perfectly, so he must have made the decision to do this for whatever reason. It came framed and I put it my room back at home in New York, and I saw it every day for years. It wasn’t a realism, but it was alive. It engaged me in one way or another. So that was a green light for me when I decided to do a more intensive dive into art than I’d ever done.”

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Michillinda Park in Pasadena gives a new meaning to Concrete Poetry

When asked how he feels about today’s art scene, Saroyan acknowledged there are always wonderful artists who work in different idioms from realist to abstract, and all stops in between. He describes himself as a great fan of many of them. Writing communities and art communities share common ground – a supportive environment for celebrating success and venting frustration. But what he has gained from the art world is different. For example, “For me, with art, I proceed by instinct, so that when I make a line on a canvas or blank sheet, I really don’t know where I’m going. Even if I do a portrait I don’t necessarily work with a model or photograph, but proceed by instinct.”

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The world around us an inspiration, sometimes in ways we would rather not experience

What is inspiring? Where does it come from?

“The world that I live in gets into the work in some way.” Still, inspiration can be illusive, even for those who inhabit a world dependent on it. Saroyan started a series of drawings around the time Putin invaded Russia. While not necessarily his intent, the drawings grew in density and intensity. Soon, faces emerged. A good artist knows when to step back and let the feelings and images emerge.

His works are larger now, still linear, still minimalist, although he recently started a series of dense drawings reminiscent of stained glass. “I like the idea of the material, the colors, and the density of the application dominating the canvas in ways. The work immerses me.”

That said, these new canvases are not without challenges. “There’s a bit of an aloof relationship with the work when it becomes very dense. The work immerses me.” This is new for him, and he is uncertain if he is going to continue with this. “The challenge is to make it alive and not just a wash. Still, I like that the material dominates.”

Sixty-five years later and another summer in another city, this time the centerpiece of a show celebrating a lifetime of creativity.

Francis Gallery is located at 8323 Melrose in Los Angeles.

For more information about Francis Gallery, go to https://francisgallery.com/.

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Nancy Carpenter is a regular contributor to Stu News.


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