BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
Paul greeted me at the door of his office by grabbing my shoulders and giving a hearty kiss on both cheeks. I’d only recently met him so it wasn’t clear if this was normal behavior or a newly acquired habit due to his recent entrenchment in the Armenian community. He speaks with gusto and in a direct manner, asking pointed questions in his attempt to get to know a stranger in a short amount of time.
As the Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, he is up to his elbows in the final planning stages for Arshile Gorky’s retrospective. “I like the in-between periods between movements,” he says, referring to Gorky’s place in the world of art – at the end of American Surrealism and the beginning of Abstract Expressionism, of straddling the different worlds of being Armenian and being a new American.
It’s a telling admission, somewhat mirroring Paul’s upbringing. His father was Jewish and his mother Armenian. His maternal grandparents arrived from Eastern Europe and settled into a simple life in upstate New York and proceeded to raise their family of five children – four daughters and a son.
“Their two daughters did very well by marrying into well established families,” he says of his mother and aunt. “But that was the last they heard from their parents.” Exacerbating the tension was the fact that his mother also converted to Judaism in order to marry. “That was a big deal.” He describes her as being very committed to the culture she adopted. “In some ways, when you choose something, and she had to give up so much to do it…,” he says to explain her commitment to Judaism and its traditions.
“I grew up as a wealthy Jewish kid from New York,” he says of himself. His mother passed away while Paul was still a teenager and ultimately he made his way to California where his Aunt Hripsime, affectionately called “Riki,” had moved. Riki, married an Irishman and was not as alienated by her family, but she eventually made her way west where she reconnected to the Armenian community. “I connected with that in some way,” he says of his vicarious involvement through his aunt. “Being an Armenian was something I was always proud of.”
In the late 1970’s, Paul made great plans to visit Armenia with his aunt but the deteriorating relations between the Soviet Union and the United States thwarted the trip. “There I was ready to do my once in a lifetime trip with my aunt to the homeland that she had never been to and it didn’t happen,” he says. “But one of these days…,” he says and trails off. As the father of two boys fresh into their young adulthood, Paul anticipates that he will probably visit Armenia with one of them. “Living where we do, they are much more aware of the Armenian culture than I was.”
Although Paul never got involved in the Armenian community, he recognizes some of its artists. “Zadig Zadigian who I have been friends with for years, Chaz Garabedian, a wonderful Armenian artist, and then John Altoon. Here are three local artists who I think are part of my connection. By respecting them, first and foremost as artists, is to see how important the Armenian part of their heritage is and I would like to do more with them.”
And with that the subject turns to art. Both in the three current artists and in Gorky’s work he notes the references to the culture through it’s depiction of sexuality, religion and tragedy. “Myth making around sexuality is not an unimportant aspect of understanding Gorky,” he says. “So many of his works has to do with a specific kind of eroticism – not just The Betrothal and The Liver is the Cock’s Comb. He likes to blend all that together in a very trusting way,” he explains.
The lively conversation about art and artists shifts when asked how his mother felt about the treatment she received Paul describes the long ago events of his mothers life. He recounts them in a matter of fact manner of story telling but the tone has a hint of melancholy, perhaps unintentional, and his voice drops by at least an octave. “You know… I think she tried to reach out to her parents. I think what began as my grandfather’s unequivocal rejection of his daughter marrying outside of the faith, became complicated by the fact that socially and economically she was in another world.” The new grandness of his mother’s affluent Manhattan lifestyle was very different than her parents who were peasants from villages in Bulgaria and Armenia. “I remember meeting them briefly in my mid teens but there was such a huge divide,” he says of his lack of connection to his granparents. Luckily, besides Aunt Riki, Paul had a chance to connect with his Uncle Larry, the oldest of the five siblings, and remains close to him to this day.
It’s clear that the relationships with his mother’s siblings, regardless of its dramatic beginnings, are special to Paul and he values them enough to let them make an impact. He describes a recent and only visit he made to Israel as part of an art curatorial group. Passing through the Damascus Gates in Jerusalem that is the gateway to the Armenian Quarter, the tour guide – an art curator from Australia – stopped to point out a poster in Hebrew. It was a map of Historic Armenia which Paul quickly recognized. The text described a protest by the local community to their government about its refusal to acknowledge the Genocide. He was unaware at the time of the twisted state of the diplomatic relations and he mimics his reaction on that day by asking incredulously with indignation and sarcasm, “Israel, a product of the Holocaust, denies the Genocide, the first Holocaust of the 20th century?”
The upcoming show of Arshile Gorky’s work is the first time Paul has had significant contact with the community. “It was fascinating to see 300 people on Friday night turn out to see a presentation about a show that hasn’t even opened. The level of commitment – I understand it has more to do with heritage and traditions than with Gorky being the father of Abstract Expressionism – the pride the community takes in that he is the father of American painting, was extraordinarily gratifying. This is a community that really does care.” He hopes that with this exhibition, a huge percentage of the community will come to the museum and show their strength with their attendance number thus sending a clear message to the rest of the city: we are present, powerful and can make a difference.