Treasures from the Vault: Garo Antreasian

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

Though you may not recognize the name Garo Antreasian, he had anything but a quiet career.  Today, in honor of Armenian Remembrance Day, we’re diving into the art and life of Garo Antreasian and how he led the revolution of lithography in America. 

Garo Antreasian was born in Indianapolis to two immigrants from Armenia and Turkey in 1922. His parents came to the United States in 1920 to escape the Armenian genocide, and Indianapolis became the perfect home. Indy had a vibrant art scene, with the city’s Art Association bringing artist greats like T.C. Steele, J. Ottis Adams, and William Forsyth to the recently founded John Herron Art School to teach. Although the original faculty was dismissed by the new director in 1933, Garo saw the benefits of these instructors growing up as Herron fostered a close relationship with the Indianapolis public schools, even offering scholarships to promising high school students. Two teachers specifically influenced him: Helen Ehrhardt, his 7th grade teacher who encouraged his parents to buy his first paint box and Sara Foresman Bard, his talented high school art teacher who assigned him to investigate lithography. He recalled the project:

“We struggled for two semesters without success to unlock the secrets of an old hand-press and an assortment of oxidized zinc plates, a legacy of the trade school that had preceded our high school. Failure with the plates spurred us to buy our first lithographic stones from a local commercial printer, whose unreliable advice we applied to this elusive process with marginal success. I am convinced that my destiny was forged during those ensuing years of frustration.”

Antreasian was awarded a scholarship from Herron and attended, studying painting as his primary medium because there were no printmaking classes. The supplies, however, were on hand; so, Garo taught himself when he could. The director slowly began to recognize lithography as an art form and brought professors from the Art Institute of Chicago to teach four-week courses on the subject. This only added to Antreasian’s desire to learn the medium.

Many of his first paintings and prints mimicked the style of the American Regionalists like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, William Gropper, and Edward Hopper. Drama and bleakness were war-time themes many artists employed; the American Red Cross even selected one of Antreasian’s paintings to tour the nation to publicize their work. After the attack on Pearl Harbor many students felt empowered to enlist, Antreasian included. He joined the Coast Guard and was deployed to Metompkin Inlet Life Boat Station near Accomac, Virginia. While off-duty, he used every opportunity to visit museums and speak with print curators. In 1944, Public Relations Specialist 3rd Class Antreasian covered the Pacific theater as a combat artist accompanying the sweep of Marine landings in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima. He witnessed firsthand the surrender of Japan in August of 1945. He spent his last months before discharge drawing all that he saw for the historical record, which now resides in the Coast Guard Academy Museum in Groton, Connecticut. 

Upon arriving back home, Antreasian married his former classmate and began a family. He started working for a local advertising agency, but after six short months, he had had enough. Using the G.I. Bill, which allowed veterans to return to school, he enrolled at Herron for a second time. It was almost as if his travels to the east coast and military work, combined with the activity in Indianapolis, enhanced his art beyond what he had accomplished before the war. In his 5th year at Herron, he began getting national attention for his work: he not only won The Mary Milliken Memorial Traveling Scholarship but a spot on the Herron faculty after graduation. Following the end of summer classes, he used his award and set out East, stopping at museums in Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, Andover, New York, Philadelphia, and D.C. with his prize money. As soon as his feet and eyes experienced museum fatigue, he returned back to Indianapolis. At his suggestion, Herron added printmaking courses for advanced students to the curriculum; with Max Ballinger from Indiana University as a guest instructor for color lithography. The following summer, Antreasian traveled back to New York to attend printmaking workshops with the goal to research modern print technology. It was here that Antreasian was persuaded to give abstraction, the hot art movement sweeping the nation, a shot. He rubbed shoulders with artists like Will Barnet, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and many others. 

This lithograph shows a vase of red flowers on a table. The background is a murky mix of browns and reds, while a textured cloth rests on the table underneath the vase.  The artist's signature is in the bottom right-corner, while the edition and title are in the bottom-left.
Garo Antreasian, American, 1922-2018. Red Flowers. Lithograph, 1952. Museum Purchase, 1960.49. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The print Red Flowers, made in 1952, shows small steps into his move towards abstraction but remains referential; the viewer can easily determine the subject of the print. Still lifes were a common visual in his work at this time, Red Flowers having more abstraction in the mark-making. Notice how the table and background have little detail, but factor into the visual movement of the piece. The circular lines surrounding the vase draw your eye around it and back into the top part of the image. With this being an earlier work of his, it may have been a color study or test in his lithographic work. It is much more muddy, meaning the colors blend together and nothing is distinct, than much of his earlier work. 

Antreasian didn’t fully dive into abstract art, but slowly evolved his style towards it. Indiana was hesitant to change as quickly as the rest of the art world, leading to several artists including Robert Indiana, leaving. Antreasian stuck around, however, and joined Indiana’s Society of Printmakers in 1949, becoming the president after a couple of years. He also teamed up with the Cincinnati Art Museum and Indiana University, Bloomington to promote the new American print. Antreasian’s curiosity ultimately drove his research into the mystery of the elusive lithographic process, changing history and leading to a revolution in the medium. Despite its growing popularity, big name artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell weren’t convinced; and, most prints juried into museum exhibitions came from universities pushing and teaching the medium to students. Lithography requires specific, expensive equipment that was not accessible to many artists outside the university.

This more abstracted print shows three grey circles atop three white squares, all on a dark, black background. Atop the circles, as if plates on napkins on a table, rest colorful circles that may be fruits, as the title suggests. Red, yellow, and black, they are the most colorful piece of the print.
Garo Antreasian, American, 1922-2018. Fruit. Lithograph, 1958. Museum Purchase, 1958.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In his print Fruit, you see Antreasian take a larger step into abstraction. There are still visual clues as to what you are looking at, but it is more shapely and vague than Red Flowers. Besides the color and shape of the fruit, the rest is mysterious. Are the black shapes rotten fruit? Are we looking straight down on them? Are the grey squares tables underneath? Is the dark splotchy background supposed to be the floor? Fruit definitely lets your mind wonder, while still giving a general idea of what your eyes are seeing.

In 1960, the Ford Foundation embraced revolutionizing lithography in America and awarded printmaking pioneer June Wayne a $165,000 three-year grant to make it happen. Wayne’s plan was to open a lithographic studio, and she needed a knowledgeable printmaker by her side. Her first option declined, so she extended the offer to Antreasian after reading an article he published about lithography. The two met, along with Clinton Adams, Director of the Ford Foundation’s Program in Humanities and the Arts, and formulated plans for what would become Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. Antreasian was finally able to work in a newly furnished studio with all the equipment he could ask for, something he didn’t have at Herron. A couple of the first artists to arrive were Romas Viesulas and Adja Yunkers and, in Tamarind’s first year, more than 200 prints were produced. At the end of his three year tenure, Antreasian returned to Herron with a new enthusiasm and knowledge. Some of the mystery was solved and it had created a network of artists: artists not only learned the lithography process, but how to create art with colleagues, watching and trusting in the printer to successfully carry out their vision. Predominately an unknown medium, the artists that arrived did not yet understand how to create using the lithographic process and, therefore, relied on the expertise of the master printer to oversee the process and ensure their artistic vision was translated.

Herron needed an upgraded facility and began building a new wing, which meant Antreasian was able to design his dream printmaking studio. Although back at Herron, his relationship with Tamarind continued, establishing a pilot program in which Antreasian taught fine arts graduates a crash course in lithography followed by training at Tamarind. After a few years at Herron, Antreasian received a call from Clinton Adams, now the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico, inviting him to join the faculty and set up a printmaking department. He accepted the offer and left Indiana in 1964. The relationship with Tamarind followed him to New Mexico; the same deal Herron received, the University of New Mexico also received. The continued success of Tamarind far exceeded the expectations of it’s three founding directors. Between June 1960 and June 1970, the workshop hosted more than 200 artists and produced 3,081 editions. It became a blueprint example, and many other print workshops opened around the nation, further advancing and promoting lithography. 

Antreasian’s time at Tamarind was the push he needed to finally solve the mysteries of the medium and explore creatively. This is where his work took a turn into complete abstraction. As you can see in the print Ring Around, the clues we got in Fruit are completely gone and we are left on our own to determine what it is we are seeing. The title, coming from the red circular mark, isn’t much help at all! What is it ringing around?! 

The most abstract print so far, Garo created a vertical masterpiece with a dark, black background lined in red and blue. Inside the black space, a thick white line is splashed with black, blue and red, adding some texture. Around the bottom of the thick, white line there is a thin, red circle. His signature is in the bottom-right, and the edition number and title rest in the bottom-left corner.
Garo Antreasian, American, 1922-2018. Ring Around. Lithograph, 1963. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. tom McClain, 1987.16. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

After four decades, Antreasian’s teaching came to a close and he retired. He began reflecting on his culture as an Armenian and, after a trip funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, visited Turkey to see where his ancestors came from. The ancient lands, gardens, calligraphy, and mosaics provided inspiration for his work. For the first time in decades, he began painting again, his work emerging from the conscious and unconscious feelings he experienced. He remained in New Mexico until his passing in 2018.

Garo Antreasian was exactly what lithography needed when he discovered it. He could have kept his knowledge to himself, but instead he shared it willingly and kindly to all who wanted to learn. His passion was evident and inspired all who had the pleasure of working with him. Curious to see Antreasian’s lithographs or any others he inspired? Contact Sachi in the Print and Drawing Center to find out more! Want to learn more about Armenia? Visit Michelle Andonian’s photography exhibition, currently on display at FWMoA!

Krause, M. (1995). Garo Antreasian: Written on Stone: Catalog Raisonne of Prints, 1940-1995. Indianapolis, IN: Indianapolis Museum of Art.

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