A Tribute to Artist Archak Karnikian (J. M. Carnie, 1934-2014)

Archak Karnikian


My friend just passed away.

I met him over 40 years ago, in my early twenties, when I was still an art student at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Paris and he was a mature artist in his early forties. I went to see an exhibit of his paintings in a Paris art gallery, in 1973 as I recall, then I wrote an article for the daily Haratch newspaper about his work. He telephoned me when he read the published article and asked to come and see me in my studio. It was quite an intimidating visit. Archak was a man who would speak his mind in no uncertain words. One would love him or hate him for that reason. Looking at my sketches and academic paintings with his critical eye, he asked: “Now that you have proven to yourself that you can draw, what are you planning on doing next?” Frankly, I was expecting the question knowing his work, but I had no answer. “How about abstract painting” he said. I told him that I wouldn’t even know where to start.

Archak showed me where to start. This first encounter was the beginning of our four-decade long friendship, and mutual respect, with interminable visits in our studios that lasted until the early hours of the morning, and telephone conversations after my leaving France, never less than an hour long, all spent at analyzing, even dissecting our own work or the works of other artists. He was not the teacher who would tell you how to do things, he was the one who would tell you how to think your work. Like a modern Socrates of painting, he was skilled in the art of maieutics. Having a conversation with Archak was always a challenge: you had to be prepared for his dreadful questioning of every aspect of your work. He demanded that an artist analyze his sources and be capable of defining his goals. The argument of some artists that they are painters therefore they paint but cannot express themselves in words, was not acceptable to him. “If you cannot talk about what you are doing, that’s probably because there is nothing to talk about” he would argue. He was not necessarily expecting a sophisticated intellectual analysis of one’s work, but wanted to see an analyzing mind behind the artwork. For him, an artist’s understanding of the creative process, acquired through a meditation on art in history, which Archak used to call “the intelligence of the artist,” was the primary tool for developing one’s art. He used to say that one can expect a lot from an artist who has the right vision but lacks the skills to achieve his vision, because technical skills can always be developed; on the other hand, one can expect nothing from an artist who has the know-how but doesn’t have the intelligence to benefit from it.

Archak was as demanding of himself as he was of others. He unmistakably had that intelligence he sought to find in others. He had a keen understanding that an artist needed to be the product of his time in order to be relevant in the art world. He would always look forward; the past was only a starting point to build the future. He would never accept to be left behind. Initially influenced by abstract artists of the School of Paris, notably Roger Bissière and Alfred Manessier in the 1960’s, he developed flamboyant gestural abstract works in the 1970’s very much in sync with the French artistic trends of the period. Starting in the 1980’s he gradually moved towards more silent and skillfully crafted architectural compositions with mystical undertones, using a subdued palette of colors of stone, principally the colors of the tuff used to build Armenian churches. His texture, that was very much his own, reminiscent of Bissière, of course, and also Cézanne, gave to his compositions a lyrical dimension which he called “poetry” .

Archak was convinced that art is not a solitary undertaking but a group endeavor and made all efforts to remain in contact with other artists. The conviction that an artist had to assume an active role in society was probably what incited him to bring the Yan’s Club of Paris to life. For a couple of decades he remained the mastermind and one of the most active founding members of Yan’s Club before shifting his attention to Armenia. For many years, he made contacts with a group of artists and intellectuals in Armenia and Armenian government agencies with the intent of creating an art village outside Yerevan where artists from all over the world could go to stay a while and work. The ultimate goal was to create an environment that favors an open dialogue among artists and create an international artistic network. This work remains unfinished. Illness was watching.

I lost a friend, a brother by spirit, but we all lost a true artist. Archak may not be a household name but the greatness of an artist is not measured by the degree of his popularity but by the greatness of his vision. One of his questions will resonate in my ears for as long as I live; every telephone conversation we had in the past few years started invariably with this: “So tell me, what are your plans?”


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One Comment;

  1. Anahid said:

    Beautiful tribute.
    Archak will be greatly missed.
    We are grateful that he left his mark and the greatness of his vision.

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