Fodder for His Fascinations: At 88, Varujan Boghosian’s Artistic Influence Only Grows

By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer

The floor of Varujan Boghosian’s studio in White River Junction looks as if it’s just seen a ticker tape parade. Deep in scraps of paper, it’s messy in an agreeable way, evidence of a mind at work — sorting, organizing, discarding and using. The tables are littered with pieces of old and unusual paper — hand-written letters, early-20th-century sheet music and images that Boghosian has cut out from newspapers and magazines, and which he uses in the collages and constructions that have made him an influential American artist since the 1950s.

“When I walk into the studio, the material dictates where I go,” he said.

Boghosian picks up a child’s notebook, the kind with lined paper for school exercises, and opens it to a picture that a child drew of a brown hen with a red comb strutting across a beach. Under the picture the child wrote, “Until one day, from way out on the sand flats, a GIANT CHICKEN.”

It’s one syllable short of a haiku, but it has a haiku’s mysterious internal logic and rhythm — and its own surreal humor. Looking at it, Boghosian laughs loudly. “Isn’t That Great!” he said.

That’s a phrase you hear a lot in his company: His enthusiasms seem boundless, and he emphasizes certain words and phrases as if he were thinking in the upper case, with exclamation points dotting his speech.

Where Boghosian got the notebook, he doesn’t recall, but he collects children’s journals and coloring books, among scores of other objects and curiosities, because he never knows what stray image or sentence might worm its way into his art.

His house in Hanover is awash in stuff. His art hangs on the walls, as does that of his friends. Shelves, bookcases and tables in his house are strewn with horseshoes, hat forms, old-fashioned mechanical banks, whiskey stirs, cigar boxes and small, carved wooden hands.

He is an avid junker, but his friends also send him objects they think he’ll find compelling.

“Everything Is Fodder!” Boghosian said.

Now 88, Boghosian retired as a professor of art from Dartmouth College in 1995, after 27 years on the faculty, but is still enormously active in the American art scene as an artist, mentor and consultant.

His works are in the collections of, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass.

An exhibition of his collages is on view at Big Town Gallery in Rochester, Vt., through April 25, along with paintings by his longtime friend and colleague at Dartmouth, Ben Frank Moss.

Boghosian, better known to his pals as Bugsy, has had a studio in White River Junction for three years. He likes the town’s youthful feel and concentration of artists, and when there he makes the rounds of his favorite haunts. He has an impish sense of humor, and a child’s curiosity and amazement at all the diversions the world has to offer.

Leaving his studio, he walks briskly down the street to American Classics, an art and antiques gallery owned by Meryl Weiss. Is she about to go to lunch, he asks her? No, she is not a lady who lunches, she tells him. He looks aghast, as if she were depriving herself of one of life’s greatest pleasures. “But you’d be GREAT at lunch!”

He stops on the way out, his attention caught near the door by an eccentric carving, which Weiss has marked as being for sale, although she’s not sure she really wants it to go. He asks Weiss what she is charging for it. The price is minimal. Raise the price, Boghosian exhorts, before popping out onto the pavement again.

“He’s very embracing,” said Anni Mackay, director of BigTown Gallery. “He quickly foreshortens the distance between him and you. It doesn’t really matter who you are.”

Boghosian heads for the rear door of the Junction Frame Shop, whose owner, Mark Estes, has worked with Boghosian for years. Boghosian considers him indispensable, nearly a collaborator. Boghosian shows Estes a new collage he wants framed, a Venetian scene that he has tinkered with. “What are we going to do with this one?” he asked Estes.

Boghosian decides he doesn’t like the way he assembled it, so he starts stripping away some black paper at the back. Estes and he confer; they agree on how to frame it, and Boghosian is off again, heading for the Tuckerbox Cafe, where he goes nearly every day for coffee, and where he likes to flirt lightly with the baristas.

On the sidewalk he unwraps a Tootsie Roll that Weiss gave him; she keeps a bowl of them in the gallery for visitors. He throws the candy into his mouth as if he were throwing chum to a seal, and flicks the wrapper on the ground, almost gleefully. “I love to litter!”

Other people’s throwaways, their flotsam and jestam, is the very stuff of which Boghosian’s art is made. In his hands, objects have both a second life, and an interior life. He’s a collector of words, images, objects, paper, art and puns that seem to push up through his unconscious, or are caught on the fly.

Butterflies are an image that occur frequently in Boghosian’s work, and they serve also as a metaphor for his work. The way a butterfly flits from one flower to the next may appear random, but it’s purposeful, and in service to some larger universal design .

He has an uncanny sense of how to juxtapose apparently unrelated images and words, many familiar from pop culture and art history, and make of them something startling and original, as if you were seeing these images for the first time, and discerning connections between them that illuminate them in unexpected ways. Even the tritest images — Victorian pink hearts and flowers, for example — can be made fresh in his hands. There’s an inevitability about Boghosian’s work, as if the collages could not have been put together in any other way.

Mr. X , one of the collages in the BigTown Gallery exhibition, exemplifies the elusive, and allusive, nature of his work. Boghosian has used the outline of a man wearing a bow tie and a stiff collar, the kind of man you’d see in an ad from Collier’s or the Saturday Evening Post in the 1910s or 1920s. However, where you’d expect to see facial features Boghosian has affixed a piece of sheet music which he has rotated sideways.

On the sheet music there is a large X, which appears original, not added by Boghosian. Is the man, who appears thoroughly conventional in dress, actually a font of creativity? Or does the decisive X signal that all the music humming through his brain is being short-circuited, canceled out? And is it important to assign meaning to the image, or does the artistry reside in its elegant inscrutability?

“His work kind of washes over me. I see this point of view that’s so clear, but so fugitive at the same time,” said Gerald Auten, the director of exhibitions in Dartmouth’s Department of Studio Art, and a friend since 1993.

Boghosian’s cultivation, his keen interest in literature, art, film and music, feed into his art, said Mackay. “He’s a hoarder of information and he uses all of it.”

In the last two years, Boghosian has worked furiously, making 200 collages, a number of which, matted but not yet framed, are stacked on a table in the living room of his Hanover home. The floor is strewn with piles of books about and by James Joyce, one of Boghosian’s heroes.

He lives alone; his wife, Marilyn, died in 2007. Their only child, Heidi Boghosian, lives in New York City and is director of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, a social justice organization. Pr eviously she was an executive director of the National Lawyers Guild. He has a sister who lives in California.

Boghosian’s daily routine is this: Up by 8:30 a.m., coffee, shave, shower and then a brief sojourn with Live with Kelly and Michael on ABC. “I like to watch it because there’s nothing memorable about it. It’s so relaxing,” he said.

From there he drives over to the Tuckerbox, spends time in his studio and talks to colleagues. He’s home by 5, when he has a beer. He then watches the news, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune . Not so good at Jeopardy , he confesses. If there’s a good film on Turner Classic Movies he’ll tune in. Or, aptly, given his love of the old, the unusual and the eccentric he might also watch the Antiques Road Show on public television. He goes to bed at midnight or later, usually reading Joyce before sleep claims him. Poetry is central to his life, and he unself-consciously scatters lines of poems throughout his speech and art. Wordsworth, Louise Bogan, Wallace Stevens, Stanley Kunitz.

Boghosian was born in New Britain, Conn., in 1926, the son of Armenian immigrants. (In Armenian, Varujan means “dove.”) His father, George, emigrated from a small village in central Turkey to the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century, ending up in Massachusetts and then Connecticut, where he worked as a cobbler.

Wanting a wife, George Boghosian wrote home to a friend who was marrying a young woman in an orphanage. He asked his friend if he knew of another young woman who might be suitable. There was: His fiancee knew a girl named Baidzar Sylandjian, from a city on the Black Sea, whose family had been killed by the Turks during the Armenian genocide of 1915. Photographs were sent, and eventually, George Boghosian sent her money to make the passage to the Americas. She landed in Mexico, they married in Cuba and then went to New Britain. Those are the bare facts: The details are vague, or unknown, to Boghosian.

“How these things happen, it’s hard to imagine,” he said. His parents did not manifest the humor Boghosian does. “They were too sad,” he said.

New Britain was a flourishing industrial town, with all the resources a family could want: jo bs, a museum, a library, good schools. Boghosian wanted to be an artist from grammar school on, but he insists that he was not the best artist in his class. That distinction belonged to a fellow named Shapiro. “But what happened to him?” Boghosian asked. “You see what I mean?”

And look at Alphonse Tosco, another classmate, who excelled at grammar and was also able to draw realistic-looking soldiers with both his right and left hands! He went on to become an insurance salesman, Boghosian said. “So you never know what happens.”

During World War II, Boghosian worked in a ball-bearing factory pushing a food cart. He enlisted at 17 in the Navy, serving in the Pacific theater, preparing for the invasion of Okinawa and later was stationed in occupied Japan. At the end of the war he returned to New Britain and, through the G.I. Bill, was able to do two years in the Vesper George School of Art in Boston. ( Robert McCloskey, of Make Way for Ducklings fame, was also a graduate.)

Boghosian then transferred to a teacher’s college, where he studied literature. He was then awarded a Fulbright to Rome, and newly married, brought his wife with him to Italy, a country they would return to many times. When they returned to the U.S. some of his friends encouraged him to apply to Yale University to study with the Bauhaus artist and theorist Josef Albers.

Albers, who had worked alongside Wassily Kandinsky an d Paul Klee in the Bauhaus, had emigrated from Germany in the early 1930s along with a host of other artists and writers escaping the Nazi regime.

The architect Philip Johnson had arranged for Albers to have a post at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. From there, Albers went to Yale, and he liked Boghosian’s work enough to invite him to come study with him.

Auten’s analysis is that the European artists who’d immigrated to the U.S. “really affected him. They taught him that sense of proportion and design.”

Boghosian received both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale in the 1950s, which spurred him into both a teaching career and a life as a professional artist. He’d seen the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, and was inspired by the witty constructions of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and the mischievous, dream-like paintings of Klee. He began to pick up and look for found objects wherever he was.

“He loves the idea of appropriation … and getting you to see how it can come together. He keeps moving and evolving,” said Mackay.

Boghosian also moved from teaching position to teaching position. Cooper Union and Pratt Institute in New York, Brown University in Rhode Island and then Dartmouth in 1968. He has had two fellowships at the American Academy in Rome, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City.

In the early 1960s, Boghosian’s work came to the attention of the Stable Gallery on West 58th Street in Manhattan, which was owned by Eleanor Ward, who represented an astounding number of major post-war American artists, including Willem de Kooning, Louise Bourgeois, Grace Hartigan, David Smith and Franz Kline.

Boghosian showed her his hat form constructions, the wooden blocks milliners use to shape hats. “I started taking little nails and punching them into these hat block forms,” he said. One hangs on a wall of his house, a worn, wooden head-like shape into which Boghosian hammered dozens of small nails that look like bristling hair. Making them reminded him of his father who sat, nails in mouth, while he cut out shoes for his children. Ward took him on as a client, and he stayed with her through four shows.

He doesn’t talk in great detail about his own work, but leaves it up to the viewer to assign meaning. Certainly, his work strikes a chord, but why and how it does cannot be glibly defined.

“There’s this current of humor in the work but it’s also very serious. That’s a very difficult combination to hold in any given piece, and he does that in a masterful way,” said Moss. “There’s a sense of antiquity within the work, but also a very modern voice talking about the time in which we live. The work retains a sense of mystery, it doesn’t explain itself immediately, it reveals itself slowly, and in a way that really carries and leaves a very distinct and valued impression.”

Throughout his career his collages and constructions have been exhibited around the country and in Europe. In 2014 he had a retrospective at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, whose director, Brian Kennedy, was previously director of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth.

Boghosian’s art is sui generis . He didn’t follow the crowd. “The thing is, I never lived in New York City. I never became an abstract expressionist or pop artist. My teaching provided me with the money to do my work without being dependent on sales. To be an avid collector and junker allowed me to buy whatever I needed to further my point of view. … It all went back into my work,” he said.

As a teacher, he was second to none, said Auten. “He inspired a belief in each person’s potential. And he gave students an appreciation for the mystery of each individual life.”

“I’ve met very few people who are as generous with his time and his art work,” said Bente Torjusen, director of the AVA Gallery in Lebanon.

White River Junction artist Dave Laro’s assemblages and constructions owe a debt to Boghosian, whom he met five years ago. “He hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a child. I think that’s what he draws from. He knows just what he can use and what’s going to work,” Laro said.

Lately, Boghosian has been reading the last pages of Finnegan’s Wake before he goes to sleep. He finds them comforting, and sad. Whether it’s Joyce or some other wellspring bubbling up from his unconscious, Boghosian said he has been dreaming every night. “The strangest, idiotic dreams that have nothing to do with anything.”

He is rummaging through a box, looking for one of his beloved curiosities to show off. “On my death bed I’ll probably see all the faces of these strange people who sold me stuff,” he said.

Then he is off again, pointing excitedly to this collage, and that collage; this wooden toy and that little figurine.

“Isn’t That Great?!” he marveled.

Published in the VALLEY NEWS, March 22, 2015. Copyright © Valley News.
May not be reprinted without permission