Joseph Haroutunian’s got rhythm. It’s not just that he paints while listening to music, including jazz and world music, particularly the hypnotic Gnawa of Morocco. One can certainly “see” the music in his abstract brushstrokes, hundreds – maybe thousands – of which squiggle, curl, zigzag, snake and vibrate across his canvases. His rhythm is more akin to what Jackson Pollock was expressing when he said, “The modern artist …is working and expressing an inner world – in other words, expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces,” all of which are constantly, dynamically in flux.
Haroutunian didn’t start out as an artist. In fact, he first majored in philosophy. His father was a Presbyterian theologian, and he grew up on the neo-Gothic campus of Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary. Both his grandfathers were ministers. “I didn’t like church per se,” the 76-year-old Haroutunian recalls, “but I wasn’t averse to the theology.”
Once in school, however, he started hanging out in the art department waiting for Gabriella Burrage, an art major who would become his wife. “I said to Gay, ‘You get credit for this?’” Intrigued, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. He lasted until the first lunch hour. “The whole atmosphere was too young for me,” he explains. He did like his teacher, however – German painter Paul Wieghardt, whose students included Claes Oldenburg, Leon Golub and Robert Indiana – so Haroutunian took additional private courses from him.
Gay eventually switched majors and got a degree in speech pathology at Boston University. In 1971, the couple made their way to Maine. “I fell in love with Maine immediately,” says Haroutunian. “It was big and impressive and rural. I don’t know that I was ever happy in cities.” The state’s rugged coast, with its rock formations, beaches, blueberry barrens and tidal flats, changed the course of his art.
Haroutunian became interested in the work of one of the Maine coast’s foremost interpreters, John Marin. “That loosened up my watercolors,” he explains. “The subject matter was similar, but [the previous work] was more controlled and tighter.” Indeed, the skies in Haroutunian’s watercolors are often, like Marin’s, represented by little more than a single or a few slashes of blue. There are also similarities to the way Marin painted roiling water.
Eventually, he met Marin’s son, John Jr., and his wife Norma, who put an addition on their house and opened a gallery, where for some years they showed Haroutunian’s work. Even then, however, the watercolors were simply a way to pull ideas from the landscape. Even in their figuration, they too are largely abstracted and seem to be more about the syncopation of trees, water and air currents.
That’s because Haroutunian is uninterested in representational art. “The thing about landscape is that it’s a genre, and I’m not into genre,” he reveals. “It’s the pattern and rhythm of landscape that comes out. We feel those rhythms, so it’s really about the rhythm of human beings. That’s more satisfying than painting any ‘thing.’ I just want them to be paintings that express that rhythm.”
Other influences are the iconography of Asmat shields from New Guinea (a stylized praying mantis symbol can sometimes be discerned in his strokes), desert colors and forms, and Anasazi mythology. Ultimately, however, true perhaps to his background in theology and philosophy, Haroutunian is after something more ephemeral: the very rhythms of the universe.
To see more of Joseph Haroutunian’s work, be sure to visit his website.