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Varujan Boghosian, who turned castaway objects into art collages, dies at 94

Mr. Boghosian, with his sculpture Orpheus II at a friend's house in Plainfield, N.H.
Mr. Boghosian, with his sculpture Orpheus II at a friend's house in Plainfield, N.H.Heidi Boghosian

To find material for collages, the artist Varujan Boghosian haunted flea markets and antique stores, the local dump, and the shores near Provincetown. At times he simply called himself a “collector of junk.”

“The material dictates the direction,” he told Artscope magazine in 2016. “I don’t lie awake at night with images of sugarplums in my head. When I walk into the studio, the material says this is the thing to use, that is the thing to use.”

A son of immigrants who built a decades-long career as an artist by juxtaposing unlikely objects that others discard, Mr. Boghosian was 94 when he died in his Hanover, N.H., home Sept. 21 of complications from a broken hip he had suffered a week earlier.

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A proud and practiced beachcomber, he plucked some artistic fodder from the sands near his two cottages in Provincetown. He had been a key part of the town’s art scene each summer since the late 1940s, when a teacher at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston introduced him to the community.

An untitled, undated mixed-media collage.
An untitled, undated mixed-media collage.Varujan Boghosian

“I don’t make anything,” Mr. Boghosian often said. “I find everything.”

He told Artscope that he “spent more time collecting than I do making objects. The more material you have, the better your options to make a construction, or an object, or a collage.”

The resulting creations “look as if they are composed of the contents of drawers in a house no one has occupied for a hundred years,” Globe critic Christine Temin wrote in a 1983 review of a Cambridge exhibition.

“The works are small to medium in scale and have the feel of highly personal, introspective history,” Temin wrote, adding that Mr. Boghosian’s assemblages seemed to offer “a key to some universal truth we can no longer unravel.”

In his work and his demeanor there often were comic moments, subtle or startling.

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“Boghosian’s humor is often impish and always thoroughly delightful,” Berta Walker, whose gallery represents him in Provincetown, told the Cape Arts Review in 2009.

“I see his use of clowns and hearts as a kind of self-portrait,” she added. “A wonderful collage he made a few years ago shows a clown offering a heart almost bigger than the clown. To me, that is the essence of Boghosian, a man filled with love, which he offers to all, and always with a note of humor.”

Mr. Boghosian’s art was the visual equivalent of “wry, ambiguous, and lasting poetry,” New York Times critic John Russell wrote in 1975.

The artist would have welcomed that analogy.

Drawing inspiration from art history, fiction, and poetry, Mr. Boghosian included as his influences novelist James Joyce and poet Louise Bogan, conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp and Dada movement pioneer Max Ernst, landscape painter Winslow Homer and ornithologist John James Audubon.

A Swan for Marcel, a 2011
collage by Mr. Boghosian.
A Swan for Marcel, a 2011 collage by Mr. Boghosian.unknown (CUSTOM_CREDIT)

The late poet Stanley Kunitz, a longtime Provincetown friend, sketched a portrait of Mr. Boghosian in a poem that begins:


In this image of my friend’s studio,

where curiosity runs the shop, and you

can almost smell nostalgic dust

settling on the junk of lost mythologies,

the artist himself stays out of view.


The older of two siblings, Varujan Yegan Boghosian was born in 1926 in New Britain, Conn.

His father, Mesrop Boghosian, was a cobbler, and his mother, Baidzar Sylandjian, worked in factories. Both were Armenian refugees who had escaped the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire during the early 1900s.

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New Britain “was in a way more American than, say, the heartland, like Kansas and places, because it was where the immigrants came,” Mr. Boghosian told Artscope. “And talk about a melting pot. I mean, my gang was composed of Greeks, Italians, Polish, and that combined with wonderful women teachers — there were not many men teaching in those days.”

At New Britain High School, he took classes from Constance Carrier, a well-regarded poet and translator who taught English and Latin. “I was so blessed by having teachers who introduced me to poetry and literature,” he added.

The city also “had a wonderful museum,” he said in a 2016 interview with Kolaj magazine. While visiting the museum and a local library, he added, “I started being in love with pictures.”

After high school, he served in the Navy and was stationed in Japan during the post-war occupation.

Returning home, he initially wanted to be an English teacher and used the GI Bill to attend a teachers college in New Britain that is now Central Connecticut State University.

“I had discovered James Joyce at the college,” he told Cape Arts Review. “He stirred my imagination. Joyce for me was another gold mine of imagery.”

Deciding instead to pursue art, Mr. Boghosian moved to Boston and studied at the Vesper George School before graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from Yale University, where he attended what was then the School of Art and Architecture.

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His work was first shown in 1951 — 10 woodcuts at a Boston gallery. He staged his first one-man show years later in Provincetown.

Mr. Boghosian developed a love of Italy through grants and fellowships including a Fulbright for painting there and a sculptor-in-residence appointment at the American Academy in Rome.

In 1953, he married Marilyn Cummins, a nurse at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, whom he had met at an art gallery on Newbury Street.

Early on they collaborated on a children’s book with a foldout locomotive train — she wrote rhyming verse and he illustrated the pages. She died in 2008.

From 1958 until he retired in 1995, Mr. Boghosian taught at the University of Florida, Cooper Union and Pratt Institute in New York City, Yale, Brown University, and for many years at Dartmouth College, where he was the George Frederick Jewett professor of art. The Alexandre Gallery represents his work in New York City.

On the Cape, the artist Paul Resika was a longtime friend and occasional collaborator. Mr. Boghosian’s circle of Provincetown artist friends also included Robert Motherwell, with whom he occasionally staged exhibitions at the Long Point Gallery.

“If he had to put an object somewhere, it was always in the right place,” Resika said of Mr. Boghosian. “He had a perfect eye, and what more can you say? That’s a very great thing to have as an artist.”

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Mr. Boghosian was well-known for his charm. “As a friend he was a marvelous fellow,” Resika said.

“People gravitated toward him in an amazing way and I realized it was because he was quite selfless — generous to a fault, in fact,” said his daughter, Heidi, of New York City, who is his only immediate survivor.

“He was one of those rare individuals,” she added. “He was creative and down to earth with no pretense.”

A service will be announced for Mr. Boghosian, who kept creating collages until nearly the end, surrounded by work from his entire life.

“At my house, I have my pictures all over the walls so I can see them: From early ones to some later ones,” he told Kolaj. “But the exciting thing at 90 is to go into that studio and do a new one.”

Mr. Boghosian's Swan and Serpent, 2011 collage
Mr. Boghosian's Swan and Serpent, 2011 collage

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.