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‘On the Edge’: A lively West Coast collection lands in Watertown

An exhibition at the Armenian Museum of America celebrates the made-in-California collecting style of Joan Agajanian Quinn and her late husband, Jack

Ed Ruscha, "Mocha Standard," 1969. Courtesy of Joan and Jack Quinn Family Collection.Alan Shaffer

WATERTOWN — When he came to America, Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said to a customs officer, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” Collectors have nothing to declare except their sensibility. Many, perhaps most, don’t have one. Joan Agajanian Quinn definitely does. Getting a handle on it is among the pleasures offered by “On the Edge: Los Angeles Art 1970s-1990s from the Joan and Jack Quinn Family Collection.” The length of that title is a bit daunting. It’s also fitting, since Quinn’s sensibility is nothing if not capacious. Also, she and her late husband collected a lot of art.

The show runs through Nov. 30 at the Armenian Museum of America, as does “Discovering Takouhi: Portraits of Joan Agajanian Quinn.”


From left: Thomas Ammann, Joan Agajanian Quinn, and Andy Warhol, 1979.Courtesy Joan Quinn Archives

On display are 125 works, in many media, with more than 75 artists represented. Some of them you’ve likely heard of: Lynda Benglis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Helmut Newton, Andy Warhol (Joan Quinn was for a time West Coast editor for Warhol’s magazine, Interview). Others you’ve also likely heard of have a particular association with Southern California: Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, Frank Gehry (a chair and “fish” lamp), Don Bachardy, Richard Diebenkorn, Vija Celmins, Ed Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston.

Bengston and Kienholz were part of the “Cool School” associated with LA’s Ferus Gallery, which in the late ‘50s and first half of the ‘60s helped put Southern California on the art-world map. “On the Edge,” as a title, and the focus on the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, indicates a time when LA still was out there, in terms of the art world. Born in 1937, Joan Quinn grew up in LA, went to the University of Southern California, and was such a local fixture she was for a time society editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper.

David Hockney and Joan Agajanian Quinn in Hockney’s studio, 1979.Courtesy Joan Quinn Archives.

The title also speaks to the Quinns’ tastes. What they collected wasn’t Old Masters or mainstream Modernists. They went in for contemporary artists, and not necessarily ones who would become established. Patrons as well as collectors, the Quinns weren’t placing bets. They were satisfying urges — their own, aesthetic ones — and unconcerned with conventions. That’s one reason they were likelier to collect work by women and artists of color than many of their peers were.


There are lesser, even unfamiliar names in “On the Edge,” and that many more who aren’t in either show. The Quinns didn’t collect as an investment or for status. They collected things they saw that they wanted to own and live with — also live around and maybe even live beneath. By all accounts, the collection pretty much took over their Beverly Hills home. A 1984 Newton photo of Jack Quinn attests to that. Is Quinn, who died in 2017, sitting on the floor because he’s feeling casual — this is LA, after all — or because there’s so much art crammed into the room he has nowhere else to sit?

Helmut Newton, "Jack," 1984. Courtesy Joan and Jack Quinn Family Collection.Alan Shaffer

Which brings us back to that word “sensibility.” Collecting can be a matter of precision, reflecting a certain style or period or the rigors (and reflexivity) of canonicity. Or it can be a matter of immersion, with taste (that squiffiest of words) subordinated to impulse. Joan Quinn and her husband were collectors of the immersion school. The sensibility on display here is idiosyncratic, unpredictable, lively, uncalculated, a lot more about color than line, a lot less about theory than practice, open to representation and abstraction both. Various styles abound, but there isn’t a sense of jumble. Or it’s a jumble only to the extent that personality is a jumble.


That personality vividly comes through in “Discovering Takouhi.” Strictly as art, these portraits, it must be said, aren’t all that notable. But as an opportunity to visit with multiple manifestations of their sitter, they’re almost as good as plopping down on the floor with Jack and knowing she’s elsewhere in the house.

Dahlia Elsayed, "Untitled," 2001. Courtesy Joan and Jack Quinn Family Collection.Alan Shaffer

ON THE EDGE: Los Angeles Art 1970s-1990s from the Joan and Jack Quinn Family Collection

DISCOVERING TAKOUHI: Portraits of Joan Agajanian Quinn

At Armenian Museum of America, 65 Main St., Watertown, through Nov. 30. 617-926-2562, www.ArmenianMuseum.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.