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Zion National Park, Utah, 2018

The Course: A Retrospective of Missak Terzian
Written by Lea Telonis – April 17, 2024

Early Years and Inspirations

From the bustling fruit markets at dawn to the gentle marine breeze at sunset, Missak Terzian’s childhood in Mar Mikhael laid the groundwork for a lifelong exploration of color, form, and emotions. Born in 1949 in Beirut, Lebanon, Terzian’s early years were filled with fond memories of the Mediterranean Sea shore rocks, climbing and playing with his brother Krikor in straw hats under the watchful eye of their mother Elizabeth.

On the rocks, 1955

The Rooftop Garden, 1951

He spent countless hours at his grandparents’ rooftop garden. His grandparents often found solace there as survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. 

The garden reminded them of the cotton fields they left behind when they fled Adana, Turkey.

He spoke Armenian at home, limiting his ability to communicate with the neighborhood children in Arabic. His early school days were marked by a particularly disheartening incident: A teacher, frustrated by his inability to read Arabic fluently, took her wooden ruler and punched a hole through his book in an attempt to emphasize the letter “Lam Aleph.”

His earliest recollections of living in a thriving community and the complexities of cultural heritage resonate in his artistic expressions.

My class with our Arabic teacher

 

Terzian’s true artistic journey began on his 9th birthday with a seemingly simple gift – a coloring book and watercolor set. As he held the colorful palette and delicate brushes in his small hands a transformative moment occurred. With each stroke of vibrant pigment across the pages a passion ignited within him. That humble birthday present became the catalyst initiating Terzian to the boundless realm of artistic expression. It paved the way for his future as a painter, a creator whose canvases would capture the depth of the human experience through riveting color and form.

During his teenage years, Terzian dedicated himself to drawing and creating numerous pieces on Canson paper using China ink, ecoline, gouache, and aquarelle. Among these creations, the artist fondly remembers “Psychose” and “l’Amour Renversé”. His first oil painting, “La Bambina e la Bambola” (1963), involved adding crushed pine nut shells into the oil paint for extra texture.

Missak Terzian at the age of 7
Trefle-Femmes, a Tapestry Created in 1969

In 1967, Terzian won first place in a drawing competition juried by the renowned artist Paul Guiragossian. This accomplishment motivated him to further develop his skills at École d’Art Guvder in Beirut, where he received training in architecture, drawing, color theory, and painting.

A year later, at just 19 years old, Terzian pursued studies at the prestigious London College of Printing at Elephant and Castle. There, he immersed himself in the world of photoengraving and printing processes. After a rigorous two-year course, he graduated with a diploma in graphic reproduction technology and printing press management.

1st Prize by the Jury Paul Guiragossian

Armed with technical expertise Terzian embarked on a career in the printing industry. He joined Leogravure – a family business established in 1956 by his father, Leon Terzian. This was during a time when Beirut thrived as the business hub of the Middle East, earning the nickname “Switzerland of the Orient.” The city was a melting pot of art and culture, with local artists flourishing.

Working in pre-press, he was captivated by original artworks and transparencies that were color separated and reproduced as high-quality art exhibit invitations, books, and catalogs.

College Days

At a London pub, in company of my professors, 1970

Premier Exhibition in the Midst of the Civil War

The outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 marked a tumultuous period in Terzian’s life. Despite starting and abandoning painting numerous times, he found himself compelled to paint once more after war erupted.

Amidst the turmoil of the war and while living in fear with his wife Mariette and two children Leon and Lea, Terzian found comfort in painting. As business stagnated, painting became his refuge – a way to pass time and ease the tension of the warfare surrounding him. His compositions slowly took shape fueled by his lifelong passion for color and art.

As war raged on, Terzian discovered purpose through art. Despite the daily reality of bomb shells and ceaseless violence, he found moments of serenity on canvases and beauty in times of chaos, paraphrasing Descartes and declaring: “Since I paint, I exist.”

Terzian held his first joint exhibition in 1984 with sculptor Saadallah Loubbos at Galerie Chahine in Beirut, marking a significant milestone in his journey as an artist.

Resilience in Adversity

While the war continued in 1989, Terzian faced a heartbreaking chapter in his life. He and his family ventured to the United States to flee the war – which had lasted for 14 years and ironically ended a few weeks later – when a missile strike destroyed the shipping container that held 110 of his works from 1968 to 1989, destroying many of his most cherished, valued pieces.

His arduous life’s work vanished in an instant, leaving behind only Kodachrome transparencies as a memoir of the destroyed masterpieces. The color transparencies stood as the sole witnesses to the lost paintings.

Despite setbacks, Terzian’s unwavering determination and artistic fortitude shone through as he reimagined his lost works, turning devastation into inspiration. 

Portrait of the artist, 1986

 

The artist and his family in 1988, prior to their departure to the United States

The act of painting, amid the chaos of war, became a beacon of hope, highlighting the enduring power of creativity and resilience. In his studio, rare surviving pieces witness the unyielding spirit of a creator.

Terzian’s style has evolved throughout his career and his themes often revolve around moments of joy, musicians, and daily scenes, offering a poignant contrast to the historical war-torn Lebanon.

The exhibition at Frumkin Gallery, Los Angeles, California, 1991

Inspirations and Exploration of Abstraction and Modern Geometric Forms

In 2012, a profound encounter with the works of Picasso at the Guggenheim Museum in New York sparked a compelling dialogue in Missak’s artistry, leading to the creation of “Les Femmes de Picasso”. Suddenly, he envisioned incorporating Picasso’s women portraits, Dora Maar, Marie-Therese Walter, Nush Eluard, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque in his own composition, using the pastiche technique.

Femmes de Picasso

 

Femmes de Picasso at auction

In 2017, Terzian gradually pivoted from Semi-Abstract Figurative Expressionism to Modern Geometric Abstraction. He took inspiration from Color Field painters like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Motherwell, who removed the emotional and personal elements typically associated with Abstract Expressionism.

This turning point in his career can be attributed to his experiences at two of the world’s most extraordinary sights: Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, and Faraya in Lebanon. He found himself struck with awe over the limestone rock formations, carved by wind and water over the centuries.
Terzian’s canvases turned into illuminated autobiographies of his life experiences, each painting a kaleidoscope of color and form. The 50 years he spent studying and applying color merged into a new artistic style where primary, secondary, and tertiary chromatic palettes blended together and made the journey more enjoyable. This led Terzian to arrive at new aesthetics – Color Field and Minimalism.

The Rock Series, Blue Diamond Series, Earthrise Series, Landscape Series, the Olive Tree Series, the Palm Tree Series and many other series serve as enduring testaments to his artistic evolution, capturing the essence of nature’s beauty and spiritual allure.

Looking Ahead: A Legacy of Creativity and Innovation

Terzian prefers spontaneity in his art and often completes an oil painting in one or two sittings, working swiftly with gestural brushstrokes and a wet-on-wet technique. He revisits his painting the next day to make adjustments before the surface dries. This meticulous process allows him to capture the energy and immediacy of his artistic vision.

His legacy as a masterful contemporary visual artist stands as a testament to the transformative power of creativity. His timeless search for existential truths and his unwavering commitment to recording the essence of time and events through art proves his profound dedication to the craft. Guided by a philosophy that blends nature, the artist, and the medium of expression, Terzian’s work serves as a beacon of inspiration and innovation for future generations of artists and art enthusiasts alike.

The Course: A Retrospective of Missak Terzian offers a poignant exploration of Terzian’s indomitable spirit, tracing a narrative of loss, reinvention, and enduring creativity. Through a visual symphony of colors, forms, and emotions, he celebrates the transformative power of art in the face of adversity and the profound resilience of the human spirit.

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