Carrie Haddad Galley has up a retrospective of the work of former Hudson resident Edward Avedisian, who died here several years ago. Below is a reprint of a remembrance of him which I published at the time, with some very slight updates. Also be sure to catch this precise, humorous and frank recollection of Edward from his NYC days by Douglas Penick, with Edward saying “that dog belongs on a bun!" —S.
EDWARD AVEDISIAN | 1936–2007
Edward would be irritated to know that anyone was posting on the net about his life or death; I wish I could hear his tart response to this remembrance.
But then it was Edward’s way to be irritable about everything and everyone—except his partner Judson. That irascibility was what may of us liked about him, along with his peculiar artwork.
Reclusive, eccentric, misanthropic, Edward was my neighbor in Hudson for nearly a decade. While his ’60s abstract paintings are in major collections (the Whitney, MOMA, et al.), he renounced the art world in the ’70s. For the past few decades he has been painting landscapes, mostly in seclusion, which became more and more odd and intriguing as the years passed.
The story goes that Edward packed up one day in Manhattan, leaving a marriage behind, taking up with a biker guy, and decamping upstate—where he has been hiding out and leading an almost off-the-grid existence ever since in a crumbling Federal building on Warren Street. Some say the critic and curator Henry Geldzahler helped him buy the house in Hudson (where Geldzahler’s then-boyfriend Chris Scott also lived until his death in 2004).
Edward had an acid aversion to the art world, and only toward the end of his life did he grudgingly agree to allow a few of these to be shown again, garnering largely positive reviews in the New York Times and Art in America. He was a true artist in that he only made art for himself—and the mild-mannered Judson, the biker, who fed and drove and looked after Edward in every way. (He predeceased Edward by a little more than a year, and to be honest few of us expected Edward to last long without Judson, even with help.)
Edward was the crankiest of cranks. Among his favorite quips was to say, archly, that “Judson and I have been invited to dine at all the best houses in the Hudson Valley... once. They found us... repulsive.” He took real amusement and even pleasure from that repulsion.
All of his friends have stories of him making unspeakably rude remarks. Many of his patrons threw up their hands in exasperation and gave up, getting little but abuse in return for their support. Edward couldn’t abide small talk, and would snap at almost any attempt to characterize of his work, even when the comment was flattering. One just had to learn not to take anything he said personally.
He was not eager to be understood, either personally or in his art. Unlike 999,999 out of every million people, Edward did not seek to be well-known or even liked. (If that had been his goal, he would have stayed in New York City and kept making the same work which had made him an art world success.) Rather, he wanted to make art strictly on his own terms, completely uninfluenced by the opinions of critics, curators, collectors or trends.
Of course most artists pay lip service to such principles. But Edward was among the very few who, having achieved a measure of recognition, was truly self-possessed enough to accept becoming obscure and isolated in order to maintain his personality and the integrity of his work.
His bio at Carrie Haddad’s website says:
In the 1960s, Edward Avedisian was one of the youngest of those luminaries producing a grand new abstract painting. Shown first at Ivan Karp and Dick Bellamy’s Hansa Gallery and then at Robert Elkon, Avedisian's insouciant mix of pop playfulness, color field cool and high formalist style put his art in a unique, and at the time generously rewarded, position. Paintings made it onto the cover of Artforum, were purchased by all the major museums, were among the few abstract works shown as representative of America's post-war achievement at Expo 67 in Montreal and comprised a cornerstone in histories of the period written by Barbara Rose, among others.
Yet, Avedisian left New York in the mid-1970s, moving upstate along the Hudson River, severing his exhibition ties. Had Avedisian merely left New York City to establish his studio in a quieter place once his position was secure, had he continued to develop the abstraction for which he became known, then this would be just another permutation of the life lived by many successful artists of his generation. But, as these new paintings indicate, Avedisian's break was far more deeply expressed.
Over the past twenty years Avedisian has developed a new style: figurative, ostensibly naive, contentious. The world Avedisian paints is that of his upstate environs and he does so with a disarming directness. At the core of his new paintings lay a furtive sense of narrative: tow pick-ups are parked beside a farmhouse, a couple repose behind roadside billboards, men work on their trucks. Avedisian, always contemporary, has evolved into a different kind of American painter. After becoming a cosmopolitan maestro in the sophisticated symphony of sixties abstract painting, Avedisian has become provincial in the most explicit sense. It will be an interesting reconciliation between Avedisian's early achievement and his mature work. This mature work is, in many ways, a challenge.
Edward’s work does more than absorb or divert you for a moment. It indeed challenges the viewer to take a fresh look at the world through an unexpected and strange lens, one that is hardly to everyone’s taste. An ignorant observers would dismiss Edward's mature work as naive, unschooled, even clumsy; more thoughtful viewers can’t help but be struck by the sophisticated color and composition. Any perceived ungainliness in the lines and forms is deliberate, intended to cause a double-take.
Once Edward’s cockeyed aesthetic becomes familiar, it turns up all over the map: in a misshapen tree, or a towering snowbank, or gathering rainclouds, or a beat-up old pickup truck, or a billboard in the wilderness, or a hooded figure walking down an alleyway at sunset. You come to see the world through Edward’s eyes, and to encounter Avedisianscapes everywhere. His images teach us a new way to see everyday sights, and also to accept less usual ones.
Landscape painting is one of the more difficult genres to master without falling into cliché. But Edward managed to avoid the merely picturesque or hackneyed—not by being cool and reserved, but by not shying away from the sentiment, colors, communities and sexuality that moved him. Edward and Judson loved nothing better than to drive in the rougher countryside of Greene County and beyond (where they were not infrequently busted for marijuana). Many of his post-abstract paintings seek to document these landscapes being enjoyed by pairs of men. He also had a taste for the tumbledown urban cityscapes of the Hudson Valley (Albany, Catskill, Hudson, Poughkeepsie, Troy).
His handling of form is genuinely weird, and to my mind original. If comparisons to other artist are necessary, it could be said that he shared the lumpy aesthetic of late Philip Guston, with the saturated color sense of David Hockney. But that still doesn’t fully capture what Edward was up to, and he’d bridle at either comparison.
There are many tales, some of them tall, about Edward’s unusual way of being. He and Judson lived in just a few rooms of their spacious Federal-style home, much of it unheated. Their back porch and yard were overgrown with vines and weeds, and strewn with found objects, some indistinguishable from trash. For several years, there was a golden bowling ball which went back and forth over the fence between our properties, until it was finally swallowed up by his weeds. In the last months of his life, a tattered white tarp was stuck high in one of his trees, and would wave in the cold winds coming down from Canada as if surrendering to pirate ships on the Hudson River.
He did not suffer visitors gladly, and few got into the house at all unless he needed money—which he’d raise in a hurry by selling a painting for well below market value. Most buyers were not allowed past a bare front room, furnished with just a beat-up couch and the four or five paintings he was grudgingly willing to show a visitor at that moment. He was a stern critic of his own work, evidenced by the remains of previous unsatisfactory paintings which can often be detected through unrelated brushstrokes poking out from the finished of his paintings
Edward enjoyed scaring the bejeebus out of friends and plumbers by taking them down to his dirt basement, which appeared to be full of recently-dug graves. These eerie mounds were in fact the household’s preferred means of disposing of kitty litter, both he and Judson being great feeders of felines, domestic and stray. In addition to cats, he was (like the literary critic Harold Bloom) an unabashed fan of trashy cable television; he could often be spotted in a high side window of his house, watching the street with one eye, and a flickering TV with another.
Another bit of (believable) hearsay involves an complaint against Edward in the ’80s for failing to cut the waist-high grass in his backyard. A policeman is said to have arrived and demanded a look. Departing from his usual reluctance to show the house, Edward made sure the policeman got a big eyeful of Judson’s elaborate collages of hundreds of penises cut from porn magazines, along with the many cat bowls, the ramshackle kitchen, the peeling paint, the graffiti on the walls. By the time they reached the back porch, the cop was plenty ill at ease, but managed to point out the offending weeds. Edward is said to have replied: “Oh, no, that is an extremely rare Japanese grass, an endangered species, the EPA would be here in a second if I cut it...” Unsure of himself in these weird surroundings, and fixed by the intense stare of his ghostly suspect, the policeman was glad to make any flimsy excuse to beat a hasty retreat; so the tall grasses remained.
While Edward definitely enjoyed scandalizing people with caustic comments, I never felt he did so for show or even out of malice. He was just as likely to take himself down a peg, and his myriad complaints were not gratuitous. Every conversation with Edward would make you think twice about some assumption you’d made—about Hudson, or a mutual acquaintance, or life in general. He did, over the years, become estranged from many friends and patrons due to his impossible attitude and manners. But it was just the way he was built. I considered it a small miracle that we remained on good terms during the years I lived at 32 Warren.
I’m fortunate to have a terrific Avedisian painting of a kelly green house and a forest-green conifer covered in snow, set against a flat cobalt-blue sky, with tree stumps and a car in the foreground (poorly reproduced above). Avedisian’s odd juxtapositions of round and pointy shapes, along with the perfectly-pitched shadows cast by two leafless maples, are unified by color to radiate a convincing late afternoon light. It could be Troy, or Catskill, or Hudson, or Saugerties. Out of the corner of an eye, the painting seems spotlit even when it is not. Nothing in the painting is accurate in any usual sense of academic drawing, but this understated painting immerses you into a fully realized, vivid world. Roberta Smith wrote of this image:
The recent landscapes evoke the early modernist landscape traditions (Fauvism, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Munch), but with a contemporary sense of scale, surface and off-handedness. The best is a winter scene in which two bare trees cast lavender shadows on the side of a light turquoise garage, giving the thick semi-abstract forms a sudden sense of worldly space.
Having no pretensions to living well by any conventional measure, Edward and Judson preferred Hudson the way they found it in the ’70s: depressed, falling down, crime-ridden. It must have seemed the perfect place for someone seeking to disappear into a sort of self-imposed Witness Protection Program. So he took every opportunity he could get to encourage new arrivals to go back from whence they came. He frequently denounced the civic and domestic improvements he’d watched over the years, and it was impossible to get him to register to vote, though I tried without success every few years. He felt that voting was “not radical.”
When I moved to Hudson, Edward tweaked this first-time home owner with piercing comments intended to deter me from fixing up my house too much. He didn’t want to see statuary or manicured lawns out his favorite window, which overlooked my garden. Those who would sanitize or gussy up places like Hudson have much to be learn from his attitude of leaving solidly-built, well-made things well enough alone, rather than gilding the lily—though his own house could have used at least a little gilding, for rudimentary comfort’s sake. Watching the (literally) organic development of his backyard, full of trophies of their forays into the hills plus stuff they just couldn’t be bothered to haul to the dump, one got a whiff of Appalachia in the Hudson Valley. He and Judson were in their own way the ideal neighbors: never noisy, seldom seen, but always provocative conversationalists on the rare occasions they did emerge to get some sustenance at a neighbor’s potluck supper.
Though not everyone was willing to put up with Edward’s complaints, still he enjoyed a ton of support in the last difficult years from a number of friends, notably Carrie Haddad, Wilson Kidde, Whitney Spooner, and Amy Daley. I sincerely hope that his work, which is all he really cared about besides Judson and the cats, will be well taken care of. Now that he is gone (and his aversion to the art world with him), one also hopes and expects that the small recent revival in interest in his work will lead to a more thorough rediscovery and celebration of what he accomplished—which was not just considerable, but utterly sui generis.
(In addition to Carrie Haddad’s gallery, a number of Edward’s can be found at other shops in the 500 and 600 block of Hudson. Mark Mcdonald usually has a fair sampling of Avedisians, including early work, as do the Arenskjolds.)