Leo Krikorian

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Leo Krikorian, an artist and photographer who also ran two well-known Bay Area cafés during the Beat era -- one in North Beach, the other in Sausalito.

Krikorian was born in Fresno of immigrant Armenian parents. Genie Stressing, Krikorian’s niece, said his parents had tickets for the maiden voyage of the Titanic in April 1912, but missed the sailing because their train was late.

Arriving in America, the family traveled to Fresno, but soon moved to the town of Fowler, about 10 miles to the south, where Krikorian was raised. During World War II, he was drafted into the Army and trained as a photographer. When the war ended, Krikorian pursued his study of photography at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where he was taught by the master, Ansel Adams.

While there, he heard about an intriguing experimental school back east, Black Mountain College, near Asheville, N.C.

Black Mountain, according to the Web site www.bmcproject.org, "sought to educate the whole student -- head, heart and hand -- through studies, the experience of living in a small community and manual work." It closed in 1957.

Krikorian spent a year there, from 1947 to 1948, studying art and photography. He studied with Josef Albers, who he thought was a poor teacher, and with Ilya Bolotowsky, who became a lifelong friend. His early major painting influence, however, was Piet Mondrian, with whom he did not study.

Then lived briefly in New York City before moving to San Francisco, where he enrolled at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute. Krikorian continued studying with some of the best photographers around, returning to Adams and also taking classes from Minor White and Clifford Stills.

In 1953, Krikorian and another Black Mountain student, Knute Stiles, created The Place, a bar on Grant Avenue in North Beach. During the '50s, The Place was the center of Beat life in San Francisco and Krikorian became known as the 'Grandfather of the Beats.' It was there that artists and writers gathered to drink and talk. Every Monday night was Blabbermouth Night, when there was a contest for the most outrageous speech.

Dave Brubeck brought the house down with "Leo's Place, " a piece he had created in honor of Krikorian's bar.

It was fun while it lasted, but in 1960, the landlord sold the bar and The Place closed.

Meanwhile, Krikorian had opened a deli called The Kettle in Sausalito. The Kettle was more durable, lasting until 1977, when he sold it and moved to Paris. From then on, Krikorian divided his time between Marin County and his studio and gallery in Paris.

In the beginning of 2005 there was a retrospective exhibition of Krikorian's paintings at the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center which covered years from 1947 to 2003. It demonstrated his growing and continued interest in hard-edged geometric abstraction after he left BMC as well as his intermittent interest in photography. The paintings were donated by the artist to BMCM+AC and constitute part of the museum's permanent collection.

The four earliest paintings in the exhibition were from his student days at BMC in 1947 and 1948. They do show Krikorian's fascination with Mondrian's "Plus and Minus" and "Broadway Boogie Woogie" series, which were just introduced in New York at 2005.

Soon Krikorian left the Mondrian construct and worked from a color matrix that was more or less based on the theories of Johannes Itten. Krikorian explored the visual effect color had on changing backgrounds and environments.

Krikorian's most important pieces in the BMCM+AC show were "569 EV" from 1999, "580 EV" and "581 EV," both from 2000, and "627 EV" from 2003. All of these paintings are acrylic on canvas.

Krikorian, like other geometric color-charged abstractionists, played with the idea of tension interrupting harmony and chaos provoking the cosmos. Just when you think things are settling down, visual hell breaks out. Shapes begin to soar and float. With Krikorian's paintings, there is never really a quiet moment. This is analogous to the way improvisational jazz works.

If kindred spirits exist in Krikorian's universe they may be Elsworth Kelly and the Midwest-based painter Larry Zox. And perhaps a little bit of Bridget Riley. All of these artists reach beyond pattern to a complex compositional construction that balances shapes while interrupting the space and where a particular color behaves according to the color next to it or underneath it. Line is also an integral element that both bounds a shape or points it in another direction.

In all of these artists there seems to be a conscious need to stimulate visual tactileness through high-intensity color that vibrates in relationship to a neighboring pigment. But unlike Mark Rothko and, at times, Barnett Newman, Krikorian - and his cohorts - never quite reach that state of sensual tactility, of indulging the sublime.

So where does Krikorian fit within the scheme of modernism? There is a large body of work that indicates his persistence and necessity to produce a type of work that comfortably adds to the sequence of hard-edge abstraction (see Larry Zox), optical painting (see Richard Anuszkiewicz) and even neo-geo (see Peter Halley). But a full study of his work and the influence he had on other artists has yet to be undertaken. Krikorian has been an important player in the art world since the 1950s.

When Krikorian had his first solo show in Asheville, at Broadway Arts in 1990, it went unnoticed.

In his 80s, Krikorian has created more than 600 major works, some of which he gave away. A cafeteria/auditorium at the D.H. White Elementary School in Rio Vista, Calif., houses a significant collection of his work. Some important works have been donated to restaurants.

For the 10 years before 2004, Krikorian had been living in Mill Valley, but in the spring of 2004, he moved to Siskiyou County to be with his niece, Genie Stressing. He spent his last few days in a hospice.

Krikorian died on Jan. 3 2005 in the Siskiyou County town of Yreka. He was 82.

Services for Mr. Krikorian were held in Yreka. In addition to his niece, Krikorian is survived by a brother, Vaughn Krikorian of San Diego; and two sisters, Helen Bonner and Virginia Krikorian, both of San Jose.