We all know who’s most critical of an image of yourself.
Call it vanity, call it a thorough indoctrination in our societal standards of “beauty,” call it falling prey to a popular culture in which pictures are Photoshopped, filtered and enhanced so routinely that when we glimpse a Hollywood movie star with a pimple, it’s like seeing a symptom of the plague. We look at images of ourselves like rental car employees checking for scratches and dents. The shiny image of ourselves in our heads can be hard to match up with reality.
After spending an hour with the charismatic and wonderful Joan Agajanian Quinn viewing 50 portraits of her by such famed artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Fresno Art Museum, I’m convinced she doesn’t have a vain bone in her body – at least when it comes to sharing her likeness with the public.
You couldn’t if, like her, you’d been painted and sculpted by a bevy of folks most interested in making art, not necessarily a flattering representation of a friend.
“These weren’t portraits meant to hang over your fireplace,” Quinn says with a laugh.
Consider Laddie John Dill’s “Child’s Play,” which represents the Los Angeles art patron as a band of what looks like neon. (“It looks like you flashing with all your jewelry and the way you dress,” she says he told her.) Charles Arnoldi’s “Culture Clean Offspring,” a brightly colored acrylic-on-plywood piece, depicts her as what she calls “a lump of wood.”
Mel Ramos chose to paint her with a realistic head on a big, loosely defined swirl of a torso dominated by a notable bosom.
“In the beginning, I didn’t like to see myself,” Quinn says of the tradition that started 40 years ago when artists began giving her portraits. “But then I looked at it as if I was a bowl of flowers, and I was a subject that everyone then wanted to paint or sculpt in their own style. So you lose your vanity. No vanity involved. You don’t know what you’re going to turn out to be.”
Close to the action
There aren’t many people who have had the privilege of being depicted by so many artists. The story of how it all started is one of connections and luck. While attending the University of Southern California, Joan Agajanian – who would go on to marry the litigator Jack Quinn – was working at the jewelry counter at a now-defunct Desmond’s. She got to know artist Billy Al Bengston, still a close friend.
“Billy was really the conduit to all of the rest of these artists,” Quinn says.
She connected with his art world. The artist Don Graham was doing a portrait show and wanted to do one of her. He gave it to her afterward. Over the years, as Quinn became a prominent art patron and journalist – she worked for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine during the 1980s, and to this day has a local L.A.-area T.V. show titled “Joan Quinn Profiles” – the ritual of doing a “Joan portrait” picked up steam.
One reason the Fresno show is stunning is simply because of the variety and the magnitude of the names involved. Later, Quinn’s daughter Amanda Quinn Olivar shares with me a multitude of family photos that show her mother with Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Moses: the list goes on.
From her vantage point on the Southern California art scene over the years, it seems as if she must have known everyone. Some artists aren’t even known for portraits. The architect Frank Gehry, for example, depicts two fish – for him and her.
“He’s a Pisces like me,” she says. “We always joke about fish.”
She has a soft spot for Fresno’s museum. As a child, she used to come through town with her father, J.C. Agajanian, a prominent motor sports promoter.
“My father used to promote races in Hanford, Clovis, Dinuba, Porterville – all over the Valley,” she says. “The big thing was to have dinner here in Fresno, because that had the best Armenian food.”
As we talk, it’s a chance for Quinn – who made a connection with the museum in last year’s Armenian Genocide commemoration show – to relive memories from over the years.
Take the Basquiat portrait, for example.
“You can still see the footprints on it,” she says, pointing. “I went over to his apartment and he was painting it on the floor. His drug dealer came and gave him some drugs. And he stepped on this to go to the door to buy his drugs. And I thought, that’s going to ruin the painting, We’d better erase that. And then I thought, no, I’d better leave it. It’s part of it.”
Basquiat died just a few months later.
One of the prominent images in the Basquiat work is a big, clumpy, dazzling bracelet. As we look at the painting she looks down and realizes: “I’m wearing this today!”
The big names just keep coming as we walk along: Here’s an offering from Claire Falkenstein, who came over to Quinn’s house for a few hours and just kept drawing away. Mapplethorpe’s portrait is a gorgeous black-and-white photograph evoking Hollywood glamour. One of the show’s crowd-pleasers is a joint work by Andy Warhol that is reproduced and painted by Rupert Smith – one of Warhol’s famed Polaroid series.
The portrait tradition continues to this day. Just last year, Quinn did a sitting for David Hockney. It took three days. The life-size portrait is part of a new Hockney show at London’s Royal Academy.
What strikes me most about the Fresno show – and about getting the chance to view it with Quinn – is the way it drives home the point that people are multifaceted, and even the most insanely talented artist can probably only capture a sliver of a human being. To see Quinn painted and sculpted 50 different ways makes me think of so many of her qualities: her gregariousness, quick wit, strong family connections (she just celebrated her 54th wedding anniversary), keen interest in her Armenian heritage, appreciation of the finer things in life and – we can’t forget – her love of color and sparkly accessories.
Perhaps we can all glean something from the show in terms of being self-critical in our image-glut of a culture. So what if not every depiction of ourselves is ready for a movie poster? It’s all part of what it means to be a complicated human being.
Rendering Homage: Portraits of a Patron
- Through Aug. 28
- Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. 1st St.
- fresnoartmuseum.org, 559-441-4221