Date of birth:
Paintings by Krikorian
Photographs by Krikorian
Blabbermouth Night at The Place
Leo Krikorian first heard about Black Mountain College from a girl with
whom he was having a cup of coffee in Los Angeles: “She talked about Black
Mountain College for maybe five, ten minutes, and I really got
interested.” At the time he was studying photography at the Art Center in
Los Angeles. He wrote for an application and returned it with some of his
photographs. He recalled that he did not feel he had the requirements to
enter conventional colleges. He drove his Model A Ford at a speed of about
thirty-four miles an hour from Los Angeles to Black Mountain. The
cross-country trip took two weeks. He arrived a week before classes
started and was put to work on the farm.
Leo had worked on farms and in canneries as a child during the Depression.
His parents had come to this country in 1914 from Armenia and settled in
an Armenian community in Fowler, south of Fresno, California. In 1943 he
was drafted and spent two years in the army where he was sent to
photography school. He was stationed in Florida where he printed
photographs and worked on training manuals. After the war he enrolled at
the Art Center School in Los Angeles to study photography on the G.I.
Bill. Among his teachers was Ansel Adams.
At Black Mountain Leo took art classes as well as John Wallen’s Group
Process class. Although he audited Josef Albers’s design class, it was
Ilya Bolotowsky who had the greatest influence as a teacher. He recalled
that he didn’t care for Albers’s teaching methods – “He doesn’t teach. He
starts you off.” In contrast, Bolotowsky allowed his students to paint in
any way that they wanted. “You could be a realist or be an abstractionist,
and you’d get criticized according to your painting, not what you think.”
Leo also continued his work independently in Black Mountain’s small
At the end of a year at Black Mountain, Leo thought his GI Bill benefits
had run out. He traveled first, briefly, to New York where he worked in
darkrooms and continued to make abstract photographs. He then moved to San
Francisco where he used his remaining G.I. Bill benefits to study at the
Francisco School of Fine Arts (San Francisco Art Institute). Again he
studied with Anseln Adams as well as Minor White and Clifford Stills. In
need of money he signed on a ship as a merchant seaman for two years. On
his return to San Francisco, he recalled that after two years at sea, he
wanted to meet other people – especially artists. In 1953, he and Knute
Stiles, another Black Mountain student, opened a bar, The Place, at 1546
Grant Avenue in North Beach. During the ‘50s The Place was the center of
Beat life in San Francisco, and Leo became know as the “Grandfather of the
Beats”. It was there that artists and writers gathered to drink and talk
as they did at the Cedar Bar in New York. Abstract artists were given
exhibitions, experimental films were screened, music recitals – both
scheduled and impromptu – were held, and poets read their work. Allen
Ginsburg gave a test reading of his poem “Howl” at The Place before it was
published. Leo recalled that the setting was quite simple: a piano,
sawdust on the floor, tables and chairs. Two events drew crowds: Monday
night was Blabbermouth Night when there was a contest for the most
outrageous speech (the reward a bottle of champagne), and April Fools Day
was the occasion for the annual Dada Show. Leo recalled that after
Kerouac’s On the Road was published, people hitchhiking to San
Francisco would make The Place the first stop where they left their
suitcase until they found lodging. Leo never had a lease and when the
landlord – “an Italian ex-Mafia from Chicago” – sold the building in 1960,
the bar closed.
In 1956 in Sausalito, Leo opened a deli, The Kettle, a gathering place for
area artists and writers, many living on houseboats. He also had a coffee
shop for three years.
While operating the bar and restaurant, Krikorian continued to paint and
make abstract photographs. In 1970 he studied filmmaking at The Film
School, Half Moon Bay, California in 1970. His paintings were exhibited at
The Place, at the Six Gallery, a cooperative gallery devoted to
experimental art, and at the Metart Gallery in San Francisco. At a time
when most young artists were influenced by Abstract Expressionism, Leo’s
carefully crafted geometric paintings showed the influence of both
Bolotowsky and Mondrian.
In 1977, when he sold The Kettle, Leo moved to France, living part of the
year there and part in Sausalito. He bought a space in a 15th century
building at 36, Rue des Blancs Manteaux near the Georges Pompidou Modern
Art Museum. There he had a studio as well as a gallery where he exhibited
his paintings and stained glass.
Leo’s later abstract, geometric paintings using dynamic symmetry, reversed
symmetry, positive and negative space and other abstract principles are
closer to the work of Josef Albers’s than of Ilya Bolotowsky. Optical
illusion and color are central themes. In Paris he created stained glass
windows incorporating the patterns and themes of his paintings. The
leading between the flat planes added a new element, that of drawing, to
Leo’s work has been exhibited in major cities including New York, San
Francisco, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, Seattle, Rome and London. In
1993 the Art Research Center (ARC), New Circle Publications, and the
International Institute for Modern Structural Art honored Krikorian with a
retrospective exhibition Concrete Concepts, the Career of Krikorian
at the Scarritt Arcade and the Power & Light Building in Kansas City. His
work has been exhibited in United States, France, Netherlands and Germany.
Krikorian presently lives in Sausalito where he continues to paint.
“Leo Krikorian: A Man for All Seasons,” Ararat, Winter 1990:2-7.
Jack Lind, The
Beatniks and “The Place”: The Golden Age of North Beach in San Francisco.
© 1987 Leo Krikorian. Privately published.
(videotape). Produced/ Directed by Mary Kerr. CA PALM. © 1995,