The collages are small and made entirely of paper from old books. Squares of varying shades of off-white and tan are arranged in rectangles criss-crossed with brown lines that look drawn but are actually the time-stained edges of pages. Occasionally — in not more than two or three spots per collage — a tiny face, limb, or bit of text peeks through the squares. The letter “O,” the word “but.”
“The best way for me to express myself seems to be with paper,” says Woodstock artist Robert Ohnigian. “What I’m expressing is unclear. People have all these interpretations.”
He professes to be influenced by his family, especially his Italian mother and Armenian father, but he says the faces in the collages have nothing to do with them. The eyes are not peeking through papery windows from the past, as I had assumed, projecting my ancestor fixation.
The faces are the clearly visible parts of old engravings that serve as the bottom layer of certain collages, the ink faintly showing through the covering of whitish squares, lending shadow to the tone. The work, Ohnigian says, is all about tonality. He uses antique books because “I like the soft tones and the feel of the paper. It has a nice quality. I’m not one of these people using handmade paper. I don’t use photos or lots of imagery. Collage history is very much about controversial use of imagery.”
He buys cheap old books at antique shops and flea markets. They’re books no one wants, rescued from the rubbish bin. When a book has water stains or ink stains, he has even more to work with.
Ohnigian shows me a 19th century dictionary with a broken binding and black blotches in the margins. The stains inspired him to shift from assemblages of squares and rectangles to landscapes. They are simple, maybe a foreground of streaky tan, a blue or cloudy sky, and a horizon dividing them, lined with what could be trees or buildings. He holds up a blotched page of the dictionary, and it’s clear where the dark shapes on the horizon have come from.
The sky is made of layers of pale and medium blue paper, the top layer rubbed away in places. “People think they’re watercolors,” Ohnigian comments, “but they’re all made of paper.” Occasionally he adds fragments of nasturtium flowers or thin strips of birch bark. A soft grey wasp nest, given to him by someone at the Woodstock School of Art, lies among the antique books.
Britannicus is a tragedy in verse written by French playwright Jean Racine and first performed in 1669. Ohnigian’s 18th century edition, found in a Hudson antique shop, is printed on paper of the palest blue. “Would you like a page?” he asks, and tears one out for me.
Ohnigian was born in New York City. His family moved to River Edge, New Jersey, when he was a child. Next door lived Mrs. Carpenter, founder of the local library, and her daughter, Mrs. Stoner, head of the art department at nearby Hackensack High School. Although Ohnigian had not been exposed to art at home, when he was 14, he took art lessons in Mrs. Stoner’s basement, painting still lifes. “I liked it,” he recalls. “I wasn’t a great painter.” Nevertheless, after high school, he attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he created his first collage, studying with Edward Lazansky, who now lives in Woodstock. For raw materials, Ohnigian dug into the piles of old Armenian newspapers his grandmother had kept.
After graduating from Pratt, he moved upstate with his partner, painter Robert Orsini, who had a house in the mountains beyond East Jewett. To make a living, they opened the Clouds gallery in Woodstock and showed their work there. (The gallery was later taken over by an employee and now shows and sells fine crafts.) Through contacts he made at Clouds, Onigian had his first exhibits at the prominent Cordier and Ekstrom gallery in Manhattan. “Arne Ekstrom was the ultimate gallerist,” he says, “dressed in a fancy Spanish suit, always speaking French.” After years of showing both famous artists (Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Isamu Noguchi) and up-and-coming youngsters like Ohnigian, notes Ekstrom’s New York Times obituary, the gallery closed.
Ohnigian moved on to the Kouros Gallery, where he sold several pieces to Bill Blass. “I thought I was a big shot and left. I went to SoHo, but they thought I was too old-fashioned.” He landed at Davis and Langdale, which recently closed.
In Woodstock, Ohnigian is represented by Elena Zang and was included a group show this summer at Zang’s gallery on Route 212 in Shady. Meanwhile, he continues to stare at and work on his delicate little landscapes in a sun-flooded room on the second floor of his house.
“You can’t just come up with something new,” he says. “You have to just work until something shows up.”
Robert Ohnigian is teaching a collage workshop at the Woodstock School of Art from Saturday, October 5, to Sunday, October 6, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. To register, see https://woodstockschoolofart.org. To see samples of his work, go to http://ohnigian.com.