Jacques Karamanoukian was born in Paris, France in March of 1940. He did his military service and studied literature at the Sorbonne in Paris.
In 1966 he moved to the U.S.A. He did his graduate studies at the University of Michigan in the late 1960’s.
He ended up teaching high school French for many years. This was his “day job” (educator).
He had a great love of reading, of words. Visual art was another great passion. At 29, he started to bring work over from France to exhibit in Ann Arbor.
For nearly 30 years Jacques exhibited the art that he cared about and believed in.
He was self taught himself, as an artist and as an appreciator of art. He was especially drawn to outsider art, surrealism, art brut and other realms of purity, intensity and EXTREMES. He developed an amazing and highly tuned eye.
Yet, as he often told me, he could love an artist’s work but if he didn’t like them as a person as well—he wouldn’t show them.
It reminds me of Marcel Duchamp’s saying “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.”
Jacques always respected the artist WITH their work. He’d pay poets and performers (out of his own pocket) at his art openings.
He was often generous in buying work from painters who were “down on their luck.”
He had good taste in writing and poetry. He was a writer himself. He wrote poetry and articles in French and English. Some of his profiles included Gerome Kamrowski, musician Faruq Z. Bey and Swiss artist Louis Soutter.
He was a great reader. He loved music—especially jazz and blues. He had a strong connection with “be bop” (Monk, Bird, Max, Dizzy and the rest). He also loved the music of Cuba.
In Ann Arbor, he had an gallery called “Le Minotaure.” Later, he started “Galerie Jacques.”
In 1993 had a solo show “Noir et Bleu” in Detroit. His own work had been shown in France and Canada as well as here.
It was like this: for a long time, I rarely got to Ann Arbor. In 1992 or so, the more experimental/outsider Detroit artists started to get to know Jacques. Then, I got up there a lot.
It was mainly the Heidelberg Project which helped bring us all together. Jacques connected well with Tyree Guyton and Karen (his wife at that time). But he connected even more strongly with Tyree’s grandfather, Sam Mackey—and with his artwork. It was due to Jacques’ work that Sam Mackey became a well regarded outsider artist in Europe. He got to see this success in his lifetime.
We got to Ann Arbor more and Jacques got to Detroit more. Everything started to come together. He’d always shown Michigan artists at his galleries (as well as European). Now he found a whole other group of artists.
The 1990’s saw many excellent exhibitions and programs at Galerie Jacques. It was our salon, our café. I’d find a ride (or take the train up) to go to an opening, make art, look at art books, discuss art or current events and generally “shoot the bull.”
In 1996 I showed at the Musee de la Creation Franche in Begles, France. I went to the opening and got to spend a week in Paris as well. Despite my extremely poor French language skills, it was a great experience.
I got to meet Jacques’ brothers and their families. I also met some important friends/artists—especially Gerard Sendrey, Claudine Goux and Jaber. Jacques showed me all around (often translating for me). It was just amazing.
He retired from teaching, closed Galerie Jacques and started working with us at Zeitgeist in Detroit.
In Spring of 1999, Jacques organized two more shows in Paris at Galerie Art Tisane and Galerie Halle Saint-Pierre. These brought his European artists and his American artists together in Paris. The latter consisted of ten Europeans and ten Americans–plus Jacques.
He hoped to open a Galerie Jacques in Paris and continue the trans-continental explorations.
Sadly, he became ill with cancer and in May of 2002, he died. This was a hard loss for many of us.
Jacques Karamanoukian was a pioneer in promoting art brut and outsider art. He befriended and promoted many who are well known now and who will be: Sam Mackey, Jaber, Claudine Goux, Gerard Sendrey, Stani Nitkowski, J.J. Sanfourche, the late Rosemarie Koczy (plus many of the artists who have shown at the Zeitgeist).
For me (and I’m sure others) he forced me to examine more deeply the true meaning of art, what it means to be an artist and what the true possibilities of art are.
Jacques was always about digging deeper, pushing the envelope, taking chances, going too far, searching for magic, harnessing forces of love and adventure and just generally trying to do good work. Yes, to do good work (and maybe even better than that) is a big part of life.
We at Zeitgeist tried to fill part of the void which his loss leaves us with. Our gallery is closed now, but our “loosely knit” collective still has a few plans.
I let Jacques’ spirit and the residue of his ideas, his attitude inform my life and work.
As Gerard Sendrey wrote: “le grand Jacques, Karamanoukian.”
June 17, 2003/ Updated July 7, 2009
(This is the first in a series of articles about my great friend, the late Jacques Karamanoukian. He was a great guy and a big influence on many of us, here and in France. We often wonder what he would say and what he would do. I miss him every day. He was a true artist and a great supporter of art and of his fellow artists.)
The Zeitgeist arts space is gone. We’re trying to keep our website going though. It finally went down. Perhaps someday it’ll be restored. Among the lost sections were an articles by Jay Pinka, Arwulf Arwulf, Manon Meilgaard & myself on Jacques. I’ll try to restore my own texts in these blogs. Here’s the first of that series: