FROM THE MAGAZINE

Meet Joan Agajanian Quinn, Art “Accumulator” and Muse to Warhol and Hockney

The Los Angeles legend’s highly personal trove of art will be exhibited at the Bakersfield Museum of Art this fall.

Photographed by Max Farago

Joan Quinn  at home in L.A.
Quinn at home in L.A.

The jacarandas were in full bloom when I drove to meet Joan Agajanian Quinn. The magical trees blossom twice a year, brightening the gray sprawl of Los Angeles with sublime purple clouds. (Vladimir Nabokov, who had a form of synesthesia he called “color hearing,” reportedly remarked that he could live in L.A. for the jacarandas alone.) Weaving through surface streets on the west side, I passed under purple canopies and over purple carpets of fallen petals. By the time I got to Beverly Hills, the jacarandas seemed to be conspiring with the bougainvillea—a riot of red, orange, yellow, and magenta—to light the way toward Quinn’s house.

Portrait of Quinn by George Hurrell, 1985.

Courtesy of Joan Quinn.

A bit of cosmic foreshadowing, it turns out. I knew that Quinn, a longtime arts patron and the former West Coast editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, was one of the most painted (and sketched, and sculpted) women alive. Some 300 of her beloved artist friends have made portraits of her over the years, including David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Helmut Newton, and Robert Mapplethorpe. I’d come to get the story behind her extraordinary “accumulation” (she does not care for the word “collection”), which will be the subject of an exhibition at the Bakersfield Museum of Art this fall.

Portrait of Quinn by Paul Jasmin, 1979.

Courtesy of the artist @ WM Artist Management.

What I didn’t know was that Quinn has a thing for color spectrums. When I entered her property through a back gate, I found myself under an elaborate weave of multicolored papeles picados, those strands of perforated paper flags you see all over Mexico. They were tied to a tall magnolia tree in the yard, maypole-like, and stretched outward in every direction, forming a kind of psychedelic Christmas Star overhead. Sitting on a table nearby was a kaleidoscopic bouquet of roses and a candy dish brimming with rainbow M&M’s. Then there was Quinn herself: strikingly handsome, in her 80s, with olive skin, cheekbones for days, and shoulder-length hair that went from silver to dark brown to hot pink, a punky ombré reminiscent of Neapolitan ice cream.

Quinn’s accumulation of art is not limited to the portraits. One of her other paintings, Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2, went for nearly $52.5 million at Christie’s in 2019, setting the world record for the artist at auction. But the portraits make her collection one of the most unusual in Southern California, a rare testament to patronage and friendship. From the table outside, where Quinn had set down a platter of tea sandwiches, I could spot one of the portraits in a corner of the yard—a sculpture by Lloyd Hamrol titled Black Cactus, a slab of California black granite gleaming in the sun.

An image of Quinn at her home in Beverly Hills in 1984, from Quinn’s personal archive.

Over our two-hour lunch, Quinn explained that the portraits weren’t planned. It began with a handful of artists; over time, it became a thing. The artists wanted to do their Joan. “They all just started doing them,” Quinn said. “It was kind of trendy to do a portrait.” Sometimes people assume the accumulation is the project of an off-the-charts narcissist, and this makes Quinn laugh, because it’s really the opposite—the portraits are all capturing the same person, so each highlights the hand of its artist all the more. Ruscha’s Joan looks nothing like Hockney’s Joan, which looks nothing like Newton’s Joan, and so on. “It’s not about me,” she explained. “It’s about the artists. Three hundred artists are painting one bowl of fruit.”

Quinn with Jean-Michel Basquiat, New York, 1985.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

Quinn with Gregory Evans (center) and David Hockney at the Quinns’ home, 1979.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

Quinn with Divine (left) and Ron Link, Los Angeles, 1981.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

Quinn with her husband, Jack, 1990s.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

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The bowl of fruit was born Joan Agajanian, in Long Beach, and grew up in L.A., the oldest of four siblings in a prominent Armenian family. Her father was a race car promoter—his cars won the Indianapolis 500 twice—and her mother a housewife. Quinn gravitated to artists early on, in some cases before the artists were even artists. One of her closest friends in middle school was Dora De Larios, the renowned ceramicist. While working at Desmond’s department store during her senior year of high school, Quinn struck up a friendship with a young coworker, Billy Al Bengston, now the prominent California Pop artist. At the University of Southern California, where she studied education, she befriended and bought pieces from some of the art students, including an abstract painter named David Novros and a sculptor named Ken Price.

Quinn got serious about accumulating once she was with Jack Quinn, her husband of nearly 60 years. The couple met in the 1950s, when she was an assistant registrar at USC’s law school and he was a student there. They married in 1961 and remained together until Jack’s death, in 2017. The day I had lunch with Quinn, she was wearing one of Jack’s old button-up shirts, along with two bold necklaces—one a round gold medallion of the Virgin Mary, the other a gothic cross pendant—which she would hold and stroke as she spoke. “We had a very fiery relationship,” she said.

At Quinn’s home, Sea of Desire, by Ed Ruscha.

A photo of Andy Warhol and Pope John Paul II, autographed and gifted to Quinn by the artist.

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The Quinn marriage seems to have been a love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter proportions. “They were opposites that matched perfectly,” their daughter Amanda told me. Amanda’s twin sister, Jennifer, describes her parents’ relationship by referencing one of the portraits—a pair of double doors made of found printed metal by Tony Berlant. “My dad is the rooted tree, and my mom is the tornado of movement,” she explained. Because Quinn was brought up with an old-world emphasis on blood ties—“You don’t leave the nest,” is how she put it—family was the center of everything. The clan now includes two grandchildren: Jennifer’s daughters, Paloma, 13, and Georgia, 10. It also includes the Quinns’ longtime housekeeper, Clara Perez, and her son, Manuel Perez, 28, who grew up in the household from birth, at the Quinns’ insistence. Asked to describe the Quinn family culture, Manuel laughed and said, “Binding and ferocious.”

A Richard Bernstein portrait of Quinn, 1985, behind a display of cups by Ken Price.

Quinn, in a Frank Gehry chair, in front of Tony Berlant’s House-Rock Man Canyon, 1969, and Roberto Gil de Montes’s Untitled Fish painting, 1988 (on steps). The aprons along the stairs are by (from left) Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, and Laddie John Dill.

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The ties extended to their artist friends. “They loved her,” Berlant told me. “Nobody else had this kind of relationship with artists at that time. Nobody.” Larry Bell echoed the sentiment: “Joan is Armenian Catholic, but she is very much like a Jewish mother.” Quinn would plan parties to mix the legal crowd with the art crowd. “That got the lawyers to start buying things,” she explained. “And to look at art.” Jack would help the artists with any legal problems that might arise. “We always felt the galleries were screwing over our artist friends,” Quinn said. “Jack represented them—getting them paid, getting their artwork back. Just things that a lawyer could take care of.” Together, the artist Joe Goode said, the Quinns were a “primary support system for artists in L.A.” at a time when you could count the city’s art dealers on one hand. »

Artists were around all the time. Bengston held the twins, one in each hand, at the hospital right after they were born, when they weighed only three pounds. Later, it was totally normal for the girls to come home from Catholic school to find Helmut Newton photographing their parents, or to have dinner at the Twin Dragon with Ed Ruscha and the late Mexican sculptor Robert Graham, the twins’ godfather. “It was always that way,” Amanda said. “It was never something I paid much attention to.” If one of the twins ran into Andy Warhol—on Madison Avenue in New York City, say—they knew to expect the same question: “Amanda or Jennifer?” Occasionally, artists would accompany the family to church on Sunday. “We would be quite a sight going to Mass with Divine, Andy Warhol, Zandra Rhodes, Duggie Fields, and Andrew Logan,” Jennifer recalled.

Quinn with Warhol, Los Angeles, 1983.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

Quinn with Ed Ruscha, 1977.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

Quinn with John Baldessari and a friend, 1982.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

A portrait of Quinn by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985.

Joan Quinn, 1985 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, used by permission.

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As best as anyone can tell, Graham was the first well-known artist to do portraits of Joan, back in 1976: two cast bronze sculptures of her face, finished with patina, pencil, and gold leaf. Soon, other friends were doing Joans. Chuck Arnoldi did Joan with twigs; a few of them captured the blue hair she had at the time. Don Bachardy drew Joan in graphite on paper, then painted her in watercolor several times over the years. Fields painted her in acrylic on canvas. Bengston’s Joan was a watercolor collage. Laddie John Dill made his with tempered-glass tubing on plywood.

Quinn was in Houston when she got the call from David Hockney. “He said, ‘Would you sit for me tomorrow?’ ” she recalled. She was supposed to go to the opera. Instead, she got on a plane the next morning. “I missed opening night, because I wasn’t going to miss getting a portrait done by David Hockney.” When she landed in Los Angeles, her plane got stuck on the tarmac, and she arrived at Hockney’s studio late. He told her to come back the following morning. “And then the next three days were sublime,” Quinn said of the sitting. “It was like looking at him and going, I love you, David. I love you, David.”

Elsa Flores, Nuestra Señora Joan Agajanian Quinn Santísima Patrona de los Artistas del Pueblo de Los Angeles, 1990.

Courtesy of Elsa Flores.

Quinn met Warhol at an art opening in New York, then more formally at an L.A. dinner party in the late 1970s, and became the West Coast editor of Interview soon after. The role entailed wrangling interesting people to appear in the magazine, doing interviews, and throwing dinner parties. More generally, it meant offering up ideas, knowledge, and personalities for Warhol to absorb into his many projects. “Andy was a sponge,” Quinn told me. The job also led to more portraits. One summer day in 1984, for instance, Warhol called Quinn to ask a favor: Could she please bring some marijuana to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel? In exchange, his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat would do a portrait. Quinn remembered that the drag queen Divine, who always stayed with her, had left some joints in a drawer near the couch where he usually slept, so she grabbed those, along with some pink mimeograph paper, then headed to the hotel. Basquiat drew three portraits on the pink paper. “He did my face like a scratchy-looking witch,” Quinn said.

Quinn in the late 1980s, surrounded by a few of the portraits of her.

Courtesy of the artist Tom Carroway.

Quinn left Interview when Warhol died, in 1987, but she went on to hold other jobs in journalism and publishing. She was society editor at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and had staff positions at various magazines, including Condé Nast Traveler and House & Garden. In the 1980s and ’90s, she started two public television programs, Joan Quinn ETC and The Joan Quinn Profiles. In 2015, she was asked to host a talk show for Beverly Hills Television called Beverly Hills View, which continued to air until the beginning of the pandemic. (To get a sense of Quinn’s inimitable interviewing style, treat yourself to the video of her sit-down with John Waters, available on YouTube.) Throughout, Quinn made it a point to promote artists she believed in.

Quinn, Butch Kirby (left), and David Hockney (middle), captured by Tom Sewell, 1987.

Courtesy of Tom Sewell, tomsewell.com.

Her accumulation now spans from the Ferus Gallery group to Chicano art, the Light and Space movement to photography. Luciana Martinez de la Rosa’s oil-on-canvas Joan is glamorous and regal, with statement jewelry. In Patrick Demarchelier’s series, she holds a blindfold across her eyes. Ian Falconer painted her as a bare-breasted bust, a tongue-in-cheek portrait in the style of Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse period. Elsa Flores made her a saint: Nuestra Señora Joan Agajanian Quinn Santísima Patrona de los Artistas del Pueblo de Los Angeles. The sculptor Lynda Benglis told me that Quinn’s is “the first egalitarian collection that I have ever belonged to.”

Although the Quinns loaned some of their artworks in the past, the exhibition at the Bakersfield Museum, titled “On the Edge: Los Angeles Art, 1970s–1990s, From the Quinn Family Collection,” will be the most comprehensive yet. It came together at the urging of the museum’s curator of collections and exhibitions, Rachel McCullah Wainwright. After assuming her role, in 2015, Wainwright began doing studio visits with California artists. That’s when she learned about Joan and Jack. “I would go see these artists who were making art in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and would start to hear ‘the Quinns’ in a lot of stories that were told about the time period,” Wainwright explained. Eventually, she encountered Joan at a gallery, and soon after that, scored an invitation to see the accumulation. “Once I saw how epic this collection was, I understood what an amazing story could be told.”

Quinn with Robert Rauschenberg, 1978.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

Jack and Joan at a gallery opening, 1977.

Courtesy of Joan Agajanian Quinn.

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On my first trip to Quinn’s house, I did not go inside. There was ongoing plumbing work, Quinn explained; with large portions of the walls demolished, it was simply not in a state for visitors. A couple of weeks later, however, I was allowed in for a quick tour. Virtually every inch of wall space was covered with art. Scores of paintings and drawings were stacked on the floor, against walls. Room after room contained a breathtaking concentration of art: a Ruscha leaning against a Hockney, itself leaning against a Basquiat. Suspended from the ceiling in a grand entryway was a sculpture of a nude woman, by Antony Donaldson. “It’s a woman on a trapeze, hanging, almost like a crucifix,” Quinn said.

A snap taken by Andy Warhol, from the late 1970s.

Detail of image © the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It was mind-boggling to picture Quinn’s record-breaking Ruscha here, among the stacks. She had already told me the whole story of how she had gotten Ruscha’s blessing before selling it. “I called Ed,” she had explained, “and said, ‘Jack’s gone, and it’s time to let this go. I don’t know how to tell you, Ed, but I’m in tears, because I don’t want it to leave me.’ And he said, ‘You know what? You’ve taken care of it for 40 years. Now someone else should enjoy it.’ How great is that?” Standing in the entryway, Quinn pointed upstairs and mentioned that the Ruscha had hung just outside her and Jack’s bedroom. “I walked out every morning, and it was right on the wall in front of me,” she said. “We hung it there, and it stayed there. That’s how we felt about what we had.”

From left: Quinn, Amanda Quinn Olivar, Georgia Joan Quinn Gowey, Jennifer Quinn Gowey, and Paloma Quinn Gowey.

Hair by Lauren Palmer-Smith for Home Agency using Bumble and bumble; makeup assistant: Anna Kato; Quinn’s haircut and color by William Escalera; manicure by Gilda Antonian; photographer’s assistant: Robbie Corral.