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Tigran Tsitoghdzyan in front of his artworks

Portrait of a Prodigy

How Tigran Tsitoghdzyan became a global art sensation on his own terms


From the moment he laid hands on oil paints and canvas, then six year-old Tigran Tsitoghdzyan had made up his mind. He would devote his life to making art. And he would do so by his own rules, on his own timetable, and in his own style—depending on which one appealed to him at any given period in his professional evolution. And like most child prodigies, he was in a very big hurry to fulfill his destiny.

Born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia during Soviet times, at age 10 he was given a solo art exhibition in Moscow under the auspices of a highly esteemed and influential Soviet minister of culture. Though the boy-genius’s abundant gifts were celebrated by the cultural establishment, the accolades, privileges, and scholarships came with strings attached. It was the classic struggle between institutional norms and the artist’s innate quest for creative autonomy.

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Tsitoghdzyan The young prodigy
Tsitoghdzyan The young prodigy
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The young prodigy, Yerevan, Armenia.

 “There was a revered art academy in St. Petersburg that taught the traditions of realism, a discipline which, at the time, I detested,” Tsitoghdzyan recounted. “My teachers at the Yerevan Fine Arts Academy were from that school and found contemporary art unacceptable. They would judge art by how many colors you used and mixed. If you used seven colors, you were deemed better than the student who used only three. Finding this absurd, I never took them seriously. I knew they were trying to break me. And I’m thinking, ‘good luck, nice try!’”

Twelve years after arriving in Manhattan in 2008 with just a few thousand dollars in his wallet and one local connection in his address book, Tsitoghdzyan reflects on how he has taken the international art world on a grand adventure in contemporary portraiture with his now iconic series of paintings called Mirrors, followed by another recent series Self-Isolation.

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Tsitoghdzyan’s most recent series Self-Isolation
Tsitoghdzyan’s most recent series Self-Isolation
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Tsitoghdzyan’s most recent series Self-Isolation, a commentary on the solitude experienced in New York City during the pandemic.

These breakout works that easily command six figures have catapulted Tsito-ghdzyan to A-list status as a bankable portrait and multi-media artist. His high productivity has sustained his success in high-end markets across the globe—from prominent galleries and prestigious art fairs to major foundations, renowned auction houses, biennales, and festivals. The oversized oil on canvas pieces have found their way into private collections and the homes of elite clients willing to pay handsomely for a personal portrait rendered by the modern master himself—the highest compliment a grandiose selfie can pay its subject.

 One Mirrors portrait once dominated the signage above Times Square in New York City, the mecca for aspiring artists out to make a name for themselves. And while the name Tsitoghdzyan may be impossible for most to pronounce, his works are impossible to ignore, as they bring a new dimension of intensity, intrigue, and insight to contemporary portraiture.

Tsitoghdzyan paints not only with attention to detail, but also with intention to expose: “Mirrors is an allegory on how millions of young women and girls on social media belie their inner complexes through the magic of digital tools like Photoshop, filters, and editing functions. They can create an ideal physical self with very little resemblance to their own reality. It poses an open question on the impact of ‘selfie-mania’ on the human psyche. I wanted to wake up the world to the artifice that social media has generated in our culture,” he explains.

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Tigran Tsitoghdzyan Artwork
Tigran Tsitoghdzyan Artwork
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Tsitoghdzyan began painting in hyper-realism with his Millennium series, rendered in the Florentine style but with a social commentary about the digital revolution.

The word artifice is the antithesis of Tsitoghdzyan’s own uncompromising nature, both personally and in dealing with the art community at large. He describes himself as engaged in a war with an industry that tends to view the creators of art as commodities for sale.

This triggers memories of another time in his life in which he felt his creative liberties threatened. After graduating from the Yerevan Fine Arts Academy in 1999, Tsitoghdzyan thought he would find artistic freedom at the small but prestigious École Cantonale d’Art du Valais, nestled in a pastoral Swiss town, that focused on contemporary art.

“Those hopes were quickly dashed,” he recalls. “My teacher approached me in class and said, ‘Oh, you’re painting?’ and I proudly replied, ‘Yes, on canvas’. Then he asked what country I was from and when I said Armenia, he asked, ‘Do you have television there? Don’t you read the news and art journals?’ He was trying to tell me that nobody paints anymore.”

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Early paintings of Tigran Tsitoghdzyan
Early paintings of Tigran Tsitoghdzyan
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An early painting foreshadows the use of hands to express emotion and define negative space.

Apparently, the trend during the early 2000s was performance art, installations, and photography. Nonetheless, Tsitoghdzyan’s inner armor enabled him to resist these oblique derisions. Over those next four years he painted at a prolific rate. By that point, he was fluent in French and English, in addition to his native Armenian and Russian. This gave him the edge in developing an international following. The sale of his art afforded him the luxury of painting full time while enjoying a laid-back lifestyle in a small European community.

 “I was happy,” he says. “But after a while, life was becoming a bit too comfortable, and I was losing momentum. I remembered my youth, when everyone predicted I would become a superstar. I was now in my early 30s and that big breakthrough still hadn’t happened. It dawned on me that if I didn’t try to challenge myself in the place where the ultimate challenge is, namely New York, I may regret it for my entire life. It was a now-or-never moment. I left for America with one little suitcase. That was pretty crazy,” he mused.

It dawned on me that if I didn’t try to challenge myself in the place where the ultimate challenge is, namely New York, I may regret it for my entire life.

He knew only one person in New York, a prominent art critic who had authored many art books and held panel discussions at the school in Switzerland. He reached out to her for some tips and advice. As he tells it, she said: “‘First, you must find a place to share with a few people, somewhere inexpensive, which means far from the city. You must get a day job quickly, make daily money and start painting only on weekends. And then gradually you can get involved in the art scene.’”

 That was anathema to Tsitoghdzyan. “I’m thinking ‘No! I want to paint full time. I don’t want to do anything else,’ all while she shared stories of very brilliant artists who must teach in this and that university, write books, or work at an art gallery, just to get by. She flat out told me, ‘fairy tales don’t come true.’ I left thinking, ‘This is the biggest motivational speech I ever had. I am going to do everything opposite of what she just said.’”

He went straight to downtown Man-hattan to find his own apartment, admittedly with no idea how he would pay the hefty rents. “The thing is, I was selling work from Switzerland but not making the kind of money you need in New York. Anyway, I just took the risk. And, luck was with me. I started the Millennium series, which turned out to be quite lucrative.”

He had been invited to show in Florence, Italy, which he considers a great honor because of Michelangelo and the other Renaissance geniuses of the period. “This gave me the idea to bring back Florentine traditional painting to my work. So, I started doing realistic painting, which I previously avoided wherever possible. Millennium is a Madonna series set in today’s context. The mom is holding her iPhone and the child is gazing across the room watching TV cartoons,” he points out.

The paintings sold enough for Tsitoghdzyan to stay afloat and, perhaps more rewarding, prove the know-it-all art critic wrong. That same apartment that he once could barely afford remains his residence and studio, where he thrives as a New York-based global artist.

However, lately he spends chunks of time in his native Armenia, sometimes as a volunteer mentor for the Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellowship, and most times to be close to his parents. He credits them with giving him the love and unconditional support to shield himself from the underside of the art world. He was 14 when the USSR collapsed, putting a fledging independent Armenia in free fall. “Even while the economy was crumbling around us, and everything was scarce, I continued to make art. I will never forget how my father would make paintbrushes for me out of my mother’s hair just so I could keep working,” he shared.

Buoyed by his financial success, Tsitoghdzyan had a futuristic studio/gallery built in his hometown of Yerevan. Moreover, by popular demand, he has opened the gallery on weekends as tourists and locals flock to view his works, and, sometimes, compete to be his next model.

Now in the prime of his career, Tsitoghdzyan is at a crossroads that most talents who experience fame and fortune must face. “I want to make my own artistic choices, without the filter of my so-called brand, which is just a style that I am exploring until a new inspiration takes me in another direction. I have always been drawn to different styles of art.”

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A painting from Tsitoghdzyan’s Mirrors series towers above Times Square, 2021.
A painting from Tsitoghdzyan’s Mirrors series towers above Times Square, 2021.

Whether its Japanese art with its bright flat colors or hyper-realism with a social message, perhaps a nod to the abstract expressionism or deconstructionism that appear in his earlier works, Tsitoghdzyan is hellbent on exercising his creative versatility. “I do not want to adhere to parameters that the art industry thinks will sell best—which, sadly, often comes down to what is tried and true. Where’s the challenge in that?”

It’s a stand that paints a very clear portrait of exactly who Tigran Tsitoghdzyan is and is not. And that should keep him a happy warrior well into the future. 

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.