text only database on XX century russian art

soviet nonconfomism. 1960 - 1980


  go to             go to   

go to general issues
go to artists
go to exhibition and book reviews

general issues

Ralph Croizier. The Avant-garde and the Democracy Movement: Reflections on Late Communism in the USSR and China. - Europe-Asia Studies, May, 1999
But there is one more prerequisite for a successful avant-garde on the historical Western European model: some source of patronage. To a limited extent this came from the new Soviet intelligentsia and even apparatchiki bored with the stereotypes of official art. Perhaps more significant, under detente there were curious Western visitors, and buyers. This started on a modest scale in the 1960s with usually American Sovietologists dodging the KGB for furtive visits to underground art studios. Eventually these surreptitious contacts broadened into an active Western market for Soviet underground art further aided by the Brezhnev regime's willingness to let troublesome dissidents, including artists, emigrate to the West. In the Soviet case this opening to the West, and to Western market forces, climaxed only after the inauguration of Gorbachev's reforms in the mid-1980s.
The role of that art in the collapse of the Soviet Union is debatable. The earlier generation of Soviet unofficial artists, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, had dwelled on subversive stylistic references or grim exposes of tyranny. By the 1970s, perhaps in touch with Western post-modernist irony, a new generation of unofficial artists started to subvert the code of official socialist realist art through ironic or satiric expropriation of its forms and symbols. The growing importance of the Western art market and its expectation that Russian art should refer to politics encouraged this trend.
True, its artists did not seek to destroy the distinction between art and political life as Burger claimed was the goal of Europe's historical avant-garde. In both China and Russia artists sought more, not less, autonomy after decades of 'society' smothering art. But, at least at the height of the 'new tide art', they saw a purpose for art that transcended private concerns. For a w hile it was possible to imagine the artist as being in the van of emancipating social, cultural and even political change.
Thomas Strauss. Have You Heard the One About Achilles and the Tortoise? - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2000, Jan. 11, 2001
With their humiliating homage to Generalissimo Stalin, the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid gave precise expression to a new stylistic form, that of ironic and skeptical SOTS Art. Admittedly, the point in time played a crucial role. What may have been meant sincerely at the end of the 1930s became a distorting mirror and caricature in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Komar and Melamid -- along with Ilya Kabakov and others -- appeared on the international art scene. Either way, a portion of hidden, or black, humor, belongs to the necessary equipment of every significant fighter against totality.
Zeno of Elea's paradox in the story of Achilles and the tortoise generalizes the concept of the convergent and infinite series. The discovery of the wave/particle dualism of light made it necessary to reexamine the deterministic causality of the actual foundations of scientific philosophy, and led to modern quantum theory.
Contemporary art, especially the "conceptual" movements, thus joins forces with classical paradoxes and warns us to be wary of any thoughtless pronouncement of truth. According to contemporary critics, the old concept of "truth," stemming from the Enlightenment and on which the demagoguery surrounding all eastern artists was based, is a mere illusion.
Of course, the question of the preconditions for examining each statement of reality is not restricted to a certain domain, and was therefore asked in both East and West within the conceptual tendencies of the 1970s. In "western art," this was basically only one of an infinite number of contemporary art strategies -- a modern and innovative by-product, one might say. In the east, by contrast, the intensity with which the authors from what was then the dark side of the globe devoted themselves to the problem of visual paradoxes shows that they were concerned with the complex, fundamental question of each individual statement, with "the examination of truth." How is good or true art to flourish under the false or deformed linguistic rulings and thought patterns imposed from outside?
Meanwhile, it seems that not only dictators, but also their critics, have grown weary. In the latter days of communism, there are no more historical puzzles that need solving even today. That is the realization of almost all artists working to the east of the Spree or Oder rivers. Gone is the age of great paradoxes, and thus also the vital necessity of "East European art," which reveals by means of visual illogic. There are no questions and no answers. All that remains is a general, indiscriminate grayness. Since the end of the 1980s, there is an urgent need for a few new strategies.

Soviet painting: in Stalin's debt. (Joseph Stalin, who banned western art in the Soviet Union) (Books and Art) The Economist (US), Jan 28, 1989 v310 n7587 p89(1) text
Much of the power of Soviet avantgarde painting stems from the fact that "unofficial" artists such as Mr Kabakov have not been allowed to show their work publicly in the Soviet Union since, 1932, much less sell it. As a result, artists have preoccupied themselves with znachenye - the "meaning" of art - rather than with developing marketable styles. The store of contemplative and well-made modern paintings in the Soviet Union owes its existence, ironically enough, to the cultural isolationism of Stalin and his political descendants.
Western galleries clearly see the Russian art world as an untapped gold mine; and Mr Gorbachev's government too has woken up to the fact that znachenye can be a synonym for valyuta - hard currency.
The six-figure prices were made by the likes of Grisha Bruskin, whose pretty, figurative work was preferred by western buyers to the intellectually demanding pictures of more established masters.

Frances Stonor Saunders. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters
Today, the idea that the CIA would found a literary and cultural journal (Encounter) and would fund touring art exhibits (mostly through the New York Museum Of Modern Art, which was intimately linked to the agency) seems absurdist. The belief that this might foster a general freedom of thought, which would somehow magically evolve into anti-Communist thinking, could almost be the basis for a Pynchonesque satire, were it not for the knowledge that many readers of this book will already likely possess about just how insane things really got in the Fifties and Sixties.
Renee Baigell - A Celebration of the Forbidden: Rebel Artists and Their Work from the Soviet Union) - "Politics as Art/Art as Politics". Budapest Conference Lecture
I began to interview dissident artists in 1991 for the book that was published in 1995, called Soviet Dissident Artist: Interviews After Perestroika, which I coauthored with my husband, Matthew Baigell.
Or how they handled the inevitable conflict with the KGB before too much time had passed, before the artists had rewritten their own histories beyond recognition.
Before mentioning individual responses to my questions, I do want to say that most artists communicated both elation and depression as they reminisced. On the one hand it was a magic time. They were, for the most part, united in their dissidence, supportive of each other, knowing that they were trying to keep the spark of artistic morality alive as well as the absolute necessity of retaining their independent voice in the face of Soviet authority.
Some were even official artists by day and dissidents at night. A few artists even told me that despite the hard times and the threat both psychological and physical from the authorities, they missed the old days and the sense of camaraderie their underground status gave them.
The generation of the 1960s, born largely in the 1930s, is generally considered the largest and most powerful of the dissident generations, the one which really established the dissidence as a movement. But it is clear that each generation responded differently to the idea of dissidence, had different kinds of opportunities to reveal their dissidence, and endured different kinds of punishment for their dissidence.
Despite the files kept by the FBI in the United States, and that organization's use of intimidation, nothing remotely similar to the Soviet situation existed in the United States. So it is difficult for Americans to fully grasp the kind of quiet heroism, or desperate heroism, that characterizes the dissident movement. The politics of the dissident position was that the artists lived under a siege mentality.
Some artists have shed to a greater or lesser degree the subject matter they explored in pre-perestroika days, others have not, some remain Russian artists, others have not. The situation is volatile, and the moment in history which defined the dissident movement is now, essentially, at an end.
Alla Rosenfeld. A Celebration of the Forbidden: Rebel Artists and Their Work from the Soviet Union. "Politics as Art/Art as Politics". Budapest Conference Lecture
And, as some artists have said, "the quality of political art does not matter, since anyway no one knows anything about Russia and therefore a political artist can easily pass for a hero-martyr."
This type of "attention" from Western buyers often produced in nonconformists a "Cinderella complex" that manifested itself in the representation of the West (in their consciousness) as a fairy-tale Prince who is capable of appreciating their devotion to the ideals of high art. This was probably a cause for the severe disillusionment which many of the former nonconformist painters suffered after immigrating, having overestimated the interest of Western art dealers, curators and critics in their art.
Referring to his Toilet installation, Kabakov said: " his is only a metaphor, one which should work equally well in America or France or South America. We live in shit, but this is our normal place. Because the installation was done by a Russian artist, however, the Western visitor immediately asks: 'How many Russians live in the bathroom? Why do they live in the bathroom?' We live in houses, but Russians seem to be living in toilets."
Konstantin Akinsha. "Painting the Way to Perestroika," October 1997, Transitions magazine.
Bulldozers mauling paintings became a symbol of Leonid Brezhnev's cultural policy after the Cheryomushki attack provoked a wave of international protests. In the wake of the "bulldozer exhibition," the authorities changed their tactics, and a few displays of underground, nonconformist art‹any works that did not adhere to the state-approved style of Socialist Realism‹were permitted. But for the most part, the state war against unofficial artists continued unabated for the better part of the next two decades and ended only with Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost.
Yet they continued their partisan war for freedom of artistic expression, the only war of such scale in the history of art in this century.
The war has ended, but its history remains unwritten. Only now can emotions begin to be separated from reality, mythology from facts. To understand what happened to art in both the East and the West, and to begin to write the history of that period, we have to revisit the time of bulldozers crushing abstract paintings on that muddy Moscow plot.
Andrei Erfoeev. The Art of the Nonconformists. - A Celebration of the Forbidden: Rebel Artists and Their Work from the Soviet Union
The social space was only abandoned by those who fully felt that they were artists. For such artists their physical imperative to move a pencil across a piece of paper was eclipsed and smothered by their endeavour to find their way in a hostile surrounding. For them, art always meant more than the simple ability to represent things. They saw it as an instrument in building up personality and developing an ethical, philosophical and aesthetic program. Most of all, though, it was a psycho-therapeutic tool, a way of maintaining distance from, and avoiding the enemy.
The pre-Stalinist generation of avantgardists had died, and every living picture of past art was shattered. The feeling of inescapable loneliness took over these artists, and penetrated them so deeply, that when freedom finally did arrive (first for those in the West, later in Russia too) and they were finally able to communicate with the world, they were unable to escape this psychological complex according to which they saw themselves as bastard children who had been given absolutely no support from any of the great traditions of twentieth century art.
They want to preserve that distance which enables them to - curiously and with aesthetic pleasure -- dissect the other people's mentality and psyche from a standpoint outside of the reach of societal stimuli, or at the other extreme: in the midst of society's decay. It's just that Russians do not want to see themselves in a mirror, they are not curious about the far from attractive collective unconscious. Every voice that mentioned the atonement of the end of the Gorbachov-age has fallen silent.
Letter to the editor. Highly regarded comrade Editor! - Sovietskaya Kultura, 1974. September 20. [Translation of document from Russian into English. Source: Records of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Fonds 300): Research Institute (Munich): Information Resources Department: Slavic, Baltic and Eurasian Archives: Soviet "Red" Archives (Subfonds 80), Old Code Subject Files (Series 1) - (A Celebration of the Forbidden: Rebel Artists and Their Work from the Soviet Union)
But the strangest thing was that together with the so-called "artists" v or even earlier than them -- foreigners arrived at the scene. They came by embassy cars which bore license plates of foreign capitalist countries. Some of the pictures were even delivered to the site by these cars. Among the foreigners, as it was discovered later, there were many correspondents from foreign newspapers, and the purpose of their visit was by means to cover this "artistic event." They took pictures of this riot and actively participated in it. Moreover, the correspondent of the Norwegian newspaper "Aftenposten" Udgord Nils Morten even allowed himself to slap a worker, who tried to humble him. There were also other cases like that.


Boris Groys. Kabakov, Or Private Museums.- A Celebration of the Forbidden: Rebel Artists and Their Work from the Soviet Union. "Politics as Art/Art as Politics", Budapest Conference Lecture
But even if a certain work of Russian unofficial art will be accepted by the neutral art historical, curatorial gaze, some crucial dimension of it disappears, gets lost. The central point is that for Kabakov unofficial art--and also his own art--is much more interesting, and relevant and exciting as garbage than as art.
The main problem of Russian unofficial art, was, as I said, on the contrary, the absence of the museum. So to be able to show what it means to be an unofficial artist, Kabakov needs somehow to destroy the museum, to bring it ostensibly to ruin, to demonstrate how the museum, how the exhibition space collapses, instead of just bringing the products of his artistic activity into the museum as it already is.
At the same time Kabakov has by no means an illusion that he can abolish the museum by a kind of a heroic, romantic, avantgarde gesture like, let`s say, Malevich`s proclamation that he was creating his art for an imaginary, suprematist, new mankind and not for the existing museum curators and spectators. Rather, Kabakov tries to find in the Soviet system itself, as it de facto existed, structures, or institutions, or life forms which, if not being precisely museums, were functioning in a way comparable to the museums, so that they were able to keep personal memories on the verge of their complete dissolution.
And we cannot escape communality because we are always initially exposed and exhibited, initially subjected to the violence of the communal gaze, on the level of our bodily, material existence. So we can abolish communism--but we cannot abolish being communal.
The museum can be seen as a kind of the eternal communal apartment, in which artist is enclosed with the others. Jean-Paul Sartre has already said that Hell is the Others. And Hell is like a museum, something between the Paradise of Divine Memory and the garbage can of total oblivion.

exhibition and book reviews

Boris Groys. - Artforum - "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932" (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1992)
Ilya Kabakov If the last decade was for many a time of weighing the various experiences of the twentieth century, Ilya Kabakov's work in the '90s has carried out the task of remembrance most impressively and without compromise. Not just a reflection on the Communist experiment in Russia, his installations meditate to a much greater degree on the history of modern art, here told as a story of personal trauma, insecurity, and lonely dreams. One is reminded that this century is replete with intelligent modem artists who were unsuccessful and went unrecognized.
Margarita Tupitsyn. Shaping Soviet art. (two German exhibitions; various artists; Doucumenta-Halle, Kassel, and Kunsthalle, Cologne) (Report From Germany) Art in America, Sept 1994 v82 n9 p41(4) text
They were all considered "unofficial artists," but their presence together in this exhibition testified primarily to the distortions created by Soviet cultural structures rather than to any shared ideological or esthetic affinities. Had these artists' careers developed under more normal conditions, most of them would never have ended up on the same exhibition checklist.
By including Sots art works, whose deconstructive strategies were directed toward many of the art works seen in both exhibitions, these shows in effect raised the question of whether Socialist Realism actually belongs on the walls of 20th-century museums, since it was conceived and intended for communal rather than individual reception. Perhaps Socialist Realist works should be viewed primarily as a source text for postmodernist refraction.
Perhaps this is the moment when Sots artists should be given due credit for their ability to keep us at a distance from and yet aware of the power once wielded by the icons of totalitarian  culture.
One explanation of what might otherwise seem an awkward position lies in the fact that were it not for Western money and Western scholars' interest, Soviet art history would scarcely be known. This is due to the prolonged absence in the former Soviet Union of independent, professional museums of modern art, publications, galleries and critics. If such mechanisms existed in adequate numbers they would have taken on the task of examining their native culture. Western curators would thus be spared the confusion they experience when confronted with an undigested mass of raw material from a culture whose signs are difficult for them to read.
SANDE CHEN. ICA offers rare look at Soviet avant-garde art. THE NEW SOVIET ART (Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism. Institute of Contemporary Art.), Nov. 1 to Jan. 6. - November 6, 1990., Volume 110, Number 48 Text
In conceptualism, the idea behind the work is more important than the physical object representing the idea. Thus Soviet conceptual art is a reflection of the Russian mentality and a representation of contemporary Russian problems. Moscow remains the center for this deeply operated movement.
One of Kabakov's followers is the leader of Collective Actions, Andrei Monastrysky. Collective Actions is a group of performance artists who believe that art is continuous, rather than a discrete object or event. They stage "country walks" in which participants have no idea what they're meeting for, and go about doing individualist things. There is no audience. Their ideas emphasize randomness and emptiness and are based on Zen, minimalism, and a study by John Cage.
Between Spring and Summer is an entertaining tryst through Soviet culture, but it is important not to place Western biases upon this work. These artists are aware of Western influences, but choose instead to base their work on everyday Russian life, and the political and social climate there. Their views provide us with new insights, and enrich the new feeling of openness between the United States and the USSR.
Stephen Kupper. Praprintium. A Berlin Exhibition of Moscow Samizdat Books - Other Voices, v.1, n.2 (September 1998) (May 14th - June 27th, 1998 at the Staatsbibliothek, Potsdamer Strasse, Berlin, and from November 7th, 1998 to March 7th, 1999 at Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen, Germany.) - text
This use of everyday speech would eventually lead to the complex play of ideologies in Moscow Conceptualism, probably the most influential, and at any rate, the most visible form of samizdat art.
Moreover, the CD-ROM that accompanies the exhibition catalogue contains two booklets, Divan-Kartina (Sofa- Painting, 1979) and Avtomat i cyplyata (Submachine Gun and Chicks, 1979), which describe fictitious exhibitions of Kabakov's eponymous pictures, painted in the 1960's. The descriptions of these virtual shows, complete with spectators' reactions, turn the unofficial artist's inability to exhibit his works into a new art form which would eventually lead to Kabakov's later installations.
In between the pre-Gutenberg exhibits and the post-Gutenberg virtual representation, there is the Book. The catalogue may serve as a metonymy for the vast theoretical commentary that has grown around the original works in the last decade, after the underground began to appear in public, i.e. in print.
The step into the Gutenberg galaxy that the underground scene took after perestroika has led to the objectification in history of their original efforts -- the vast literature on them has all but overgrown the actual texts.
Eleanor Heartney. "Moscow: The Group" at Neuhoff. (Russian and Soviet art, various artists)(New York, New York)(Review of Exhibitions)(Brief Article) Art in America, Feb 1996 v84 n2 p92(1) - text
As a result, much of the work has an innocuous, decorative quality. Curiously, the artists who have fared best in the transition are those who are based in a realist esthetic.
Vladimir Nemuchin's collage paintings seem to have lost their edge. He continues to use his trademark playing cards, whose invocation of the powers of chance and fate quietly challenged the determinism of Soviet ideology. However, with one exception, the works here abandon the messy gestural quality of his earlier work for a tidy, lifeless precision.
The dilemmas faced by post-Soviet artists mirror those confronted by postmodern artists generally: the loss of the sense that history has a logic and the disappearance of a clear-cut adversary. In such circumstances, art begins to lose its moorings. Can it find a way to be anything more than a decorative accent or a self-indulgent cry for attention?


Margarita Tupitsyn. After and Double After - THE MODERN SOVIET CITY: (Abstract of a paper to be presented at the Conference, Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century (Stanford University, November 5-7, 1998).
"The Moscow photographs demonstrate an expanse of collective energy and no alienation. In its comprehensive survey of a variety of city locations and everyday routines, Rodchenko's city images convey a sophisticated modern life determined by a concrete time and place rather than adhere to a utopian vision of a future Soviet city. As a result, we observe the physiognomy of the city which no longer exists; Moscow had been transformed several times since then.
Dissertation's pictures (by Mikhailov) are of a reality that can be defined post-utopian with respect to the factography of the 1920s, and post-mythographic with respect to the photo-staging of the subsequent decades. Here the plus/minus dichotomy of "before" and "after" is supplemented by minus-utopia of the "double after."