Russian Art: Free and Un-free
Rudolf Baranik – New Art Examiner October 1990
Painting Beyond the Death of Painting, described as the first group exhibition of American art in the Soviet Union, opened in Moscow last September. It was on view for a month in the Kuznetsky Most exhibition hall, a somewhat alternative space run by the Artist Union of Moscow. The hall, located in Artists House, is in a hilly bohemian neighbourhood only a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. It is a good place to sense the contradictions of the Soviet Union today. One sees the young women who work in the bookshops of the area, including one which specialises in Marxist/Leninist literature, wearing conspicuous crucifixes.
Donald Kuspit formulated the concept of the show, selected the work, and gave the exhibition its title, a title which puzzled the Moscow art world. An English-language poster, designed and produced in the States in the style of Russian Constructivism, was brought along to Moscow where we found a Russian language version in subtle minimalist style with the title translated adroitly into ‘long-lived painting’ having transformed a somewhat elegiac title into a triumphant one, the Russians felt better. The show also carried the subtitle American Imagistic and Abstract Painting, which the Russian poster omitted.
Was this really the first American group exhibition in the USSR? Hardly, although one could say that it represented the first large American group exhibition in Moscow since perestroika / glasnost. Soviet museum collections generally omitted American art, though the Pushkin Museum has works by such American left-wingers as Anton Refregier, Raphael Soyer, Alice Neel, and Rockwell Kent. Kent has for decades been a soviet favourite: his romantic northern landscapes and leftist politics suited the pre-glasnost zeitgeist. As I visited the Pushkin this time, I remembered an earlier visit during the Brezhnev era, now known officially as the Era of Stagnation. A large oil portrait of the chief stagnator hung at the entrance to the main gallery, and I noticed that while the portrait was painted with adequate skill, a few of Brezhnev’s medals were more sketchy than the rest. “The painter got tired at the end,” I said. “Oh no”, said the sophisticated young curator with bitter irony, “the medals were added by our own staff when Comrade Brezhnev received additional honours.”
How the Era of Stagnation, and the Stalin era before it, stunted Soviet art became graphically clear in the current Moscow exhibition of proposals for a monument to the victims of the Stalin era. The banality of symbolism ran through all the styles, and figurative and abstract works were equally full of bathos. The minimalist pieces were among the stronger pieces – at least they were not embarrassing. Most viewers seem to agree with the assessment of one Soviet critic: “the show underscored the fact that art was among the chief victims of Stalinism.”
I was one of the thirty-three artists whose work was selected to show that painting lives on beyond its death, and among the twenty or so artists who made the pilgrimage to Moscow with the curator, coordinator, poster designer, and several other Americans whose roles remained unclear to me. Some art critics from New York also travelled with us on the way to an international art critic’s conference in Tbilisi, Soviet Georgia.
The title of an exhibition like the title of the work of art is not all that important, unless it carries a specifically demonstrative message. The title of our show emphatically did. It was unavoidable that many would question the show’s title. It came up at the main press conference with Donald Kuspit and the First Secretary Of The All Union (USSR) Artist Union Tair Salakhov responded to questions. But after Kuspit gave his intricate learned answer. The question was not asked again.
During the crowded opening of the show I took off the badge which the artists were given to wear so I could unobtrusively listen to comments, and I listened mostly to what was being said by those I presumed to be Soviet artists or art students. Those who walked around silently with authoritative expressions I took to be critics. There seemed to be a lot of discussion about the intention of the exhibition. In spite of the title (or maybe because of it?) the Russians expected a less traditional group of works. “Where is the anti-aesthetic?” Meaning, ‘where is post-modernism?’ Not surprising, since at the hall entrance viewers were greeted by Alex Katz’s big Moose, which I last saw at the Whitney.
Pravda, the still stodgy central organ of the party, came out with the reportage on painting beyond the death of painting the morning after the opening. The reporter, G. Bacanova, said that the show comprises works by “33 drawing Americans.” The presumption that this was a young show did not start with Pravda. During the opening I repeatedly heard remarks about “these young Americans.” It did not register, however, till I heard some students remarking in front of my paintings that “this young artist paints very poetically.” In the name of anti-ageism I intervened: “no, my young friends, this artist is not young at all in fact I am the artist.” They looked astonished, but one of the students composed herself and said: “Ah, but your soul is young.” Soul, dusha in Russian, remains as common a word today as when Dead Souls was written by Turgenev.
Comments on individual works were the best indicators of how the show was perceived. There were surprises. Joan Nelson’s conceptualism in imitating cracks in miniature landscapes of the past was missed by many. On the other hand, some works which I considered deeply American and not especially accessible to other cultures drew attention. This was especially true of a small and modest painting by Benny Andrews, showing part of a figure and a brown hand resting gently on a slightly darker hand, apparently that of a dead family member or friend in a coffin. An American, and surely an American conscious of Black history, would read this image through the lens of the struggle and sufferings of Black people. And perhaps Russians would recognise in such a work something which touches their emotional nature. But some viewers at the Kuznetsky Most interpreted the work more specifically. I heard a young man say to his girlfriend: “do you think it is about lynching?”
I think that in spite of some of the puzzled reactions to its composition, the show selected by Donald Kuspit was a very good one to be shown in the Soviet Union at this time. As a serious show it counteracted the prevalent perception that to be liberal means to be Western, and to be Western means to be un-serious, sarcastic, flippant, and prone to antics – the opposite of stagnant, contrived and dogmatic, or what cultural life in the Soviet Union was thought to be. I find it sad to talk to young artists who know the work of Jeff Koons and not of Hans Haacke, who know Neo Geo but not the work of women artists using imagery informed by feminist convictions. One understands why the Russians are tired of messages, yet I would like to see in their hands a Russian translation of Lucy Lippard’s Get The Message? But that will take time.
I went with Hans Brender, Phoebe Helman and Jack Sonenberg, three artists in the show, to attend Sunday mass in the neighbourhood where we got a glimpse of old Russia, or perhaps, the new Soviet Union. In the churchyard of the small Russian Orthodox Church, a grey bearded old man wearing the traditional loose shirt sold newspapers – not Pravda or Izvestia, but the Moscow Church Herald, the official organ of the Moscow diocese and the Patriarch of all the Russias. The front page of the Herald carried an editorial which criticised the government for being too slow in returning churches appropriated for other purposes, such as anti-religious museums and factories. Equally moving was what we saw inside the crowded little church. While the colourful Eastern Mass was being conducted in the centre, a young priest was baptising one crying baby after another on the right, while two open coffins with the dead laid out drew mourners on the left. Women bent their shawl covered heads to kiss the foreheads of the dead in the old orthodox tradition, or fashionably dressed young couples wiped with towels and tried to quiet crying babies.
Nothing so graphic could be perceived in our search to understand Soviet art, probably because we expected to understand more, to get under the skin, so to say. As I think back one cannot judge Russian art without the consciousness that the visual arts have always lagged behind literature, music, theatre, and ballet in Russia. Can we think of Russian painters or sculptors who mean as much to the world as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky or Turgenev? The icons were a fruitful transplant from Byzantium. The avant-garde, which thrived just after the October Revolution, was more an outburst of hope and enthusiasm than visual power through formal sensibility, and at a time when modern art had strong support from the revolutionary government. Trotsky, busy organising the Red Army, found time to think about art, so much that he later co-authored with Andre Breton a surrealist manifesto. Bukharin, the chief ideologue of the Third International, was for avant-garde art, Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Culture, wrote that formalism is to be regarded as something valuable, calling formalism “a vegetable out of season.” But all this caved in under the socialist realism theories of Andre Zhdanov and Stalin’s brutal repression. It caved in because the foundation was not strong enough, because when the Russians looked at their immediate artistic past they could find only Repin, a sentimental follower of Rembrandt and a genre painter by impulse.
Before I went to Moscow last fall, I knew something about contemporary Soviet painting and sculpture, because of previous visits in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s and from following developments since glasnost entered the global vocabulary, but this visit led me to conclude that while art is now free from ideologically reactionary dictates and state pressure in the Soviet Union, a new un-freedom, insidious because it is self-imposed, exists. Many Soviet artists have reacted to their new freedoms with the belief that they must be as vanguard as possible. Vanguard is equated with the New York – Düsseldorf axis. The frantic reaching for the au courant stops many artists from digging deeper and robs them of the internal aesthetic which might lead them to “let the chips fall where they may.”
Philip Guston once wrote that when he starts to paint, four silent guests sit in the corner of his loft: a leading critic, a museum curator, an art historian, and a respected friend. But as he goes on working the intruders silently get up and leave one after another. During the long period of oppression a different set of intruders sat in the corners of the Crown studios of Soviet artists: a party ideologue, a critic from the party controlled art press, an academic art historian, and a representative from the bureaucratic artists union. The union-controlled exhibitions, prizes, sales, commissions, and creative assignments – paid stays in the countryside on the warm seashore of the Crimea. From my talks with Soviet artists and visits to their studios it became clear that the post-glasnost intruders are as follows: a dealer from New York, a reporter from Flash Art, a collector from Germany and an art lover from the fashionable technocrat set. In a sense these monitors are signs of success but they also control and hamper individual development.
If you combine de rigeur with the traditional Russian artists’ inclination to play the artiste, you get Vachtangov. Vachtangov was one of three artists’ studios a small group of Americans visited one afternoon. Our host gave us a list of clusters of artists located in the same area of the city to choose from. Since none of the names seem familiar, I and three others chose Vachtangov and group because the name has a glamorous ring in Russian history. It turned out that this artist was the grandson of the great Vachtangov, founder of the experimental Vachtangov Theatre. His father was an intellectual who was exiled under Stalin and our host Vachtangov saw himself as the heir to the dynasty. A small saturnine man with black beard and intense eyes, he moved nervously and talked incessantly, hardly fitting into his tiny studio. He showed us on a viewer about 60 slides of his work and then announced; “Now I will show you the originals,” and he started to bring down from an attic paintings which we had just seen in slides.
Vachtangov personifies the myth of the driven artist who lacks an emotional centre. While the work he showed us only covered the span of several years, it included what he called Expressionist work, old period, Minimalist period, experiments with pop-aesthetic, romantic work, the most emotional, beautiful, and finally quasi-photorealism. “I say quasi because I’m not good at it yet.” When we asked Vachtangov some mundane questions about how he manages to live and work in such a tiny space, how he makes a living, he cut us short: “I am Bohemian, you are Bohemians, the creative fire burns everywhere, Bohemia!” Younger artists whom I met were as a rule more suave, played it cool. But they also were determined to be demonstratively free, which made them un-free. These artists have invented their own personal censors which tell them to be sophisticated and modish.
In talking to artists in Moscow I sometimes wonder whether they were really so hepped up about the most vulgar, commercialised aspects of the Western art world that they had lost their Russian-ness? I thought it couldn’t be, so I was reassured when I encountered even nostalgia for the old Russia of birches and pine forests, sometimes expressed by the same people who were a minute ago admiring everything Western. The nostalgia is often an outgrowth of the defence of the environment against material and visual pollution. Many young people in the Soviet Union belonged to green clubs, which constitute, in fact, a Soviet version of the Green Party. The agenda to reverse the damage done to the land and the cities is more daring than ours in the West. Soviet art reflects this kind of intensity, the great turbulence in the life which surrounds it, and may seem frantic to outsiders. But it is unavoidable that in its own time Soviet – Russian art will find its way. This must come without duress of any kind – it will happen slowly – and in the quiet solitude of artists’ studios.
reprinted in Volume 36 no 3 January / February 2022