Anna Sokolina on the “RUSSIA!” Panels at the Guggenheim

RUSSIA! 16 September 2005 – 11 January 2006, Guggenheim Museum, New York

The magnificent RUSSIA! exhibition at the Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum in New York(<>), introduced to the public as “the most comprehensive exhibition of Russian art ever shown in the United States,” features over 270 “of the greatest masterworks of Russian art, from the thirteenth century to the present, many traveling for the first time outside Russia.”(<>)

As indicated on the wall preceding the display, it is “realized under the patronage of Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation” and “organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in collaboration with the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography of the Russian Federation, State Russian Museum, The State Tretyakov Gallery, State Hermitage Museum, and ROSIZO State Museum Exhibition Center.”

In conjunction with this groundbreaking once-in-a-generation event, the Sackler Center for Arts Education is presenting an exciting series of programs from lectures and panel discussions, to interactive meetings with artists, to performances of Russian music and exhibition-related workshops and tours.

On Saturday, September 24, the day Hurricane Rita attacked Texas, and the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City with President Bush present became last week’s history, the sequence of splendid events at the Guggenheim Museum opened with the first panel discussion: Different Generations, Intersecting Histories: Nonconformist Art in the Soviet Union.

This panel, moderated by Valerie Hillings, the Guggenheim Museum Assistant Curator, and Alla Rosenfeld, Director and Senior Curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art at the J.V.Zimmerli Museum(<>), explored the dramatic history of nonconformist art through the recollections of the now most-recognized artists who participated in the movement: the legendary Grisha Bruskin, Vitaly Komar, Ernst Neizvestny, Vladimir Yankilevsky, and the new celebrity and collector Vadim Zakharov.

On October 5th, the second panel, American Collectors of Russian Art moderated by Valerie Hillings, introduced prominent American collectors of Russian Art Norton T. Dodge and Raymond Johnson, and Karen Kettering, Associate Curator of the Hillwood Museum and Gardens, who discussed compelling chronicles of their superb collections.

The discussion at the Sackler Center for Arts Education was followed by a remarkable opening of the exhibition Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art, showing selected recognizable painterly gems from the recently inaugurated Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, MN.(<>)

The first panel started with the introduction of the speakers. Alla Rosenfeld, director of the Russian Art Department at the Zimmerli Art Museum, emotionally delivered her research paper The Reception of Western Modernist Art in the Soviet Union from 1930 to the late 1960s in the Context of Soviet Cultural Policy, offering profound insights into the topic. Later, she kindly provided ARTMARGINS readers with the references of her bibliographical base.(Cited after Prof. Rosenfeld letter from 9/27/05: “…Among the main sources which I had discussed were the following: Frida Roginsky, “Protiv kul’ta frantsuzov,” Iskusstvo v massy, 1930, # 4; E.Melikadze, “Protiv Impressionizma i ego perezhitkov, ” Iskusstvo, 1949, #6; V. Kemenov, “Cherty dvukh kul’tur,” Iskusstvo, 1947, # 4; Fedor Reshetnikov, “Tainy abstraktsionizma,” (Moscow: Izd-vo Akademii khudozhestv, 1963); A.K. Lebedev, “Protiv abstraktsionizma v iskusstve,” (Izd-vo Akadimii Khudozhestv SSSR, Moscow, 1961); Dmitrii Moldavsky, “Iskusstvo obrechennogo mira,” (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1964); Yurii Pimenov, “Iskusstvo zhizni ili iskusstvo “nichego,” (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1964); Vladimir Kemenov, “Protiv abstraktsionizma, v sporakh o realizme,” (Leningrad: Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1963). These are just the main sources; of course, I had to read many more articles and books of the time. I am currently working on the article on this topic, which I plan to publish sometime within the next year…”)

Rosenfeld addressed the collective, institutionalized political aspect of the problem as the subject of her extensive analysis. Proclaimed in the Soviet Union by the press as formalist reactionary trend, modernism was negated as an ideology of decaying capitalism. In her analysis, Alla impressively and artistically depicted and framed the historical scene. She referred to Khrushchev’s famous statement “Art Belongs to the Sphere of Ideology” and to his declaration of modernism as the dead end of art, a deception displaying “ugliness of a human being.”

She quoted the most successful Soviet artists of the time who, on the subconscious path to survival, faithfully supported the ideological doctrine; for instance, the talented Yuri Pimenov who used common absurdist language for persecuting western artistic ideas as “poisoned seeds of capitalist art.” In her talk, Dr. Rosenfeld painted the panorama of ideological rejection of modernism: Soviet media manifested the quest for an “artistic language to be diametrically opposed to the sick expressionist capitalist art.” Simultaneously, Soviet art critics approached modernism as a “negative dissolution of academic painting.”

Impressionism was proclaimed as a “reactionary trend in international art,” an “escape from social problems,” and a political empathy “fundamentally incompatible with socialist realism.”

Surrealism was rendered as a product of the spiritual crisis, as a perception of real life as a nightmare. It was convicted as a “result of the human deterioration, sick exaggeration, disgusting mysticism that cultivates madness and infirmity.”

Abstract art was condemned because “abstraction is used to paralyze the workers,” as an “attempt to escape the reality of social injustice.” Picasso’s Guernica, for instance, was described as a portrayal of capitalist nature, depicting in its “pathologically deformed images” the “monstrosity and the ugly veracity of capitalism,” “intended against humanity and social progress.”

Kandinsky and Malevich were renounced as “rejected by Soviet people.” The “ideological antagonism of Soviet people” toward all alienated trends of modernism was declared as a dogma.

The profound presentation by Dr. Rosenfeld on the context, which brought up the generation of diverse underground artists evicted by the Soviet establishment, was followed by the talk of Vladimir Yankilevsky, a renowned Russian nonconformist artist currently residing in Paris.

He presented his selected pages of albums and memoirs from the 1950s-1980s, from post-Stalinist period of the totalitarian state, to the scandalous Manezh show, to the 1974 Bulldozer exhibition, to Brezhnev’s stagnation era until the 1980s. He quoted Khrushchev, who said, “As far as art is concerned, I am a Stalinist.”

Yankilevsky noted that in the press, the work of unofficial artists was never reviewed. They were persecuted by police as social parasites, professionally ignored, and had no rights to obtain professional materials beyond those favored by the authorities. They worked in communal apartments where their families lived.

At the same time, official artists who used generous benefits and commissions given by the Soviet totalitarian regime separated themselves from those artists, and the general public was also prepared for condemnation of unofficial art.

Yankilevsky argued that science in the Soviet Union was privileged, and scientists were given an opportunity to maintain clubs and conference halls with no public access. He further stated that these were the only premises where unofficial exhibitions could have been organized. He compared the spirit of debates on existential and metaphysical issues at those events with the atmosphere of the House of the Dead.

He theorized that art unites the past, the present, and the future, and not just the past ten years. His actual ambitions do not intersect with politics but concern floating in time and attaining coordinates in eternity.

Yankilevsky revealed that under severe ideological pressure and danger, with no benefits and profit, only 20-30 non-official artists were able to survive, a nucleus that under other circumstances would have grown to thousands. Intuition was the guiding line. There was no united movement or school apparent, no actual fight against the regime, and there was no information about the professional stage abroad.

In spite of these tremendous obstacles, he participated in 103 group shows and arranged 64 solo exhibitions, 101 of them abroad where only suitcase-size paintings could be displayed. Most of his 5 x 5 feet and larger art works were doomed to deteriorate, and only in the mid-1970s was a real show staged for the artist. In conclusion, however, he philosophically outlined his opposition to the authorities as an eternal encounter known as a conflict between the poet and the king.

Ernst Neizvestny deliberately started his talk with the general statement – “I will not theorize on art. I will talk as a guinea-pig of un-freedom. I felt it physically and spiritually…It all started with the people who came from the war. The shock of the grandiose tragedy did not allow those people to keep quiet.”

Official art of the “sweetened optimism” did not correspond with the life experience of most artists who were veterans of the war. Neizvestny started working on the series The War Is About – believing that the pain of war would arise to overcome destruction. For him, his work represented not aesthetics but an ethical testimony.

At the Manezh exhibit, Shelepin, the head of the KGB, approached him with a threat, yet he was neither scared nor polite in response. His objects did not express consideration, did not follow fashion or innovation, nothing but the scream of the soul. He deemed no aesthetic categories to be applicable to art. That was his mode of explaining his illustrations of the Apocalypse, the Bible, and to Dante’s writings.

Considering himself an outsider, the artist said –
“Sculpture is a long affair. During a human life, ten-twenty presidents and fashions succeed each other.”
“I am not a journalist who chases the butterfly of actuality.”
“Something in Russian art resonates with me, of any period or style – sense of moral responsibility, anguish for the morals of the world.”
“There is no debate about aesthetics for Tolstoy or Dostoyevski, Levitan’snature is weeping and crying.”

Neizvestny optimistically declared, “I Do Not Feel Myself Alone.”

Grisha Bruskin, a genuinely postmodern artist currently residing in New York City, is also famed for powerfully boosting the auction prizes for Russian Sots-art on the Western art market in the 1980s. His presentation, full of irony and hidden humor, opened with his testimonial recollection of the communist slogan promising heaven on earth for the new Soviet people – “Our parents were told: Work Hard and Your Children Will Live in Communism.”

He recreated the mode of socialist proclamations – the “capitalist hell” expanded behind Soviet borders aiming for the destruction of communist paradise. That is the regime of evil where bad people exploited good people and strangled them with taxes. Communism was promised as a land free of any state order (yet under the rule of Communist Party) where only six hours daily of fair and intense labor is necessary for everyone, followed by sports, music, and theater.

Yet on the path of constructing the new society and waiting for the final happy stage, people inhabited the prep-class of socialism and Stalinism, and not everyone lived a cozy life because of the “leftovers of capitalism.” Grisha recalled another myth of his childhood revealed to him by a Jewish boy in a pioneer camp, a “Zionist paradise where nobody will beat me up because I was a Jew.”

After WW2, German POWs worked across Russia to rebuild the country. In Moscow, they also made German-looking sculptures for parks. “Pioneers and athletes became masters of our landscapes; they entered our culture under the sign of kitsch. In the space of our lexicon, this kingdom of banalities opened a catalog of ideal meanings for renunciation of self.”

Sculptures depicted ideal children who were “much better than the living ones,” with a strict appeal: “Be like we are and you will become immortal.” The artist’s self-portrait, a sculpture of a pioneer with the flag signed 10th Unit, is on the display at the Guggenheim Museum now.

The staged projects of paradise injected into human life proved more exciting than books about communism. Public parks with fountains, flowers, sculpture, and recreation programs exposed paradise as a perpetual holiday.

The second guideline for imagery of a paradise was a painterly fusion of an ideal city, city as a full chalice. A beautified example of this concept was realized in the Exhibition of Achievements of Public Agriculture.

Third and the most impressively executed guideline was realized as the model of the paradise as a temple. The celebrated project of the Palace of Soviets displayed the idea of a communist paradise as a visual juxtaposition of Truth and Lie, Order and Chaos. Lenin’s 100-meters sculpture, if erected, would have touched the clouds, reflecting upon the biblical appeal in a mystified proximity to Creator [Nyne zhe budesh so mnoi v raiu]. Herewith also belongs the idea of the seven skyscrapers constructed on the major urban intersections implemented for the powerful spatial development of the socialist masterplan of Moscow.

The fourth guideline employed the construction of an underground paradise, the Moscow Metro. By creating magical palaces underneath the city decorated with granite, marble, gold, rich ornamentation and colonnades, connected through the passages for ride to the “origins of the world,” the promised socialist kingdom of heaven was justified.

Grisha concluded his talk with a statement – “Our generation was never granted the kingdom of paradise. Yet the past is forever embodied in the crafted world of an artistic paradise.”

The next speaker was Vitaly Komar(Among hundreds of web references, the artists website offers a chronological overview of their life and carrier:, a famous conceptualist and the darling of sots-art, beloved in the art world for his splendid ironical art projects in collaboration with Alexander Melamid. His work reflects on the insights into collective historical memory and recreates another paradigm of non-survival under dictatorship and bureaucracy in the Soviet and Post-soviet Russian society.

He started his presentation with a humorous remark, asking if everyone in the audience understood his “New-York accent.” After expressing his gratitude to the people who made the RUSSIA! events happen, Komar dwelled on the unique way the Guggenheim Museum structure provides for the show and instigates the joy of following the development of Russian Art through the ages.

On his path of revising the foundations of Russian art, he pursued his concept of destruction of prevailing icons – iconoclasm in the history of all epochs, from monarchy, to Russian Avant-garde, to Socialist Realism. He emphasized the show as a unique opportunity to follow the lines of creation and extinction of the icons of the time.

Komar addressed irony, including self-irony, as a powerful artistic weapon against governing ideological speculations. From his life experience as an insider, he outlined Soviet slogans, patriotic art, and socialist conceptualism as a base for his artistic revelations in crafting his Slogan of Slogans. He referred to his quotation marks as to the first signs of postmodernism in Russian art.

While analyzing his approach to combining styles back in the 1970s, Komar insisted on the emergence of a mythologized history that encourages his conception: Behind Styles Are Beliefs. We Became Iconoclasts Against Ourselves!

In his presentation, the artist observed the results of his investigation into the character of Soviet totalitarian atheism, which he transcribed as fundamentalism, an ecumenist search, and a multi-belief, rather unparalleled to the western rejection of religion.

He talked about Russia as a multi-religious country and ironically exclaimed that while following Eltsin’s unambiguous manifestation of support for Christian orthodoxy in quest of modifying national identity, Russia lost its chance of becoming allies bounding with numerous countries of various other religious beliefs and forming a political powerfront within the global community.

He claimed that art and science bear a foundation for unifying religions. As a liberally-inclined artist, Komar tends to accept without question the treatment of Soviet history as a part of Russia’s unique path in search for spiritual truth. As a solution to outnumbering questions constructing on idealistic spiritual harmony, he offers his colorful Mandala and Three Day Weekend (Muslim Friday, Jewish Saturday, and Christian Sunday).

The presentation of a new collector and artist Vadim Zakharov concluded the debate. Zakharov, in collaboration with Ekaterina Degot, is attempting to create a dynamic multi-faceted archive of records along the line of his generation – including video and photo documentation and series of publications.

In his talk, he examined the contemporary Russian art scene and stepped in with a statement – “Contemporary Russian Artist is a Position!” – which reminded me on the statement of a Sots-realist star of East German architecture, the legendary Hermann Henselmann, at some point the chief-architect of East Berlin who said, “Architect is a Position!”

Thereafter, Zakharov adopted the path of reminiscing critics toward his colleagues-artist: “Over the last years, I hear from artists about the lack of satisfaction and self-realization. They are beggars with ambitions who perceive art as an area of superficial stimulation.”

Zakharov’s respond to such declarations would be, “I am responsible for my debts because there is no conspiracy theory but conscious decisions; because we burden ourselves with imaginary fences and disappointments. We transport our heavy past into the future and forget the internal freedom of creativity… We forget that the very position of a Russian artist has changed in the twenty-first century…we now weep about the capitalist nightmare.”

He noted that in Russian language, the root of the word artist (khudozhnik) is poor (khudo). Hence his appeal to Russian artists is, “You better lose today!” The panel closed after a brief debate.

While entering the Museum for the second panel, I was delighted to meet the popular Russian journalist Misha Gutkin, now working as a correspondent for the legendary radio station The Voice of America. He collected interviews on behalf of the RUSSIA! exhibition for his next broadcast. In anticipation of an upcoming interview with the Museum curator Dr. Valerie Hillings, he was apparently not aware of the scheduled gathering.

Dr. Hillings monitored the panel American Collectors of Russian Art and introduced the collectors: Dr. Norton T. Dodge, who donated his collection of Unofficial Russian Art to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University and also supported a number of projects and initiatives related to mission of introducing Russian non-conformist art to the American audiences; Rev. Raymond Johnson, who accumulated the largest collection of Russian Sots-Realist art and funded the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, MN; and Dr. Kettering, Associate Curator of the Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., the largest collection of imperial Russian art in the US.

This enchanting panel differed remarkably both in agenda and character from the previous venture. Following the introduction, the speakers approached the public with thrilling, rather personal stories about their collections of Russian art, illustrated by slide shows.

Dr. Kettering delivered her presentation on a remarkably personal note, with wit and devotion, guiding the audience through the history of the Museum, the collectors, and the collection, accompanied with images of photographs and museum views. While referring to specific masterpieces, she accordingly provided insights into the corresponding Russian and Soviet context.

The presentations of Rev. Raymond Johnson and Dr. Norton T. Dodge were moderated by Dr. Hillings as dialogs rather than talks, yet it was apparent that both speakers prepared their shows as continuous lectures and were not expecting interruptions. This innovation added some spontaneous round-table charm to the discussion.

By examining his devotion to collecting Socialist Realist art, Mr. Johnson recounted his roots, his love of rural life on the farm, and his work as a Lutheran minister in a small town in Minnesota.

His expressed his appreciation for universality of human emotions, which predisposed him to responding to Russian painting. He recognized the necessity and urgency of a significant institutionalized collection of Russian art, representational in scope and depth.

This year, he funded the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, employed staff and curators, and opened the doors of the museum to the public. After conveying details about building his collection, he shared plans for his upcoming projects. The RUSSIA! exhibition features an exquisite selection from the Socialist Realist collection in Minneapolis. The exhibition Reflections, complementing RUSSIA!, opened at the Guggenheim Sackler Center immediately following the panel. It shows additional delicate oils from Mr. Johnson’s collection, carrying a utopian message and “expressing a unique creative vision.”(Quoted after Introduction to the Leaflet Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art.)

Norton Dodge started his talk by recalling his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1955, and described his passion for non-conformist art as his obsession. His donation to the Zimmerli Museum instigated a totally new prospective for recreating an artistic panorama not imaginable in the former Soviet Union.

Professor Dodge reflected upon the ways he discovered non-conformist artists who created religious art, art of ordinary objects, and sexually explicit art, and recalled the story about his collection of collages crafted by Paradganov. Even after his talk ended, his slides with numerous images of art works were still flashing.