Valdis Āboliņš. The Avant-garde, Mailart, the New Left, and Cultural Relations during the Cold War

Ieva Astahovska and Antra Priede-Krievkalne, eds., Valdis Āboliņš. The Avant-garde, Mailart, the New Left, and Cultural Relations during the Cold War (Riga: Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2019), 662 pp.

book coverFew publications deal with Latvian artists in exile who settled in various Western countries after they (or their parents) fled the approaching Soviet army at the end of the Second World War.(For a useful introduction to this topic, see the catalogue: Dace Lamberga, ed., Latviešu māksla trimdā – Latvian Art in Exile (Riga: LNMM & Neputns, 2013).) Costly and time-consuming research abroad is often necessary to tell the stories of these artists. These challenges affected the production of Ieva Astahovska and Antra Priede-Krievkalne’s edited volume Valdis Āboliņš: The Avant-Garde, Mailart, the New Left, and Cultural Relations during the Cold War, but the creators of the book successfully overcame them and the resulting volume is in a thick, attractively designed opus about a mysterious leftist Latvian dandy. Mail artist, curator, and promoter of cultural contacts, Valdis Āboliņš’ (1939–1984) legacy has not been studied in any depth until now; his name is known in Latvia largely due to his portrait by the Latvian painter Maija Tabaka, and the fact that she received a residency in West Berlin in 1977 thanks to Āboliņš’ efforts. This volume includes various materials drawn from Āboliņš’ correspondence with the artist and publicist Jānis Borgs, from the archive given to the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art by Valdis Āboliņš’ brother Kārlis Āboliņš, as well as from exchanges with the artist’s pen pals and friends in both Latvia and exile. Editor Ieva Astahovska rather modestly calls the book “a fragmented mosaic” (p. 54). It certainly resembles a mosaic to some degree, as more scholarly essays alternate with memories, Āboliņš’ own letters and articles, numerous photographs, and visually attractive reproductions of mail art peppered with drawings and collages. Despite the fact that there is a certain degree of factual repetition and redundancy present at times, one cannot deny that the publication is purposefully endowed with a serious and scholarly tone.

The foreword explains the publication’s logical division into three parts that “serve as chronological and thematic introductions to the most important contexts in Valdis Āboliņš’ practice” (pp. 57, 59), and are titled after the protagonist’s shortened last name ABO. Thus, the first part A is focused on the avant-garde art of the 1960s, the second part B on Āboliņš’ leftist activities in exile in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the third part O on his work in West Berlin and contacts with Latvia in the 1970s and early 1980s. Each section begins with Āboliņš’ statements, followed by essays by other authors and examples of the artist’s mail art. The book concludes with information on authors, a bibliography, and name indexes in both Latvian and English. The book itself is bilingual, with the exception of Āboliņš’ correspondence, available in Latvian only. This is an understandable decision due to the complexity of the artist’s writing; great effort has been put into commentary to make these letters understandable even to Latvian readers. Āboliņš not only filled his letters with multi-linguistic insertions but also included numerous names, abbreviations, and references to events, that make them incomprehensible today without significant prior knowledge of the time and place of their origin.

Before these chronological sections, the book begins with a substantial introductory section, whose first essay—“Biography” by Astahovska—gives a concise overview of the most important turns in Āboliņš’ life and work. These include emigration to Germany during childhood, architecture studies at RWTH Aachen University, and involvement with the Fluxus movement, Latvian exile organisations, and the neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst in West Berlin.  In the following article, “Between Avant-garde and Realism, Art and Politics”, Astahovska provides a more panoramic view, useful for readers interested in Āboliņš’ career as well as those curious about general cultural processes in postwar West Germany. Particular emphasis is given to Fluxus and its manifestations in Galerie Aachen (1965–1967), founded by Āboliņš together with several like-minded contemporaries. Astahovska also examines the sources of Āboliņš’ leftist views and contacts with Soviet Latvia, which “could only ever happen through loyal cooperation with the authorities, each of the parties thinking they were using the other in the name of a more significant cause. For Āboliņš, it was an opportunity to show Latvian culture, putting it into an international context, overcoming its isolation and exposing it to contemporary currents, while the Soviet authorities aimed to influence the exile community to their advantage” (p. 78). Although the author admits that Āboliņš’ actual relationship with the Soviet authorities remains unknown, her speculation that “he was neither ignorant nor [a] conformist contributor to the system, being perfectly aware of the fact that any processes [e.g., internationalizing Latvian culture] can only be influenced through cooperation with the system” (ibid.) seems plausible. However, one wonders whether “being perfectly aware of the fact” would not be better replaced by “imagining.” The next essay, “Fortress under Siege”—co-authored by Astahovska and Antra Priede-Krievkalne—focuses on Āboliņš’ contributions to the cultural policy promoted by the Latvian exile community. Together with several other representatives of the New Left, he attempted to promote Marxist ideas that were not well-received by the predominantly rightist, nationalist, anti-communist circles of Latvians in exile.

While the correspondence section of part A mainly deals with the Fluxus events from Āboliņš’ viewpoint as organizer, his articles reveal a strong modernist position in the perception of various kinds of art, promoting both intuition and innovation. Commenting on Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik’s concert in Aachen in 1965, he wrote: “I listen to music, I take it in, an impression begins to [take] shape, a cognitive state that cannot be expressed in words. If it could, music would no longer be necessary: one would simply write essays on the matter” (p. 235). In his article on Latvian modern literature, Āboliņš emphasises the quality of being contemporary, reflecting the modernist pathos of the early 1920s(While the 1920s Latvian modernists revolted against the 19th century academic realism in favor of modest Cubist and Purist impulses, the wording of arguments is remarkably similar (for more see: Stella Pelše, History of Latvian Art Theory: Definitions of Art in the Context of the Prevailing Ideas of the Time (1900–1940) (Riga: Institute of Art History of the Latvian Academy of Art, 2007), 71–97).): “How can we always say and emphasise that Latvian culture belongs to Western cultures if, with provincial disgust and disdain, without the slightest ability to understand what is going on, our literary and art critics dare discuss the decadent, degenerate art of Western Europe, which is supposed to be running after various kinds of excesses? Let no one tell me that he understands Michelangelo, Rubens, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Rembrandt or Titian, but not today’s art and literature[,] and can even [say] in what year, according to him, art died. I doubt that that kind of a person has ever understood what art is. . . . The criterion of a work of art is not its timelessness. . . . The criterion for any work of art is the need for it in terms of innovation” (p. 244). At least some of Āboliņš’ statements clearly belong to the most radical and sparsely populated wing of Latvian art theory, accepting the latest foreign achievements as not only acceptable but even necessary for Latvians.

Part A also includes articles by German art historians Adam C. Oeller and Petra Stegmann, analysing the activities of Galerie Aachen and the Aachen Festival of New Art (1964) organised by Āboliņš and featuring performances by Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, and other prominent artists. Art historian and publisher Maruta Schmidt’s essay “Hi Valdis!” concludes this section with a more personal story chronicling her acquaintance with Āboliņš within the period’s political and cultural milieu.

Āboliņš’ correspondence and articles in part B reveal that he belonged to a certain type of Western intellectual tradition forever faithful to its Marxist foundations and the socialist ideal. For him, criticism of the USSR was legitimate only if it was directed against an “incorrect” socialism or an “incorrect” implementation of its ideas. Āboliņš saw the faults of actual socialism in Latvia, and even asserted that Latvians there were friends up to their necks in a dump and that “we should at least try to extend them some stick to hold on [to]” (p. 331). Nevertheless, the axiom of socialism as the highest stage of social development caused Āboliņš to support “the negation of private ownership” (p. 337) as a precondition for socialism. Therefore, the artist interpreted the 1940 occupation of Latvia by the USSR in a weirdly positive light: “Why should some proletarian state refrain from attacking a bourgeois state with its Red Army, if the international political situation favours the creation of this precondition for its proletariat?” (ibid.).

The political antagonism of the Cold War, including the role of secret services, is the main subject in the essays in part B. Doctor, archivist, and exile activist Ģirts Zēgners (“On Exile, the Cologne Group and an ‘Odyssey’ that Did Not Happen”) tells about an unrealised episode of cultural contact. The so-called Cologne Group, including Āboliņš, played a complex game with KGB operatives in order to organise a joint seminar with writers from Latvia “on the basis of socialism.” The plan, however,  failed, as the Marxist-minded exile activists were accused of “bourgeois nationalist views, social-reformist influences, and various left distortions of an anarchistic leaning” (p. 429).  Journalist and translator Ojārs J. Rozītis (“Valdis J. Āboliņš, the ‘New Left’ of Exile and Cultural Relations”), for his part, synthesizes personal memories about Āboliņš with a broader insight into the leftist movements of the 1960s, which he sees as a fundamental pursuit of freedom and a revolt against various kinds of authorities. This mindset, held by most  young people at the time, emerges as an almost natural and unavoidable choice for the period’s younger generation living in the West.

The final part O is introduced by Āboliņš’ letters, mostly addressed to pen pals in Latvia. He mainly saw cultural phenomena there as too “national” and “folkloristic,” with forms of capitalist existence and protest being taken over, academicized, and canonised (p. 481) at the expense of innovative creativity. The memories of Jānis Borgs (“Judge a Man by His Hat. Some Private Insights in[to] the Life and Works of Valdis Āboliņš”) begin with Āboliņš’ first trip to Latvia in 1973 when he visited Borgs’ former workplace, the Riga Secondary School of Applied Arts. Āboliņš stunned everyone at the time with his “movie-like black dandy’s suit, a waistcoat and a silver watch chain. He had long hair and a huge hat . . .” (p. 586). The aim of the trip was to organise the exhibition 20 Realists from Soviet Latvia in Düsseldorf. Borgs also describes his subsequent encounters and correspondence with the artist, involving not only letters as mail art, but also numerous parcels containing art books and magazines—vital information about art processes in the West.

Art historian and curator Barbara Straka adds another German perspective to the mosaic with her essay “‘The Shadow is Important, Not the Image.’ Memories of Valdis Āboliņš in Berlin.” Straka outlines the artist’s extreme lifestyle, “with orange vodka for breakfast, Scotch whisky Chivas Regal for lunch, and his favourite cocktail Grüne Wiese for dinner. . . ” (p. 601), a diet that likely contributed to his premature demise. She also charts later cultural contacts between the West and the East enabled by the fall of the Iron Curtain that Āboliņš did not live to witness. Architect and philosopher Jānis Taurens (“What a Freak”) contributes a different type of reflection on Āboliņš. Unlike most contributors to this volume, Taurens never met Āboliņš in person, yet he deftly places the artist’s statements in a wider context of philosophical thought, comparing them to the provocative German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche or the German writer Winfried Georg Sebald’s work The Rings of Saturn. Āboliņš’ ideas about the non-existence of a truly contemporary literature, music, or art in Latvia resonate with Taurens’ own statements about the lack of understanding about conceptualism (p. 611).(This theme in explored in the monograph Jānis Taurens, Konceptuālisms Latvijā: Domāšanas priekšnoteikumi [Conceptualism in Latvia: Preconditions of Thinking] (Riga: Neputns, 2014).)

Only the volume’s last essay “The Twenty-gram, Pre-instagram Post: International Connections and Transgressions via Mail during the Soviet Era” deals with mail art in particular. This subject is explored by Mark Allen Svede from the Ohio State University, who has extensively studied Latvia’s Soviet-era unofficial art. He broadens the term mail art to include the “correspondence art” practised by Latvians who either maintained contacts with Latvia from Western countries or those in Latvia who tried to reach out to their relatives deported to Siberia. Svede even concludes that “Latvia is a nation of mail artists” (p. 614). Such an inclusive term applied to an earlier period—the Soviet era—might not be without problems; it is not, however, unprecedented. For example, Latvian art critic-in-exile Nikolajs Bulmanis has remarked that Latvian modernist “Niklāvs Strunke was well-known [for] his exquisite examples of mail art.”(Nikolajs Bulmanis, “No vienas puses tā…”, Jaunā Gaita 167 (1988): 40, available at: (accessed March 13, 2020). The prolific draughtsman, book illustrator, painter and stage designer Niklāvs Strunke (1894–1966), like numerous other Latvian artists, fled the Soviet occupation and his artistic career ended in the West.) Furthermore, great numbers of letters enhanced with humorous or sad drawings travelled between the budding Latvian modernists, many of whom stayed in Russia during the dramatic years of the First World War and shortly after.(Aija Nodieva, ed., Laikmets vēstulēs: Latviešu jauno mākslinieku sarakste 1914–1920 [An Epoch in Letters: Correspondence of Young Latvian Artists 1914–1920] (Riga: Valters un Rapa, 2004).) Svede’s article takes up the contribution of Fluxus to mail art as well as Western and Eastern mail artists’ different strategies and the case of Āboliņš within this broader scene. Svede concludes that “the ludic nature of the Āboliņš-Borgs correspondence rarely, if ever, was manifested in typical familial postal contacts of the era” and this “exchange was exceptional among most East-West postal art connections in terms of the degree of shared personal risk— which was, in fact, the very same risk incurred in ordinary, non-artistic, Latvian-to-Latvian correspondences conducted under Soviet censorship” (p. 624).

Readers could ask whether the aforementioned “fragmented mosaic,” ending with childhood photographs, a teenage drawing, and some expressive later photos, still has some important fragments missing.   Āboliņš’ mail art examples could have been analysed in more detail from the viewpoint of form and stylistic analogies, for example, since the impulses of Surrealism, Pop Art, and comics culture are obvious in these works. Another intriguing question is raised by Jānis Borgs, who writes that during Āboliņš’ trips to Latvia, “sometimes he was accompanied by his spouse Ilze Gulēna” (p. 592). It seems plausible that her account, not found in this volume, could add another perspective to the overall picture, one unknown to either Āboliņš’ artworld colleagues or correspondents. All in all, however, the book is undeniably a major accomplishment, elucidating the career of one of the less known Latvian personalities at the crossroads of art and artistic life, and casting an illuminating light on the cultural spaces of Soviet Latvia and the Latvian exile community.


This article is a modified translation of a review that first appeared in Latvian in Mākslas Vēsture un Teorija / Art History and Theory 23 (2019): 80–82.

Stella Pelše
Stella Pelše is a leading researcher at the Institute of Art History (Latvian Academy of Art). Her research interests are 20th century art and art theory of Latvia, art criticism, aesthetics and contemporary art. Her PhD was entitled History of Latvian Art Theory: Definitions of Art in the Context of the Prevailing Ideas of the Time (1900–1940) (Riga, 2007), and she has contributed to a number of books, including Deviņdesmitie. Laikmetīgā māksla Latvijā=The Nineties, Contemporary Art in Latvia (Riga, 2010), Atsedzot neredzamo pagātni = Recuperating the Invisible Past (Riga, 2012), Art History and Visual Studies in Europe: Transnational Discourses and National Frameworks (Leiden & Boston, 2012), and Eesti Kunstimuuseumi Toimetised = Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia: Shared Practices: The Intertwinement of the Arts in the Culture of Socialist Eastern Europe (Tallinn, 2016), among others. She was onne of the principal authors and translator in the multi-volume project Art History of Latvia, launched in 2013 (vol. 4: 2014; vol. 5: 2016; vol. 3: 2019).