Critics’ Picks

Komar and Melamid, Girl in Front of a Mirror, 1981–82, oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 49 3/4".

Komar and Melamid, Girl in Front of a Mirror, 1981–82, oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 49 3/4".


Komar and Melamid

Moscow Museum of Modern Art
25 Petrovka Street (also at 10 Gogolevsky blvd, 9 Tverskoy blvd, and 17 Ermolaevsky lane)
March 22–June 9, 2019

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid may well have been the Soviet Union’s most infamous dissident artists. Unlike most nonconformists of the early 1970s who avoided Socialist Realism and the party’s mediated ideological aesthetics, they used communism’s stock images and phrases as fodder for their work. Curated by Andrei Erofeev and Joseph Backstein, this retrospective marks the artists’ first joint project since the end of their collaboration in 2003 and highlights their absurd knack for pricking politics—and the art world—in just the right spots. Early on in this roughly chronological display is Music Writing: Passport, 1976, the performance that jump-started their international career. For this piece, the artists assigned a musical note to each letter of the Russian alphabet, then translated the rules and regulations restricting Soviet passport use into a musical composition. Their fascination with creating art by following a system connected them to the New York Conceptualists, and in hiring musicians to perform the work simultaneously in twenty cities around the world, they mobilized the very protocols that restricted their travel.

Although the 1970s may seem distant to Moscow’s younger, post-Soviet audiences, the artists’ “Monumental Propaganda” exhibition (1992) feels utterly contemporary. For this project, the pair solicited proposals to transform Soviet monuments in the wake of the regime’s collapse. The submissions featured disassembled statues and advertising marquees attached haphazardly to buildings in an uncanny preview of today’s post-Soviet streetscape. One of most biting oil paintings on view is Girl in Front of a Mirror, 1981–82, which depicts a lank adolescent obscured in shadow, sitting next to a drawn crimson curtain. A sharp light catches her red pioneer scarf—an accessory of the Soviet state’s youth organization—and contours her pale hand in front of her genitalia, shaming both her furtive self-discovery and the viewer for watching.