PRINT January 1978

Komar and Melamid and the Luxury of Style

THE WORKS OF THE SOVIET artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid come to us as artifacts of detente. The pieces from their most recent exhibition, in New York last May, are for the most part accessible to Americans as handcrafted objects stamped, as it were, “for export only.” Since Komar and Melamid were two of the artists victimized in the infamous exhibition of contemporary Soviet art in September 1974, during which Soviet vigilantes smashed artworks and artists alike, it is not surprising that their recent work directs its address most emphatically at Americans—at the Outside.

Actually, Komar and Melamid define an interior for themselves whose unlocatability results from an attempt to transcend the conventional inside/outside dichotomy imposed upon an individual by his/her political context. This is the starting point for many of their pieces and it is most emphatic in their recent project for the creation of the “TransState,” a federation of “I-States” whose constitution declares that it is the first government “to practice withdrawal from contemporary political forms.” Unlike many Western narratives in which the promise of interiority automatically invites and implicates the audience, the space from which Komar and Melamid narrate remains inaccessible and even somewhat hermetic.

Instead, in a Dostoyevskian manner, they issue clandestine communications that begin as a dialogue—whether with themselves or with their socio-historical condition is never clear—which are then encoded as monologues. Besides being an appropriate dramatic device (suggestive of “intelligence”), coding is in fact the dominant trope in several of the pieces. Unfortunately, attempts to decipher the codes from this side of the Atlantic often do not reveal much about the encoding apparatus, so that it is difficult to avoid merely encoding these communications still further. To speak less cryptically: although several of their works tell us things we may not already know about how this art stands in the immediate context of the social relationships surrounding its production, too often the pieces themselves present it in a manner which is undeservedly reassuring to us.

The pointed eclecticism of Komar’s and Melamid’s work is immediately striking. Their recent exhibition included an oil painting entitled Factory for the Production of Blue Smoke: set in a lush countryside, a Greek temple surmounted by a smokestack spews forth blue smoke. But there was also, for instance, a scroll containing the biographies of the artists in a language of their own invention. Another piece, documenting a black-magic rite performed by the artists to exorcise their attachment to the Soviet Union, consists of 18 Polaroid snapshots of the artists performing said ritual—the photos mounted, according to the artists’ instructions, on wood blocks chopped by an axe and pierced with a knitting needle. One saw A Catalogue of Superobjects—Supercomforts for Superpeople, a set of 36 8x10 color photos (with text) of elegant little fetish objects that could slip unobtrusively into the ads in the margins of The New Yorker.

A series of paintings executed with art historical indifference in a variety of styles was shown: all have one concrete feature in common: the upper lefthand corner of the otherwise rectangular stretcher is cut off. The “TransState” piece was exhibited in the form of three cases of documents (passports, money, a constitution, etc.) and a wooden border post. Earlier Komar and Melamid works worth noting here include reproductions of familiar Warhol, Indiana and Lichtenstein prints blow-torched and mounted on a canvas. They have also produced a piano piece performed at exactly the same time in several parts of the world, composed by coding into musical notation the regulations found on the back of a Soviet passport.

It is not the sheer diversity of their materials and techniques which is unusual: one need only remember the young Malevich’s conscious articulations of Impressionism, primitivism, and Cubo-Futurism, or Tatlin’s constructions of “real material in real space.” But Tatlin’s “culture of materials” engages the spectator in the organization of the narrative apparatus as a synthetic, reflexive process which, by its defamiliarized manner of speaking, radically alters a conventional way of seeing (see, for example, his famous project for A Monument to the Third International). Komar’s and Melamid’s “cut-off corner” series affects us in precisely the opposite way, by programmatically encoding the “materials of culture,” which (inadvertently?) allows enculturated Americans to contemplate their own image refracted and concealed within a pleasantly exotic container.

The “cut-off corner” series of paintings includes a neo-Baroque double self-portrait of the artists, a scabrous mixed-media canvas painted by the random application of a variety of acids and dyes, and a black painting: all are completely different, but all have the cut-off corner. According to the artists, “This series demonstrates the right of the artist to an anti-individual style. The cut-off corner is ‘we’ or our position with respect to the history of art.” The failure of this formal strategy—its implicit contradictions and its ultimate bifurcation in an American context—bears closer analysis for what it suggests about making art in the United States.

For Komar and Melamid, repertoire of viable esthetic techniques (in Benjamin’s sense of the word, Technik) is perceived as a fleamarket in which artistic styles are bartered and exchanged like clothing. The scene grows more familiar as we recognize one of the crucial assumptions guiding their artistic practice: that persistent and obfuscating division of an artwork into Form and Content. Here we are afforded a rare insight into the ideological motivations behind a dissimulating esthetic stance, for the Form/Content myth is as important an assumption to socialist realism as it is to liberal critical and artistic practice in the West (which is not to say that their respective implementation is analogous). Within their own political predicament, Komar and Melamid recognize “style” as a commodity, a luxury they cannot afford. Significantly, they conceive of their own situation in similar terms; they have described their works as representative of the clash between an unsuitable container—detente—and its unadaptable contents—the U.S.S.R.

In their position, they cannot be blamed for their assumption about style as commodity: it is a measure of the extent to which a repressive system has been internalized when one is unwittingly obliged to borrow from the very vernacular that one is attempting to oppose. This accounts for the poor, incomplete quality of individual works as images. Specifically, in the cut-off-corner paintings the isolation of style as an expression imposed upon the “meaning” seems intended to neutralize the form and to serve up a practicable “message.” Instead, the form itself becomes a stylization: all that matters is that each painting has the same corner clipped, so that signification is only a function of an arbitrary number of repetitions of the same gesture. In a similar manner, and for similar reasons, works of socialist realism can all be considered to belong to the same series: rigid stylization justifies itself by the sheer repetition of identical gestures, and its “authority” is based on the tautology which fabricates an organic relationship between revolutionary praxis and its representation in socialist realism. In a bourgeois context, a different sort of stylization is used to obviate the irreducible signifying potential of Form. Style is seen as the individualization of an impersonal system; as a substitute for the proper name, style is the subjective expression which announces a wealth of content. Thus an American appreciation of Komar’s and Melamid’s work is at cross-purposes with its initial projectiveness. For Komar and Melamid, it is as if it were only a question of selecting the esthetic modes which allow a truer articulation of the Idea. For us, it is as if the Idea can be expressed with perfect equivalence in any esthetic mode as long as the form remains distinct from the content.

Says Melamid: “We’re not artists”; Komar adds: “We’re conversationalists.” Now in listening to any good conversationalist, it is a mistake to confuse gesture with intent. I suspect that we are inclined to see Komar and Melamid’s works as constituting a gesture (their only real substance) for their motivation or intent, but by its emphasis on a specific action gesture suggests the reiteration of numerous other actions resembling the first, while intent presumes an expressive link between the individual author and his audience. Those who subscribe to the latter reading are no closer to according artists such as Komar and Melamid “the right to an anti-individual style” than the Soviet government is.

It is not surprising, then, that the pathos generated by the work shown in New York is an experience quite apart from the pathos arising from the works’ response to the conditions of its production. Small comfort for Komar and Melamid that their work “speaks” to us of the universal authenticity of men in extreme circumstances. When they claim, within the historical context of Russian art, that they are realists whose model is Soviet mass culture, they engage a tradition of Soviet modernism which seeks to maintain its representational foundations: Larionov’s rayonnist paintings, Malevich’s aerial Suprematist works, Tatlin’s functional designs. But when Komar and Melamid willingly embrace the American esthetic categories of Pop art (they call their own version “Sots Art”—a contraction, I am told, for socialist realism) or Conceptual art (suggested to them by their American collaborator, Douglas Davis) as vehicles for their own project, they would do well to ask whom this strategy really serves. In esthetic terms it is, of course, no coincidence that Komar and Melamid happen to choose the two modes of recent Western artistic production in which the form/content dichotomy is most emphatically exploited. But to consider the respective roles and meanings of Pop art and “Sots Art” as analogous is to engage in a superficial reading of art history and a mystification of artistic production.

I referred already to what I see as an impoverished quality in the specific images. Consider Komar’s and Melamid’s work in light of one of the major preoccupations of Russian modernism: the desire to break down the intransigence of the art object and its basic constituent units—the mark, the sentence, the shot, etc. This is what lies behind their choice of the icon and lubok as esthetic models (see, for example, Margaret Betz, “The Icon and Russian Modernism,” Artforum, Summer 1977). From the artists of the Blue Rose movement on to the filmmakers Eisenstein and Dovzhenko there was a steady effort to reconstitute the iconic function of the art object as something other than an object for passive contemplation or a receptacle for exterior signification. Unlike the religious icon, however, each of these art objects would (ideally) assert its fundamental instrumentality by instructing the spectator in how to “use” it. Malevich, for example, developed Suprematism as the negation of the art object with the claim that Suprematist forms “will not be copies of living things in life, but will themselves be a living thing.” One can see this in his Black Square, 1913, in the alternation between the figuration of the skewed black square and its “right” (from our perspective) square white frame, so that our immediate identification with the white frame is cast within the slightly oblique, sidelong glance of the black square. Although the art object itself serves only as a passageway, the image resists appropriation, and the painting is composed in such a way that no physical relationship between viewer and art object resolves with any degree of finality the tension between its compositional elements.

The primacy of the artistic gesture as a constituting (and signifying) force in the work of Komar and Melamid is clearly based on a similar need to break down the art object’s intransigence. For this reason the simultaneous international performance on the piano of the musically encoded passport regulations would seem to be the most essential and successful of their works: that gesture retains its immediacy by means of a device indicating simultaneity (and ubiguity) reminiscent of the ornate clock in the Winter Palace in Eisenstein’s October—a clock with dials showing the corresponding time in the world’s major cities at the hour of the fall of the provisional government.

As presented in this country, however, Komar’s and Melamid’s works are overwhelmed by the pathos imposed on them by a humanist discourse. When the gesture becomes subsumed in the easy availability of the artists’ “message” to Westerners, the work loses its only cutting edge and becomes an object for appropriation. Superobjects—Supercomfort for Superpeople, on the other hand, inserts itself effortlessly into the capitalist market without insisting on the conditions of its existence, despite the accompanying text which archly proposes: “. . . articles of everyday European life have been transformed from instruments of elitist self-affirmation, the property of the ruling class, into the common possessions of the plebians.” As the embodiment of a gesture pointing to the split between Soviet intellectual and mass propaganda, these objects have at best an ethnological value while being viewed within the context of a culture in which the exchange and proliferation of similar items is considered to be a desirable everyday phenomenon. Those who would enjoy the sort of irony resulting from this confusion trivialize the work still further.

Pathos of this sort becomes most evident in the “Sots Art” pieces because of the underlying assumption that American advertising and Soviet state propaganda are equivalent. This equation was somewhat useful to the artists since it blatantly devalued their government’s ideological articulations. Here, however, it tends to reassure those who would like to go on believing that we “engage” in ideology, just as we engage in any other social activity—that we may choose to ignore or disregard it just as we supposedly do with advertising. Along these lines, it is interesting to note that one of the only works in Komar’s and Melamid’s recent exhibition not sold was a banner bearing the words “Glory to Communism” in gold letters on a red field. The artists conceived of it as being analogous to Warhol’s Brillo boxes.

Even the works’ most fundamental quality—their high spirits—undergoes a significant bifurcation. The value of extravagant playfulness in formulating a radical mode of address has been acknowledged by enterprises as diverse as Epic Theatre and Surrealism. But there is another aspect to high spirits which has increasing importance as regards contemporary American art. This is the ethical compromise facing contemporary artists (and audiences) which Adorno articulates in his essay “On Commitment:” “No moral terror can prevent the side the work of art shows its beholder from giving him pleasure, even if only in the formal fact of the temporary freedom from the compulsion of practical goals.”

Komar’s and Melamid’s “TransState” project underscores this dilemma. Its elaborate collection of documents and artifacts is built on subtly incongruous juxtapositions, from its literal use of Louis XIV’s famous statement “L’etat c’est moi” and its direct appeal to heads of state and the U.N. for recognition to its hand-drawn passports and homemade border post. The “TransState” piece survives the misguided pathos it elicits in those who get off on the tragic futility of this “utopian” project because of the measured extravagance of the artists’ gesture. Besides, the thought of Henry Kissinger perusing the TransState constitution, preferably late at night, is rather amusing. The “TransState” pieces resist the tendentious pathos that seeks to appropriate them because the artists have taken a trope (TransState’s historical and esthetic referentiality) and reunited it with its machine (the creation of TransState as an example of artistic production).

In a curious and revealing manner, Komar’s and Melamid’s notion of “transnationalism” redefines the transrationalist tradition developed by the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century. Although the basic ambition remains the same, now the limits of the logos to be transcended are located within the political boundaries of the State. Thus Melamid has emigrated with his family to Israel while Komar awaits permission to do likewise.