PRINT January 1993

Josif Bakshteyn

THE S. KOCHELEV SHOW in New York inspired great ambivalence. On the one hand, the Russian art community was delighted that this prominent Russian artist had finally exhibited in the USA, and that he had attracted some attention from our American colleagues. On the other hand, the circumstances of the exhibition, and the unfortunate developments of the opening night, have caused us much distress.

What have we in mind? One must begin by explaining why it is so important that an American audience get to know Kochelev’s work. It seems that in the USA, and in the West in general, a whole stratum of prewar Soviet art—of which Kochelev’s paintings are a prime exemplar—is unknown. Yet without knowing this work, one cannot comprehend the experiments of the Suprematists, the art of the Stalinist period, or even the unofficial art of the ’70s.

One of the biggest problems in Russian 20th-century art is the difficulty of linking the first and second Russian vanguards—Suprematism and Conceptualism. One looks with confusion for a relation between Kasimir Malevich, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Olga Popova, and Vladimir Tatlin, on the one hand, and Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, and Erik Bulatov, on the other. In the understanding of much of the Russian art community, Kochelev’s work is the missing link.

What substantiates this opinion? S. Kochelev was always independent, never painting portraits of Soviet leaders, etc. And he was an innovative interpreter of a number of his period’s art trends, synthesizing the peredvizhniki, Post-Impressionism, and even elements of Suprematism. Furthermore, in composition and coloristic technique, he did all this in a most unusual way. As Roland Barthes would say, he achieved the effect of a “zero degree” of painting: his subjects are thematically neutralized by their formal properties and become autonomes, creating the effect of having hidden with their own forms their real social circumstances. The “provisional subject” of S. Kochelev resembles the “Suprematist subject” of K. Malevich. Kochelev’s peasants are the same as Malevich’s “Black Square,” which was also used to cover up reality.

In speaking of the relationships between Kochelev and Suprematism, one clearly has to pay attention to his influence on the late work of K. Malevich. Recently, Russian art magazines have published certain essays by V. Leonov, a student of the late academician V. Alpatov. V. Alpatov wrote monographs on Kochelev, which Leonov quotes to demonstrate convincingly that it was Kochelev’s work (of the period exhibited in New York) that motivated Malevich to renounce geometrism and return to figuration. The remark from Malevich’s correspondence cited by Andrew Solomon, then, demands quite a different interpretation than Solomon gives it.

On the other hand, S. Kochelev created an ideological distance between his own stand and that of his subjects; this anticipated the ideas of Moscow Conceptualism. Before writing about S. Kochelev, the American critic should understand that although the artist’s paintings remained within the framework of the official Soviet school of visual arts, they occupied the left wing of that school. He should not forget that Kochelev’s followers participated in the initiation of the nonconformist movement in the postwar period. Though I of course admire the international perspective of my American colleague, his sometimes striking failure to assimilate such knowledge makes me very uneasy.

What was distressing about the Kochelev show in New York? In preliminary negotiations, the Americans suggested that the exhibition might take place in any of several museums. It was only after these preparatory discussions had been concluded, as work was being shipped out of Russia, that the venue was changed to a gallery in the SoHo area. This was done without consulting the Russian side. Thus we had, at great expense, to imitate a museum interior in this gallery in order to create the necessary atmosphere for a show of this importance. Moreover, on the initiative of the Americans, artworks were taken not only from the Barnaul Museum but also from private collections. Regrettably, the authenticity of some of these other pieces is dubious at best. (I personally have strong doubts about The Actors Have Arrived.) One is disappointed that a critic of Solomon’s apparent renown seems to have failed to notice the work’s uneven grade.

Of course what was absolutely incredible was the opening night at the gallery, when key figures of the Russian and American art worlds gathered to celebrate the show. All of a sudden something happened to the ceiling pipes, and water started to drip through onto my colleagues’ distinguished heads. One is only relieved that the Americans had insured the paintings.

Despite these regrettable incidents, I hope that Kochelev’s show was appreciated by American art historians, and that his work will be displayed in the future in venues more suitable to its importance.

Josif Bakshteyn is the director of the ICA, Moscow.

There have been any number of art-world rumors about the Kochelev exhibition. It has been suggested that the work in that show was really the work of the Russian conceptualist Ilya Kabakov, that Kochelev is in fact a fiction developed by Kabakov, and that the paintings caricature the work of Socialist Realist artists of the 1920s and ’30s. Some have even said that the leaking sprinkler pipes, which went unrepaired throughout the exhibition, were also the work of Kabakov, that the water dripping from the ceiling had been orchestrated by Russian composer Vladimir Tarasov into an avant-garde symphony, and that Kabakov’s point was to demonstrate the accidental poetry of postcommunist Russia, a poetry lying not so much in the country’s “art” as in the disruption of its entire esthetic system.

Our fact-checking department has devoted considerable energy to uncovering the truth, and we can find no evidence to support such propositions. We trust in the integrity of Andrew Solomon, and in the reputation of Josif Bakshteyn. Appreciating the tradition of debate between Western “sovietologists” and Soviet “critics,” we felt it appropriate and even necessary to publish their disagreement.

We thought, naturally, of the scandals that have surrounded the opening of each exhibition of new Russian work in the West, when Western “experts” have hailed previously unknown figures as great geniuses, quoting primary-source material of dubious origins, while Russian critics have disputed everything they have put forward. Thus straightforward material has been tangled in webs of irrelevant theory, petty resentment, and groundless connoisseurship controversy. In this context (though we cannot approve of the means through which Bakshteyn obtained a copy of Solomon’s essay), we found their argument illuminating.