PRINT March 2008


Komar & Melamid, Catalogue of Super Objects—Super Comfort for Super People, 1975–76, two of thirty-six color photographs, each 10 x 8"

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a native agent in a foreign environment? To organize exhibitions and write about a culture whose context is not transparent, and whose art objects have not yet been critically or institutionally processed, either at home or abroad? These are the kinds of questions that in previous decades wore heavy on the minds of those who, having been involved in the community of expatriate artists who left the Soviet Union during the cold war, sought to reengage with Sots art—the art movement given its name by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in 1972, in which socialist realism was taken up as a rich field of stereotypes and myths to be turned critically against official Soviet rhetoric. Yet these questions are still pertinent for us to consider now, especially when approaching “Sots Art: Political Art in Russia from 1972 to Today,” recently on view at Maison Rouge in Paris following its premiere at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow last spring. To have Sots art presented at what is the most stagnant museum of the Soviet epoch, and then have it sent abroad under that institution’s auspices, is undoubtedly a historically significant event. As such, I was inevitably reminded of earlier presentations of this work (including the exhibition I organized in 1986 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York) and the difficulties any such endeavor faced. Having no access to objects produced behind the iron curtain—except for randomly smuggled ones—one was often forced to turn to those artists who had already defected to the West. By the mid-’80s these included Komar & Melamid, Alexander Kosolapov, Leonid Sokov, and several others, but this only suggested an even larger challenge for historians and critics alike: How could one theorize a Sots practice that fueled itself by “borrow[ing]”—to follow Jacques Derrida’s argument in Writing and Difference (1967)—“from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself” when so far removed from the art’s original context? Clearly, the intervening years have only exacerbated this problem: The Soviet Union no longer exists. And so, in contemplating the exhibition at Maison Rouge, one reasonably fears it will fail to define the historical specificity of Sots art, will aimlessly mix rare period pieces with artists’ later copies, and will, in effect, hijack the concept of Sots art to lobby for a trite list of post-Soviet artists who have focused on pop imagery.

Indeed, immediately underscoring these historical stakes was Maison Rouge’s storefront window, where a 1999 photograph documenting an action on Red Square was installed. The photograph shows a group of artists on the tribune of Lenin’s mausoleum holding a banner bearing the words AGAINST EVERYONE!—a phrase speaking to an equal mistrust of deliquescent socialism and incoming capitalism. To truly grasp this picture’s nihilistic, almost Dadaist point, however, one must be aware of its historical underpinnings. As it happens, the action’s organizer, Anatoly Osmolovsky, had also orchestrated a performance on April 18, 1991, in front of the tribune: Lying down on the cobblestone ground, several artists had formed the word khui—the rhetorical equivalent of extending one’s middle finger—thereby expropriating the most revered Communist territory for a concise public announcement and providing, in effect, a succinct conclusion to the Sots art project. It is vital to note here that the performance took place a few months prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union: Among other things, this political milestone entailed an official rejection of totalitarian aesthetics, which effectively trumped the original Sots art agenda and annulled its cultural project. The very first image presented in the Maison Rouge show, then, has embedded within it the disjunction between the historical circumstances in which Sots art first emerged and the new, privatized context in Russia that the same artists would later have to address. To gloss over such a distinction is to lose sight of what are two different critical projects and, moreover, to fail to construct a coherent history of Sots art—and therefore to perpetuate the kinds of misunderstandings that have plagued the movement since its beginnings.

From the very start, Komar & Melamid were aware of just how important a unique sociocultural framework was for the success (and very possibility) of their work. “Sots art came about only due to a specifically communal environment, [appearing] as a result of endless conversations,” they asserted in 1993. “Only this collective endeavor could make us brave enough to depict our parents in the poster style and ourselves as Lenin and Stalin [in Double Self-Portrait as Lenin and Stalin, 1972].” Regarding the specificity of their project, however, they found themselves having to take particular pains to ensure that their work could never be mistaken for a Russian version of Pop art. Consider that it was in 1972, just as Andy Warhol was finishing the first of his multiple portraits of Mao—subjecting the chairman to a modernist vocabulary of arbitrary and intense color, resuscitating his typically gray mass-media visage—that the Moscow-based Komar & Melamid were polishing off such works as Double Self-Portrait. The round red canvas features the artists’ rendition of themselves in stylized mosaic (their profiles summoning the common representation of historical Soviet leaders), orbited by a self-promoting slogan: FAMOUS ARTISTS OF THE 70S OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. CITY OF MOSCOW. Unlike Warhol, Komar & Melamid did not aim here to release Communist leaders from the conventions of “state-sanctioned” realism but rather to use those very conventions to launch a movement consciously opposed to local, “unofficial” art practices that were relying heavily on twentieth-century Western movements for inspiration (and, more specifically, opposed to those dissident modernists aligning themselves with a Greenbergian dichotomy of avant-garde and kitsch). Over time, they would make sure to bolster their own defense against accusations of being derivative of Pop art with such endeavors as the “Post-Art: Pictures from the Future” series, 1973–74, and Catalogue of Super Objects—Super Comfort for Super People, 1975–76, both of which suggest that the capitalist commodity and the socialist “commodity” are entirely different entities, not to be compared in terms either of status or of their users’ attitudes.

Andy Warhol, Red Lenin, 1987, silk screen on paper, 39 3⁄8 x 29 1⁄2". © 2008 Andy Warhol Foundation/Corbis.

In the “Post-Art” works, the artists made replicas of several iconic Pop art paintings (including Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can, 1964), but in damaged condition—as if predicting an Armageddon of Western commodities, be they aesthetic objects or consumer items for quotidian use. The Catalogue of Super Objects, by contrast, comprises photographs of men and women adorned with bizarre artifacts and contraptions—underlining through the objects’ apparent uselessness the way in which the Constructivists’ plan to modernize Soviet everyday life during the 1920s had been swept aside by the next decade’s popular call for “superpeople” (to use the parlance of Soviet industrial utopianism) to realize colossal projects. The result, of course, was a real dearth of commodities in Soviet life and, in turn, an inadequate understanding of either their utility or function.

As other Moscow artists such as Kosolapov and Sokov caught the virus of probing sociocultural clichés, Komar & Melamid, according to oral histories of the time, warned them about the danger of slipping into Pop art’s thematic arsenal and inventory of formal devices—particularly when it came to works steeped in Pop’s shifting of common (if iconic) objects’ materiality, like Sokov’s Shirt, 1973–74, in which the article of clothing is made of wood. Works at Maison Rouge that fared better according to this criteria included Sokov’s Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Person, 1976—a sculpture that still exists but was displayed in the exhibition only as a replica—and his Alley of Heroes, 1975, one of the earliest Soviet installation art projects, in which a typical bust of Lenin is flanked by dreary portraits of famous political dissidents. Also outstanding in this regard was Kosolapov’s painting The Soviet Myth (a 1973 work replicated in 1990), which features primitivist renditions of Soviet icons such as the battleship Aurora, a cosmonaut, and a ballerina.

Of course, the complexities underlying any distinctions between Sots art and Pop art were exposed when, on settling in New York in 1978, Komar & Melamid befriended Warhol and acquired, free of charge, his “Pop art soul.” Executed as part of their project We Buy and Sell Souls, 1979–81—a Conceptual work consisting of promotional material, photographs, and documentation of all the souls they obtained—the acquisition represented the artists’ ambition to construct a bridge between Russian and American artistic communities even while ridiculing commercial enterprise (by employing the lofty rhetoric of Moscow’s alternative artistic milieu in their posters). These efforts, however, only revealed how sizable the gap was between the two spheres: When Komar & Melamid staged simultaneous auctions of souls in Moscow and New York, in fact, Warhol’s spirit barely sold abroad. This distance was also evidenced by the emigrated Sots artists’ common reaction to their new environment, which was, in contrast to Warhol’s method of transforming Communist icons, to orchestrate unresolved collisions between Soviet and Western popular icons. For example, in Komar & Melamid’s Wake Up America! Installation of Posters with Flag, 1978–79, fashion models are inserted into Soviet-style political propaganda; and in Sokov’s Elvis and Lenin, 1984, the “King” entertains the leader of the proletariat. What takes place in these works is, to quote Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1980), “not imitation at all but a capture of code, its surplus value, an increase in valence.”

Far more successful, however, is Kosolapov’s poster Lenin-Coca-Cola, 1982, whose radical juxtaposition actually moved the corporation to consider legal action against the artist. Unfortunately, no documentation of Coca-Cola’s response—which constitutes the true political dimension of this work—appeared at Maison Rouge. Indeed, it would have been very interesting to juxtapose such ancillary material with, say, Komar & Melamid’s Double Self-Portrait, which existed in two versions, one of which was destroyed by Soviet authorities at the infamous 1974 “bulldozer show.” In the wake of that event, the pair’s institutional antagonism became clear: They replied to the authorities’ aggressive response to the exhibition with a blunt painting featuring the initials KGB stenciled in black against a white background. (This kind of “political minimalism” was, in fact, a rare example of Komar & Melamid eschewing ironic negativity, and its approach recalls Erik Bulatov’s Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1975, a replica of which was also on view at Maison Rouge.) But most significant for the show at Maison Rouge is how Kosolapov’s and Komar & Melamid’s works demonstrate that being inside a system is key to any successful critique of that system. At a certain point in the exhibition’s recounting of history, it becomes clear that artists who emigrated to New York lost their razor-sharp edge when it came to analyzing their former country. With the Soviet censorship apparatus left far behind—and, with it, the sense of artistic and ethical norms preconditioned by the totalitarian confinements of the Soviet ideological structure—the New York phase of Sots art production was bound to become more nostalgic than political. Komar & Melamid’s series “Nostalgic Socialist Realism,” 1981­–83, was paradigmatic of this shift: The artists replotted cultural and political narratives by “reduc[ing] socialism to Stalinism,” clashing with the affectionate sentiments that leftist critics and artists nursed for the revolutionary avant-garde. Indulging in academic-style easel painting, Komar & Melamid discarded all the tools they had employed back in Moscow—photography, “utilitarian” painting, fragmentation, and the provocative use of language—thereby intensifying the ideological aspect of this conflict by formal means.

#image 4#

Yet today, in assessing the legacy of Sots art, it is essential to bear in mind the way in which Komar & Melamid’s initial project was to undermine the pathos and deconstruct the rhetoric of official Soviet narratives, both private and public, and thereby expose the scars of history retouched by the invisible hand of the censor. To recall once more the primary example from Pop: Warhol would shut his eyes to these issues—his rendering of a postcard image of Lenin (presented to him by his Munich dealer Bernd Klüser), for instance, simply imbues his subject with the sheen of a capitalist figure, rather than addressing the historical fact that the image had been modified by censors when making its way to the West. Sots art’s plumbing of this sort of Soviet iconographic heritage—attending to its conflicts and never eliding its specific context—still gives these artists a unique position among those who would tackle authoritarian imagery. Unfortunately, the recent “Sots Art” exhibition dilutes these important characteristics of the movement. At the State Tretyakov Gallery, the curators included contemporary Chinese art in the show; in Paris a number of recent Russian works that mechanically replay the amortized Sots art paradigms were presented alongside classic perestroika pieces from the last phase of Sots art—works still fueled by Soviet history, such as Timur Novikov’s circa 1985 canvas USSR and a 1988 painting by Sergei Mironenko bearing the slogan BASTARDS, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO THE COUNTRY! The works at Maison Rouge by artists who came of age during the 1990s, as the socialist culture industry was being converted into a capitalist one, made particularly clear the problem of the curators’ being unwilling or unable to elucidate all these disparate contextual frameworks. The Blue Noses collaborative, the duo Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov, and Oleg Kulik have clearly never found a ground for the kind of collective identity once shared by Sots artists. Nor have they ever established a platform for political dissent (even when the old-style Communist Gennady Zyuganov was the only alternative to Boris Yeltsin). The implications are dire: As one observes the imperial ambitions of Russia’s current government, one feels that the signs and symbols that Sots art once subverted (and that perestroika subsequently discarded) have now returned and, what’s more, retain the family traits of authoritarian representation. If this is in fact the case, there must be a place for a political artistic movement in Russia. And if that movement materializes, let’s hope it will dub itself anew.

Margarita Tupitsyn is a scholar and curator based in New York and Paris.