New York

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

Protest in art is Vitaly Komar’s and Alexander Melamid’s passport to excess. Unlike other artists who equate criticism of the cultural order with criticism of the social order, Komar and Melamid have no program. But, like other socially engaged artists, they do have targets. To obtain a list of them, simply get a roster of U.N. nations and leaders.

At their recent show, Komar and Melamid have a variety of works on view, most conspicuously seven canvases that are variations on a van Gogh self-portrait. The subjects of the black-and-white portraits—Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Hua KuoFeng, Leonid Brezhnev, James Callaghan and Valery Giscard d’Estaing—are all depicted with bandage over right ear. Bandaged because of too many sizzling conversations on the hot line? Target: international diplomacy. Ammo: weasel! goes the Pop art.

Adjacent to the portraits of the earless leaders are two disagreeable objects: fly swatters with funky wooden handles and the authorized biographies of Sadat and Dayan as the swatting surface. They have a fetishistic quality to them, more along the lines of diplomatic S & M tools than Dada artifacts. Target: Mideast détente. Weapon: flies in the Dada ointment.

As if to serve as illustration of Harold Rosenberg’s 1973 prophecy, “In postmodernism all art will be anthropology,” Komar and Melamid’s large-scale installation piece contrasts a Heinrich Schliemann-type archeological excavation with a reliquary of a modern Holy War. Instead of the layers of Schliemann’s Troy, Komar and Melamid fake evidence of the mysteries of the Minotaur, whose human-scale skeleton is on exhibition along with other peculiar fossil forms. The fossils supposedly unearthed by Komar and Melamid at a Cretan dig include six femurs presumed to be attached in the shape of a cube. Exacerbation of the confusion between contemporary art and historical artifact? Instead of the empty munitions cans and detonated grenades that are the detritus of war, Komar and Melamid scatter orange peel, plane tickets, passports, soil, prayerbooks, a battered red star that might have festooned a Soviet tank, and a pair of marble tablets around the rest of the gallery. Equation of religious persecution in Russia with the persecution of the Zionist state? Target: old artifacts and old prejudices. Plans of attack: Conceptual Anthropology and postmodernist archeology.

There are more targets here than at the Jasper Johns retrospective. These expatriate Russian artists, displaced persons in their adopted homeland, Israel, have a lot of targets, and they never miss their mark. One has to remove their scattershot shrapnel from the flesh. The shortcoming of Komar and Melamid’s militancy is that they never supply an alternate route for international policies and politics to take. They are facile students of art history, handily dispensing Impressionist, Pop, Dada and Conceptual elements at the drop of a hat, but what’s the focus?

According to Melamid, definition is a trap: “To feel yourself defined is basically a problem. . . . Unfortunately, we have no faith, not in mathematics, not in Marx. But only a man who is outside any conviction can come to a new state of being.” More accurate to say that only a man who is outside all states can arrive at a new idea about statehood. These are men without a country, but only seemingly without a conviction. They are dedicated to the proposition that all governments (and leaders) have more in common than not; they are committed to demystifying the régimes of the 20th-century ruling class. Their strategy is to take pot-shots instead of contemplating their best shot.

Carrie Rickey