New York

“Russian Samizdat Art 1960–1982”

Franklin Furnace

Samizdat means “self-published” in the Soviet Union, and Samizdat art consists mainly of books and magazines published and distributed by the same artists and/or poets who made them. This exhibition, showing over a hundred works by about thirty artists, was curated and designed by artists Rimma and Valery Gerlovin; it successfully revealed the strikingly intellectual, imaginative, and serious, but simultaneously playful, character of this important and vital expression of contemporary Russian art.

It is helpful to consider this material in the peculiar publishing context of the Soviet Union. The government, after all, is the official publisher there. And Samizdat art offers an excitingly free, individualistic, and, oh yes, elitist alternative to the mass-produced, uniform, government-sanctioned run of publications. Samizdat art has sources in the innovative books and magazines turned out by the early 20th century Russian avant-garde—artists and writers like Olga Rozanova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, El Lissitzky, and Alexander Rodchenko; in the general interest of the Russian intelligentsia in linguistics and the moral, religious, even life-anddeath implications of visual and verbal statements and communication; and in the influence of certain Western art traditions, such as that of conceptual art.

Where the Samizdat art from the ’60s shown here, in particular the work by poets, still looks booklike (the handwritten and drawn works of Henry Khudyakov are a good example), many pieces from the ’70s and ’80s offer original interpretations of “the book” both as form and as idea. Every aspect of the book (cover, page, layout of text and illustration) and of course every literary angle (fiction, fact, autobiography, and so on) are scrutinized by Samizdat artists. It is indeed no exaggeration to say that almost every form that can be attempted in both two and three dimensions—from all-word to all-picture to mixed-media collage reliefs and constructions—is done here.

Some examples: the poster portraits of Lenin and Stalin, both 1982, by the now New York–based Vagrich Bakhchanyan, a leading Samizdat personality whose career spans the development of the medium. Each poster consists of 36 21/2-by-3-inch books, filled with pages of newspaper texts, whose colored covers come together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to form iconic but ironic images of the Soviet leaders. Another of Bakhchanyan’s delights is Jean Jacket Book, 1975–82, an assemblage consisting of a pocket-sized paperback, in English but printed in Russia, attached to the back of a denim jacket which hangs on the wall. Such a jacket, of course, may be the most ubiquitous, clearly American sign there is. A book in the shape of a record is by Toadstools, a Moscow group of young artists; Job Hunting Poetry, 1981, by Victor Tupitsyn, collages together, in a flip-through format, sections from letters that the artist wrote in looking for employment as a mathematician here in the United States. And Lev Nussberg’s From Unpublished Correspondence of K.S. Malevich (1878–1935) to L.V. Nussberg (1937–1998), 1981, consists of texts and drawings made to appear as if by Malevich—the ultimate homage from the Russian avant-garde of the late 20th century to that of the early.

Among the 30 assemblages, curator Rimma Gerlovin’s Interchangeable Man, 1981, is probably the most imposing both physically and conceptually. Installed against a post for support, this “book man” stands upright, some six feet high—the archetypal stick-figure man in structure but with an interior filled with dozens of cloth-bound cubes whose faces are inscribed with words or phrases describing character traits (“genius,– ”talented,“ ”incapable,“ ”good-for-nothing," etc.). The cubes are in different colors and contain bells; viewers/readers may turn the cubes/ pages to create their own ideal person.

These are only a few of the highlights. Invention and originality also abound in work by, for example, Komar and Melamid, Valentin Goroshko and Elisabeth Clark, Alexander Kosolapov, Lev Rubinshtein, and Anatoloy Ur. The deliberately scattered, aggressively asymmetric installation brought out the visual and formal aspects of these works well, making it possible for those who do not read Russian (and will therefore not grasp all the literary meanings here) to enjoy the intelligence, design, and energy at work and play in Samizdat art.

Ronny H. Cohen