New York

Lydia Masterkova

Contemporary Russian Art Center Of America

This show and its sister, “Russian Women Artists: 1930–1980,” both curated by Margarita Tupitsyn, have introduced to New York audiences a new, exciting group of Russian women artists, including both colleagues of and successors to the talented likes of Alexandra Exter, Lyubov Popova, Olga Rosanova, and Nathalia Goncharova. What links these artists is the desire they share to use art as a serious means of self-expression, as a revelatory key to emotion and self-awareness, but never—and I must repeat never—as the propaganda arm of the official Soviet style and sensibility of Socialist Realism. Lydia Masterkova, according to Tupitsyn, “was for a long time the only woman artist included in all major Western shows of Russian non-conformist art”; as represented by this retrospective (her first in New York) of her paintings from 1965 to 1982, her work is exemplary of the high quality, passionate commitment, and fascinating, individuated expression found in the companion survey of art by some 25 other Russian women.

Born in Moscow in 1927, by the early ’60s Masterkova had found her own way and alternative to Socialist Realism. She attended the progressive Moscow Art College (closed in 1950 after being charged with “left deviationism”), and studied with surviving members of the primary Russian avant-garde generation. One of these was Mikhail Perutsky, a former student of Malevich, who introduced her to early Western Modernist painting—the Post-Impressionists, Picasso, and Matisse—and to Russian avant-garde art; both of these styles were out of favor in Russia at the time, so most of the work was presented in reproduction. Masterkova, who now lives in Paris, also learned about Tachism and Abstract Expressionism,from actual examples which were exhibited in the Soviet Union after 1957.

The display began with a group of mixed-media paintings from 1965. In their thick, varied surfaces these demonstrate the artist’s love of materials, and the incorporation of fragments of liturgical vestments, cloths, and icons indicates a strong interest in the thematically expressive potential of collage. By the late ’60s the ghostlike images of saints, barely visible under layers of paint in these works, have been replaced by an abstract vocabulary of colored forms and patterns and allover, grid-oriented compositions. In a series of oil paintings from the early ’70s structural concerns give way to a lyrical imagery that opens up the surfaces with centralized, asymmetrical compositions of flame- and bar-like vertical shapes. Subsequently Masterkova returned to the investigation of grid-oriented structures and collage, but toward emotive ends; also, certain symbols of universal significance emerge, including the numbers 1, 9, 0, and the circle.

The cube has become a major recurrent motif in her recent work, and she has continued to employ the circle or disc, endowing it with both a cosmic and extra perceptual dimension. In her black-andwhite ink-and-wash pieces the surfaces of circles are covered with light-streaked patterns which bring to mind satellite photographs of the planets and seem to bathe this clear-cut shape and the equally direct additive structures in which it is presented in a luminous, spiritual glow. These qualities are most strongly experienced in the viewing of Meteorites, 1981–82, a wall-sized installation of nine ink drawings/collages arranged side-by-side in rows of three. Masterkova and many of the artists from the accompanying show—Maria Syniakova, Nadezhda Timofeeva, Tatyana Glebova, and Rima Gerlovin are but a few of them—deserve to be more than names to New York audiences.

Ronny H. Cohen