New York

Komar and Melamid

Most of Komar and Melamid’s “Business As Usual” show was painting executed in their finest Academy Drag. The style is basically five hundred years old, which is what most people like. It really looks like Art. It is most definitely Drag. That’s for the element of surprise.

There is drag and there is Drag. Low drag is where the transvestite attempts to fool himself into thinking he is a woman. Middle drag is where the transvestite hopes to fool straight men into thinking he is a woman. High Drag is where the transvestite hopes to fool straight men into thinking he’s a woman only to subsequently amaze them with his secret. Komar and Melamid’s post-Socialist Realism is definitely High Drag. It’s like the mind of Yves Klein trapped in the body of Norman Rockwell. Or something like that. Like Rrose Sélavitsky.

The work’s fun for the whole society. Almost anyone can get a feeling of knowing superiority, a good healthy dose of self-satisfied contempt, because everyone will feel they get the joke, even if they’re all different jokes. The funny thing is that these are basically works of kindness—their contempt is contempt for contempt. The artists make image vaccine—as snakebite vaccine is made from venom.

I know people who like Komar and Melamid but who don’t think they are or will ever be first-rate. I know why. They think the work is too literal, too humorous, too ironic, too direct—not mysterious or cryptic enough, not beautiful enough.

Well, there are more beautiful painters in the world, but these guys can cook. I don’t think they’re too ironic. If something can be post-Modern then surely something can be postironic and if so then this is that. I myself don’t think you can be too humorous like you can be too thin. As for literal—I take that for the height of mystery.

My favorite of the large canvases here is Thirty Years Ago 1953, 1982–83—a man and a woman fucking in their clothes against a two-tone institutional wall under a portrait of Stalin. The man is standing, the woman is supported by his hands on her buttocks. Her raised left hand is raised in ecstasy and somehow her clunky boy-scout shoes outshine spikes and Stalin becomes the blindness of all images.

But in Stalin In Front of Mirror, 1982–83, we get that Mona Lisa effect of the eyes following us around. They belong to Stalin’s mirror image. Actually, it’s also the wandering-eye effect: one of his eyes seems to behold himself, the other seems to be following the viewer, describing the relation of narcissism and paranoia.

Komar and Melamid depart somewhat from their appropriated style by defacing it in a few classicaloid paintings of classic works: the Venus de Milo, Discobolus. Venus’ missing arms are splashed on in Day-Glo; they hold a hammer and sickle. Here we travel beyond the planet of L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, to one of its satellites, where defacement and the finishing touch are identical, where ruins are presented as foundations, where it’s the thought that counts.

I was struck by a question posed in Komar and Melamid’s essay “In Search of Religion” (Artforum, May 1980): “When should the people’s conservative tendencies be used, and when should they be eliminated?” This is a great question, applicable by propagandists, artists, and ad-makers. The ad-maker would seem to use conservative tendencies as long as they are not recognized as such—probably most propagandists do this too. That’s how you sell soap with sex.

Komar and Melamid don’t stop there. They use their audience’s conservative tendencies until they start to itch, until the audience starts to scratch them. They sell sex with soap until nobody wants to bathe or fuck on cue anymore.

Glenn O'Brien