San Francisco

“10 + 10”

The round numbers in the title of this traveling anthology exhibition refer to equal sets of Soviet and American painters, all of whom are under 40, commingled in the show’s ranks. The Soviets—Yurii Albert, Vladimir Mironenko, Yurii Petruk, Leonid Purygin, Andrei Roiter, Sergei Shutov, Alexei Sundukov, Vadim Zakharov, Anatolii Zhuravlev, and Konstantin Zvezdochetov—are all males living in Moscow. The American artists are David Bates, Ross Bleckner, Christopher Brown, April Gornik, Peter Halley, Annette Lemieux, Rebecca Purdum, David Salle, Donald Sultan, and Mark Tansey, all but two of whom live in New York.

Barely three years ago, it would not have been possible to discuss the work of young Soviet artists without having visited the studios and other informal venues of Moscow and Leningrad, at least. Now with glasnost and its mostly commercial repercussions in the West, the situation has changed. The current international art market identifies wild-haired varieties of recent Soviet art as right up there in demand with Australian aborigine paintings. Thus, change has been mediated in accord with the jobber’s rule: acquisition precedes communication.

Oddly enough, although this show bypasses all that sorry business with a minimum of curatorial channeling and geopolitical superscripts, its prime revelations occur by a sort of transcultural inversion, especially within the American sector. Bleckner and Halley each had a separate alcove gallery to himself, at the very beginning of the installation and at the midway mark, respectively. This situated Bleckner correctly as hors de concours, or anyhow ahead of the game. The most recent among his three pictures here, Architecture of the Sky III, 1988, is the singularly great painting qua painting in the show—a cosmogony viewed as if from inside a colander (as one local artist remarked). On the other hand, the intermediate framing of Halley’s work effectively raised it as the ideational fulcrum of almost everything else to either side. Suddenly, like Bleckner, Halley zoomed forth as a venerable master painter in the company of others still working out their approaches. He also looked specifically “Russian” and immediate, subjective even, like a true heir of Malevich bringing gratuitous, noisy blasts of outright sensation to the Supremacist desert. In other words, his pictures looked more like pictures and less like his ideas.

Altogether, the surprises in “10 + 10” hinge on identity shifts—the Soviets appearing not retrograde but at once familiar and hip, like the resourceful children of old yet seldom-seen friends, and the Americans somewhat despondent but prismatically de-familiarized (or more properly, Sovietized). April Gornik’s landscapes, for instance, possess distinctly Slavic or Tartarish complexions; her Mojacar, 1988, might be Irkutsk, her Tropical Wilderness, 1987, the recipient of a chill from near the Finnish border. Similarly with Tansey (that wayward Soviet Realist), Purdum (Rayonist frostbite), Bates (an Estonian’s idea of the bayous as wildlife preserve) and Brown (Ilya Repin seduced toward Action Painting by way of Larry Rivers’ revisionist excesses). Even Sultan’s fruits and fire fighters emerge singed and glowering from a Dostoevskian murk. Of course, much of this shiftiness may be just evidence of how thoroughly the hard-won retrievals of early Russian modernism have affected both Soviet and American art since the early ’60s.

The Americans make art explicitly intended for museum status, whereas the Russians have worked in an atmosphere promising next to nothing in the way of shows, much less curatorial sanctions. The Americans are nervy and suave, the Soviets nervy and (understandably) nervous, and where virtuosity shows up among them, it typically reflects sophistication about design. As Mironenko remarked in a panel discussion at the museum, the Soviets work “in the absence of European amusement, without American unexpectedness.” All the same, the Russians are funny and histrionic. (Among the Americans, only Tansey and Salle equal their monstrous levity.) As with the Americans, nearly all the Russians are conceptual painters, and many of their works—including the most imposing and accessible-seeming among them, by Zakharov Roiter, and Zhuravlev—exist either as parts of series or as residual of other activities. Even Purygin’s exploded Slavic-style folk art seems homesick for its context, which may signal a defining virtue of folk art, generally. Then again, because Purygin and so many of the others use words emblematically in their images, we come up against a severely mortared version of the language barrier. Some translations would have helped; except for the titles and artists’ statements, there are none in either the catalogue or the wall texts. Zhuravlev, at 26, the youngest of the painters here, makes the most normatively abstract art. His image-as-text oils and enamels on canvas, summarily reflective of linguistic confinement, are blocked out with a dandy’s cursive dash. Likewise, the industrial greens and incisions (standing for radio speakers and air vents) of Roiter’s Unseen Voices panels, 1988, communicate directly the drab look associated with everyday Soviet urban life.

To what extent do both the Russians and the Americans confine their work to the representation of current art ideas found more or less synchronized in magazines and books? And is “painting” the appropriate rubric for such a show when painting as such (despite its readiness to be shipped) is extraneous to the many non-media-specific intentions on both sides? In prompting and dealing with these questions, the Russians have the advantage of pretty well knowing what the Americans are about; we are largely ignorant of the dimensions of Moscow conceptualism. Perhaps we are blindly entering our own “period of esthetic starvation,” identified in the East (by the poet Alexei Parshchikov) with Brezhnev and here with Bush and Helms. What will the prospective viewers in Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi (where the show will proceed after its American tour) think? They may recognize the monolithic concepts of “America” and “Russia” as two dystopian, labyrinthine voids within which the “10 + 10” artists are gathering their senses.

Bill Berkson