Viktor Pivovarov

The Russian artist Viktor Pivovarov has been living in Prague for the past sixteen years, and his work, like that of his colleague Ilya Kabakov, also one of the conceptual artists active in the “Alba” group in Moscow during the late ’60s and early ’70s, reflects the émigré’s bittersweet nostalgia for another place and time.

The most pronounced aspect of Pivovarov’s production is literary, and his idiom belongs to the history of Surrealism, an essentially literary mode. His writings, compiled in a six-volume catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, are as integral to his oeuvre as his objects, which themselves frequently consist entirely of text. Words are either incorporated directly into the pieces or appear in the form of captions without which the meaning of the work might be lost. The objects are carefully crafted, though slightly rustic, and his imagery is illustrative—like Kabakov, he was trained as a graphic artist and also worked as a book illustrator. His rendering is just convincing enough, yet not so much that the viewer’s attention is drawn to it too strongly. Even when the imagery is “abstract,” as in a piece in the series “Diary of a Teenager,” 1986–88, in which geometric planes are used to create a portrait that recalls Kasimir Malevich’s early paintings, abstraction is used to suggest an idea about abstraction rather than to serve as a formal investigation.

In the introduction to Amei Wallach’s recent monograph on Kabakov, Robert Storr describes the former Soviet Union as a “lost civilization.” Pivovarov’s own archaeological research is documented in the cycle “Agent in Norway,” 1993. The fictional history in this work—concerning a group of Norwegian poets, scientists, and intellectuals—reads as a form of self-portraiture. The cast of characters and their antiquated “special equipment” and “secret devices” are depicted in documentary-style, half-tone reproductions whose faux aura both undermines and confirms the authority of the representation. “Agent in Norway” suggests the sort of intellectual society—a Europe of salons, institutes, secret correspondence, and manifestos—that romantics imagine existed in Moscow and in Prague before 1989.

The work in the show comprised seven cycles, some more successful than others. Pivovarov seems less sure of himself when he restricts himself to “pure painting,” and the way he uses paint and canvas can sometimes seem too quaint. He is most convincing when he mines the literary vein in his work. One motif to which he continually returns is the domestic setting: home, in his imagination, is a sanctuary in which the last vestiges of individualism found provisional refuge from the pressures to conform under Soviet-style Communism—a place where objects like a fishbowl or a diary are imbued with a sentimentality that verges on the religious. The irony throughout is that Pivovarov seems to long for the kind of privacy that can only exist in a state where privacy is severely limited.

Jeff Crane