New York

View of “Russia!,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2005.

View of “Russia!,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2005.

“Russia!”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

Remember the 1966 movie The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming? Well, guess what? The Russians are back, only this time they are showering the West with money rather than ideology. Or is it so simple as that? Russian intellectuals were in a rush to naively proclaim the end of ideology during perestroika, when they witnessed top Soviet apparatchiks turning the Communist regime into their own enemy. While staging this revolution from the inside, Mikhail Gorbachev romanced Ronald Reagan and opened up the cultural arena to Western institutions and the art market, thereby replacing the single ideology of communism with the multiple ideologies of capitalism. Thus it comes as no surprise that one wall text accompanying the works on view in “Russia!” attributes the well-being of the country’s contemporary art not to scholars, curators, or critics but rather to Sotheby’s 1988 auction in Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin, and private galleries. The question of who actually contributed to the intellectual soundness of postwar Soviet alternative aesthetics, and then constructed methodologies for its interpretation, is beside the point, for the institutions and individuals who ignored this artwork (if not suppressed it) during the Soviet era are now eager to embrace and rewrite its history. At the Guggenheim, their optimistic model for this history is not unlike that of film director Aleksandr Sokurov, articulated in his Russian Ark (2002): an imaginary wholeness under which Russian monarchy, Bolshevism, and post-Soviet capitalism can be fused together.

The curators’ conviction that this slipshod molding of domestic cultural history—generously funded by the new Russian oligarchs—is, in fact, a pioneering project becomes clear at the very beginning of the exhibition, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp is painted in a jolting red beneath a generous selection of icons, primarily from the period coinciding with the Italian Renaissance. Regardless of how intense and formally dazzling these works are, the curators do not convey any accurate sense of Russian culture prior to Peter the Great’s uncompromising campaign of Westernization. (This is unfortunate, since this pre-Petrovian period is seldom recognized in the West.) Rather, and not without the help of the show designer’s murky installation, the icons instantly make one think of the watchful eye of today’s Russian Orthodox Church, which drills into and censors the activities of contemporary artists.

Undoubtedly the icons are not included here to suggest the current dissemination of conservative religious agenda into many secular spheres. Instead, as the nine Western and Russian curators openly state, they are meant to bolster the oft-asserted (by Western and Russian scholars alike) idea that the formal vocabulary of the Russian avant-garde germinated from these religious works. Pushed for decades, this interpretation has become a favorite for some Russian curators who wish to divorce early local modernism from tenets of social engagement. Whether you are for or against this approach, this exhibition does little to substantiate it.

For example, Kazimir Malevich’s breakthroughs in abstraction in particular have been victims of this religion-bound discourse—which would seem to explain why the curators chose to include his Black Square. What we get here, however, is not the first, 1915 version of this trademark Malevich image but a recently discovered one that dates from about 1930 and was acquired for the State Hermitage Museum by billionaire businessman Vladimir Potanin (the main sponsor of “Russia!”). As a result, this later Black Square (the artist’s fourth), instead of aligning Malevich with the curators’ clichéd premise of Russian mysticism, places him within the postmodern discourse of seriality and repetition.

Russian Constructivism, the movement most favored in the West, is represented here by Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Stenberg, who have in effect been extracted from the vast pool of highly experimental artists working in multimedia production during the period immediately after the revolution. Indeed, they are positioned in a contextual vacuum not only in terms of their historical moment but also regarding their historical consequence. Both Rodchenko’s monochrome triptych Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color, 1921, the culmination of his anti-painting agenda, and Stenberg’s spatial construction Spiral, 1920, one of a handful of surviving works from the laboratory phase of Soviet Constructivism, should have provided the perfect opportunity to discuss the influence these works had on their American postwar successors (even if only on a wall text).

Such poor representation of revolutionary abstraction (ironic in the con-text of an institution formerly called the “Museum of Non-Objective Painting”) came about, I believe, due to the pressure that Russian collectors have brought to bear. Since the 1990s, the first generation of nouveau riche—known for favoring figurative representation—has been hunting after nineteenth-century paintings with far more devotion than abstract ones. This enthusiasm is reflected by the greater presence of such work here, and perhaps hints at the real impulses behind this show. No doubt a discursive analysis of Russian nineteenth-century art and its role in the formation of early Russian modernism is long overdue. Unfortunately that analysis is not in this exhibition, although some of the works on view do provide a glimpse of what such an approach might offer. One could effectively begin with Alexei Venetsianov’s Reaper, ca. 1820s, a close-up portrait of a female peasant who frames herself with a sickle (but not yet a hammer) to allegorize looming sociopolitical ruptures. Other paintings found in this section are authored by the members of the Wanderers group, which in the 1860s put the spotlight on the misery of the Russian people. Sadly, many of their dismal scenarios remain relevant to the daily life of the post-Soviet population.

Arriving at a higher level of the Guggenheim spiral, one finds examples of socialist realism—Russia’s lowest art (to use Greenbergian terminology). Apparently oblivious of any such consensus, the curators proudly dub these official Stalinist productions “masterpieces,” and then ignore the difference between commissioned propaganda canvases and experimental works that comprise various modes of 1920s new figuration. This section is followed by the dissident modernists who emerged during Khruschev’s thaw. Ilya Kabakov was part of this circle, and it was a good decision to include The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, 1985–88 (shown here in its 1988 reconstruction), which consists of a makeshift, man-size slingshot rigged to the walls of a cramped room cluttered with Communist propaganda posters. Not only is this a rare example of one of the projects Kabakov actually installed in his studio in Moscow before perestroika, but, juxtaposed with the Guggenheim’s “masterpieces” of Soviet kitsch, the piece makes it much clearer why a Russian alive in the early ’80s would want to catapult himself through the ceiling.

Unlike Kabakov, Komar and Melamid are represented not by their early, edgier Sots Art pieces—which shook the entire unofficial milieu of the ’70s—but instead by two canvases executed during their émigré period, from the series “Nostalgic Socialist Realism,” 1981–83, which offer only a more controlled deconstruction of official Soviet myths. This less than ideal curatorial decision is compensated for, however, by Vadim Zakharov’s installation The History of Russian Art—From the Avant-Garde to the Moscow School of Conceptualists, 2003. As if to underscore that there is not a specialist in postwar Soviet visual culture among the nine curators of “Russia!” Zakharov takes on the task of packaging various twentieth-century movements: His five huge, black filing folders allow viewers to walk inside each one and find Xerox copies of a number of key works. Although one folder includes early pieces by Komar and Melamid, Zakharov’s genealogy does not feature his own 1981 series of Dadaistic self-portraits, “I Have Made Enemies,” a work far superior to The History. This series effectively destabilized the aesthetic values of the ’60s generation of dissident modernists by confronting them with slogans such as “[Eduard] Steinberg, you are Malevich sugarcoated. It’s time to recognize this, please.”

This exhibition is a microcosm for the dismal state of cultural affairs in Russia, where functionaries left over from the Soviet regime fail to establish transparent institutions that would treat art in a professional way. One work in particular highlights the resulting stifling conditions for artists of all ages: Painted at the zenith of Brezhnev’s political and cultural stagnation, Oleg Vassiliev’s Ogonyok No. 25, 1980, reproduces a cover from the Soviet magazine Ogonyok depicting a speaker at a Politburo meeting, but Vassiliev obscures his face with beams of light. The painting forecast that the creative energy of underground culture would eventually contribute to the effacement of the Soviet regime. Little did he know that the culture industry that followed would require just as stalwart a resistance.

Margarita Tupitsyn is a critic and scholar based in Paris and New York.