Erik Bulatov, Caution, 1973, oil on canvas, 43 5/16 x 43 5/16".

Erik Bulatov, Caution, 1973, oil on canvas, 43 5/16 x 43 5/16".

Erik Bulatov

SOCIALIST REALISM, as enforced by the Soviet Union in 1934, was more than just an art movement or a shared sensibility. It was the representation of Soviet identity, and a representation addressing a national audience that was extremely receptive. In fact, the high level of reciprocation that existed between this imagery and its subjects—the tenants of communal apartments—suggests that socialist realism cannot be grasped apart from communal perception. The genre was an integral part of an immense system, something that today is impossible to fit into crates. Technically, socialist realist paintings are shipped easily enough to Kassel or Long Island City, but one cannot transport the optical conditions (the imperative necessity of seeing through the eyes of the “collective other,” or on its behalf) that gave these works meaning. For that, one must radically change one’s sense of visual identity—“communalize” oneself, as it were.

When interviewed by Susan Buck-Morss some six years ago, I argued that communal vision is “linked to the phenomenon of cathartic merging with an identificatory icon: It is not visuality, in other words, but rather psychedelia. It was an A-bomb of catharsis that exploded in Russia in the 1930s. Given the scale of this ‘explosion’ (and the impact it made on the Soviet cultural mentality), there are hardly any non-nuclear ways to re-contextualize this ‘Hiroshima.” Of course, some artists are acknowledged to have managed such recontextualization, making of it an art form—among them, the so-called Sots artists like Komar & Melamid, in whose work the communal perception of authoritarian icons gives way to an individual one. This may also be said of painter Erik Bulatov, part of the first generation of Soviet “unofficial” artists—which emerged in the late 1950s, during Khrushchev’s thaw—and the subject of a comprehensive retrospective (his first) at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. Recontextualization as an art form would seem a metaphor that throws the baby out with the bathwater, but this reevaluation of Bulatov’s oeuvre will definitely help audiences realize that authoritarian intertexts (buried alive underneath any cultural heritage) are powerless without a “corrupt eye” to behold them.

Bulatov’s earliest work was, in its eclectic minimalism, marked by a theatricality akin to that observed by Michael Fried in the works of Donald Judd and Robert Morris. But the most interesting part of Bulatov’s career is his second period, which includes the paintings created between 1972 and 1991 that made him “unofficially” famous in his homeland. In Dangerous, 1972–73, for instance, inscriptions along the canvas’s four sides caution against any cathartic cohesion with socialist realist representation, suggesting that such representation might be mistaken for a final truth and totality. (“Social space is not all of reality,” warns Bulatov, insisting, as did Plato, that there is a light-bearing agency positioned outside the sociocultural “cave.”) Here, as he does in such canvases as Caution, 1973, Bulatov places the language of commands and warnings within pictorial space in a way that echoes the didactics of railroad posters: Beware of high platforms; do not walk on the tracks; do not ride on the roof. According to Ilya Kabakov, both he and Bulatov were fond of such posters in the early 1970s, and the former’s 1981 essay on the subject, “Two Railwaymen,” reveals how the crossing sign—warning against looming trains—defined Bulatov’s poster-style approach to the medium of painting.

From the ’70s through the late-’80s, Bulatov’s visual inventory consisted of a number of textbook images: charming countrysides, cityscapes, blue skies, clouds. These were culturally and ideologically processed clichés, indistinguishable from familiar socialist realist representations—the only difference being that they were no longer affirmative. Such transformations were due to that intrusion of words into pictorial space, a clash of the titans that turned positively anxious images into negatively anxious pictures. (In the end, anxiety—regardless of its role reversal—remained intact, as if reaffirming itself as an inalienable part of the Russian cultural tradition, visual or literary.) But one discerns a similar effect even in seemingly “speechless” paintings, where words are in a sense readable even in their absence. When foreign guests saw Brezhnev in Crimea, 1981­–85, in Bulatov’s Moscow studio, for instance, they could not understand why an unofficial artist would re-create in his own home a poster from a public place. But Bulatov displaced the work from the sphere of affirmative perception to that of alienated optics: Having wound up in the studio of an “alienated” artist, Brezhnev’s portrait became a work of alienated art, and, in a sense, Brezhnev was alienated from himself.

What these works bring to light is that Bulatov’s career has always been mediated by the discourse of power: However exaggerated, the confrontation between his negatively charged painting of the ’70s and ’80s and the affirmative art of socialist realists evokes Alexandre Dumas’s Man in the Iron Mask, a tale of two royal brothers, the ruler and his less fortunate contender who aims to reverse his luck. But when Bulatov relocated to New York in 1990 (and, a year later, to Paris), he entered a state of tranquillity—that is, an imaginary bubble with zero-degree alienation. The loss of negativity as a state of mind—advocated by critically engaged thinkers from Hegel to Adorno—was a side effect of the artist’s fascination with Western spectacle. As Bulatov admitted to me in an interview at the time, he looked “with the superficial eyes and naive enthusiasm of a tourist,” so that his work assumed a kind of “beyond-good-and-evil” dimension. His paintings of the next seven years were eligible for look-alike contests with promotional posters, sightseeing ads, and other “life-celebrating” items, and the artist was virtually forgotten by his admirers, Russian and Western alike. It will be interesting to see if this current retrospective will restore Bulatov’s career and reputation.

Since 1999, the artist has been inserting lines of poetry (authored by his friend Vsevolod Nekrasov) into the same illusionist space he used decades before. His painterly techniques have long been adjusted to poster-style execution, and he spends time (up to several months!) primarily on preliminary sketches, while the actual process of painting usually takes only a few hours. Even with the familiar countrysides, urban landscapes, and cloudy skies, the results resemble Constructivist book designs, with the texts narrowing at angles; but Bulatov’s use of diagonals in such works as The Way the Clouds Move—the Way Things Are Going, 2001, has little to do with Constructivism’s compromise between two (di) contests (agons), one utopian and the other historically specific. Regardless, this series partially fulfills its author’s desire to move away (“the way the clouds move”) from the social in order to stake out a more “universal” place for his melancholically detached paintings. The problem, however, is that the destination has turned out to be Bulatov’s own mind—or rather, the “theater of the mind,” to use Mallarmé’s phrase. Perhaps nothing is more theatrical than our chronic dependence on binary oppositions, considering that the ubiquitous play (read: mise-en-scène) of differences is a modus operandi of “spectacle culture” and a condition of spectacle.

In 1939, when Clement Greenberg referred to the Tretyakov Gallery as “Moscow’s museum of . . . kitsch,” it was only eighty-three years old. Now, as the gallery celebrates its 150th anniversary, one is left wondering if Erik Bulatov’s retrospective puts this issue to rest.

Victor Tupitsyn is the editor of Post-Soviet Russia, a special edition of Third Text (December 2003); and coauthor of Verbal Photography: Ilya Kabakov, Boris Mikhailov, and the Moscow Archive of New Art (Museu de Serralves, 2004).