Boris Turetsky


At the new Moscow art space, a large selection of drawings by Boris Turetsky resembles a display in a library archive: Hundreds of drawings of exactly the same sketchbook size fill the walls and hang in makeshift Plexiglas cases in one large room. The earliest works displayed are from the early 1950s—cheerful, colored-pencil sketches of the artist’s room in a communal apartment, as well as abstract pieces. These betray his academic training and his enthusiasm for the domestic—tender depictions of table lamps and crumpled linen, foldout beds and pickling jars—through an almost pathological cataloguing and recataloguing of personal property. All are rendered in a psychedelic palette, lines defined and redefined until the objects almost quake under the burden of the artist’s attention.

Ink studies of the same objects gradually tend toward abstraction—toilet seats drift up into floating black blobs, kitchen furniture organizes into Mondrianesque grids; pages fill with lines and schemes until hardly any paper remains visible. The sheer quantity of drawings in the exhibition and their proximity to each other lend themselves to a flipbook narrative of the artist’s life (a format realized in the catalogue, which is partially composed of actual flipbooks). Eventually the drawings collapse into pages so heavily loaded and scratched with ink as to tear through the paper. These works match a period of illness (apparently mental) that affected Turetsky from 1975 to 1984, throwing into dispute whether he was, as suggested in the catalogue, rupturing into the sculptural or just expressing rage.

Launched into his career in 1934 when he won second prize in an All-Union children’s drawing contest at the age of six, Turetsky was part of a generation of artists engineered by the Soviet state. After Stalin’s death, however, Turetsky was also one of the first to turn to a practice more critical than that of socialist realism. Building on a catch-as-catch-can modernist tradition reconstructed from coffee-table books smuggled in from the West, evolving through Abstract Expressionism to proto-Pop studies of everyday objects and scenes (car fenders, stoves, stocky women riding the tram), Turetsky earned a place in the pantheon of antiestablishment artists. Aside from a few well-publicized clashes, self-proclaimed nonconformists like Turetsky were overlooked by authorities content to keep aesthetic dissent at a manageable simmer. But by revealing the hundreds of sketches he made during his life, this exhibition showed that even the nonconformist artist pursued a more truly “underground,” “secret” career behind the one that was already invisible to official culture.

As the show concluded with a descent into tortured insanity, it seemed to bump Turetsky from nonconformity to outsider status. Perhaps because the “nonconformist movement” is too redolent of the sickly collectivism its participants meant to resist, artists like Turetsky are being historicized afresh—making them more palatable to private enterprise in turn. Situated in central Moscow and partly carpeted in Astroturf, comes complete with a mission statement identifying the museum as a sort of public storage, in this case housing the extensive holdings of Russian and Soviet art amassed by businessman Igor Markin. Paintings including gems by Erik Bulatov and Ilya Kabakov hang higgledy-piggledy around the halls devoted to his collection while canned pop music plays. Markin, however, is not in the same category as the sundry “oligarch’s wives” who own many of Moscow’s contemporary art galleries. He is rather a maverick and a champion of the uninitiated—an outsider curator bound up in the Turetskian enterprise of perpetually unveiling reality.

Emily Newman