Oleg Vassiliev, Space and Landscape, 1994, oil on canvas, 48 × 36". From “Paper Museums: Moscow Conceptualism in Transit.”

Oleg Vassiliev, Space and Landscape, 1994, oil on canvas, 48 × 36". From “Paper Museums: Moscow Conceptualism in Transit.”

“Paper Museums: Moscow Conceptualism in Transit”

Oleg Vassiliev, Space and Landscape, 1994, oil on canvas, 48 × 36". From “Paper Museums: Moscow Conceptualism in Transit.”

Oleg Vassiliev’s 1994 painting Space and Landscape depicts beams of white light, like those surrounding holy figures in Russian icons, against a row of birch trees visible in the background. Birch trees are the most distinctive feature of Russia’s rural landscape; taking a train from Saint Petersburg to Warsaw, you can watch them for hours. The forest has both practical and symbolic importance in the history of Moscow Conceptualism. For the dissident artists of the Soviet era, who had no opportunity to exhibit in public and were prosecuted for exhibiting in private, the birch forest was a place of refuge, of encounter with other artists—a place for collective, spontaneous, plein-air exhibitions. Vassiliev’s white light evokes that sense of spiritualism and mystery that was central to the milieu described by Boris Groys in a famous 1979 essay as “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism.” The essay appeared in the first issue of A-Ya, an unofficial Russian art magazine published in Élancourt, on the outskirts of Paris, between 1979 and 1986.

In “Paper Museums: Moscow Conceptualism in Transit,” curators Elizaveta Butakova and Sarah Wilson, both of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, approached the complex phenomenon of Moscow Conceptualism from the perspective of the editors and contributors to A-Ya, MANI, and Pastor. All three periodicals were self-published by artists affiliated with the movement between 1979 and 2001 and helped consolidate the group and provide an alternative space of display for new works. While A-Ya and Pastor were produced in exile, MANI (Moscow Archive of New Art) was launched by Andrey Monastyrsky to disseminate information about art emerging under Soviet rule.

Thanks to the presence of striking artwork on the walls that seemed to move the pages of the magazines out into space, this exhibition was much more than an archival display of documents. The first of the exhibition’s five rooms presented seven issues of A-Ya in display cases positioned in the center of the room, while hanging on the walls surrounding them, along with Space and Landscape, were four works, all executed between 1995 and 1997, by Igor Chelkovsky, the sculptor who was editor in chief of A-Ya. Since what we could see in the display cases was just covers and inserts with theoretical texts, the works on the walls gave the impression of the visual content included. Colorful wooden reliefs by Chelkovski are a kind of synthesis of painting and sculpture. Such formal objects may not seem typical of what would elsewhere have counted as Conceptualism, but as Groys’s essay makes clear, what mattered to the Moscow artists’ group was a revolt against the concept of art as purely aesthetic matter. He pointed to the two key features of this art: its typically Muscovite “‘lyrical’ and ‘human’ quality . . . opposed to the dryness of officialdom,” and its preservation of an idea of “art as an event in the History of the Spirit.” He compares this practice to the art of Yves Klein, with his evocation of “a world of pure dream,” admitting that the use of the C-word remains problematic.

The curators’ unexpected decision to include works realized between 1976 and as recently as 2012—rather than focusing only on work made during the Soviet era, after which many of the artists scattered to New York, Paris, Jerusalem, and Berlin—highlights another crucial aspect of the movement, namely its dispersion in time and space, suggesting that neither the standard chronology nor topography of Conceptualism applies. The show, thanks to its broad scope, also reflected the history of the movement’s reception in the West. The exhibition demonstrated that Moscow Conceptualism, originating in trips out of town, was later able to flourish far from its birthplace as an international network of collaborators.

Sylwia Serafinowicz