Moscow

Andy Warhol, Hammer and Sickle, 1976, acrylic and silk-screen ink on canvas, 15 x 19“. From ”If Our Soup Can Could Speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties."

Andy Warhol, Hammer and Sickle, 1976, acrylic and silk-screen ink on canvas, 15 x 19“. From ”If Our Soup Can Could Speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties."

Mikhail Lifshitz

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

Andy Warhol, Hammer and Sickle, 1976, acrylic and silk-screen ink on canvas, 15 x 19“. From ”If Our Soup Can Could Speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties."

The Soviet philosopher and critic Mikhail Lifshitz would not seem, at first glance, the most obvious subject for an exhibition at a museum of contemporary art. Sometimes described as a Marxist conservative, Lifshitz spent the early 1920s as a student and then a lecturer at Vkhutemas, the state art school, only to reject the avant-garde that flourished there in favor of a return to classicism. Branded a “right-wing deviant” at the school, he took up a post as a researcher at Moscow’s Marx-Engels Institute in 1929 alongside György Lukács and spent much of the 1930s working to prove that a coherent aesthetic theory—conveniently, one that justified his anti-modernist views—could be found in the writings of Marx himself. Though Lifshitz survived the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s more or less unscathed, his work was interrupted by the outbreak of war, and when he returned home from the front after volunteering for military service, the virulent anti-Semitic campaigns of the postwar years forced him into relative isolation until Stalin’s death. In the 1960s, Lifshitz returned to public life with a series of polemical essays, collected in his 1968 book The Crisis of Ugliness, that critiqued modernist art from Cubism to Pop, and especially its embrace as an emblem of democratic freedom by progressive members of the post-Thaw Soviet intelligentsia.

Conceived by the artists Dmitry Gutov and David Riff, “If Our Soup Can Could Speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties” took the fiftieth anniversary of The Crisis of Ugliness (newly translated into English by Riff) as an opportunity to retrieve Lifshitz’s contributions to Soviet intellectual culture from obscurity. Positioning Lifshitz as an “untimely” figure, perpetually out of step with the prevailing currents of the day, Gutov and Riff emphasized the gulf between the knee-jerk anti-modernism of party ideologues and Lifshitz’s immanent critique, developed through what they describe as a deep understanding of modernism’s inner logic and fundamental contradictions.

While the exhibition reflected the curators’ intimacy with Lifshitz’s archives, including an extensive array of manuscripts, notebooks, photographs, and correspondence, alongside a handful of artworks discussed therein, this archival display was far from conventional. Instead, Gutov and Riff brought the archive to life by presenting these materials in a sequence of thematic mise-en-scènes. Several rooms were reconstructions of places where Lifshitz worked: The exhibition opened with the spare gray bedroom of his 1950s communal apartment, then moved nonchronologically through the reading room of the Marx-Engels Institute, a Vkhutemas classroom, and the editorial office of the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, where he first published his 1966 manifesto “Why Am I Not a Modernist?”

Other spaces were devoted to the subjects of his texts. One re-created the interior of the Maison Cubiste from the 1912 Salon d’Automne, replacing the original canvases with enlarged prints of the low-quality, black-and-white reproductions from The Crisis of Ugliness. Another displayed (real) works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in an approximation of Warhol’s Factory, replete with aluminum-lined walls and a Velvet Underground soundtrack. In a comically literal twist, two Campbell’s soup cans outfitted with speakers repeated a dialogue from Lifshitz’s essay on Pop. A space dedicated to Lifshitz’s late text “On the Right Path” (1976) imagined a cluttered Brezhnev-era artist’s studio with 1970s socialist-realist canvases hanging on the walls. Part period room, part imaginative projection, these reconstructed environments, each assembled with a staggering attention to detail, were impressive in themselves. But they were more than just spectacle: Visitors were invited to sit on the carefully replicated furnishings and read the Soviet-era periodicals and books on politics, art, and aesthetics. In the enigmatic final room (a near-empty white cube), a quote from Lifshitz on the wall hinted at the polemical thread running through Gutov and Riff’s project, the proposition that Lifshitz’s dialectical method might offer a way forward for contemporary art today: IT COULD BE THAT THIS SAD EXPERIENCE IS SOMETHING ART REQUIRES BEFORE THE TRANSITION TO A NEW SOCIAL CONTENT CAN CLEARLY BRING THE OLD FORMS BACK TO LIFE.

Rachel Wetzler