Analytical Art

Analytical Art. The Ideal Work of Nonconformist Culture

The start of the 1970s in Moscow art is a historical watershed. Even thought the metaphysical, retromodernist, and abstract artist continued to work, they were no longer the motive force of the art process. The new stage is related to the work of artists who were theoretically well-grounded, with a good grasp of analytical tools and familiar with the situation in world art and philosophy.  The time of empirical creativity, when artists had felt their way, knowing what they had fled but not where they were going, was over. With the appearance of theoretical artists, nonconformism passed through the “mirror stage,” that is, it recognized its identity and on that basis elaborated its own ideological and stylistic model of the painting. The honor of its creation belongs to Erik Bulatov.

Many critics consider this artist a conceptualist on the basis that he worked very closely for many years with his friend Ilya Kabakov, the founder of the tradition of Moscow Conceptualism. But a tendency to theorize over his actions, which is very characteristic of Bulatov, and the ability to comment clearly on his own work cannot serve as evidence of the conceptual nature of his art. Bulatov’s main and only goal is to create a painting in its classical understanding of containing an artistic image of the world. A conceptualist is interested in something completely different: a study of the reasons and circumstances that aid or obstruct an artist in his work. The conceptualist consciously distances himself from the figure of the master at his easel with palette and brushes and describes him from the side. He is interested in the typology of various representatives of the artistic class, their psychology, characteristic stereotypes in thinking, the manias and diseases that determine the stylistic differences in their works. He figures out the moment when work meets viewer, the forms of perception and misunderstanding of the artistic text that are typical for the local mentality. Understandably this kind of researcher has no cultural interest in common with a painter, even though he could feel kinship on a purely personal level.

That is what happened in the friendly alliance of Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, and Ilya Kabakov. These artists had studied painting in their youth with the same teachers and then together decided to continue their self-education. All around them, their peers had immersed themselves in the professional preparation of paintings, while this trio put off applied professionalization and did not rush to shackle themselves with a stable manner. They settled into the stage of experimentation. They invented something like a home academy for themselves, where they methodically studied the philosophical aspects of the original elements with which artists work. Soviet criticism usually called this sort of work “formalism,” but in fact the artists were not interested in pure forms but in ideas that were inextricably tied to those forms.  This kind of theoretical research and discussion was an important link in the art education of the 1920s. Bulatov, Vassiliev, and Kabakov got it first hand from Vladimir Favorsky, who had taught at VKhUTEMAS (Higher Artistic Technical Workshops), the school of the avant-gardists; the trio had met him at the end of his life. Thus the taste for analytical work with form tied the historical avant-garde with nonconformism across the abyss of Socialist Realism. The object of their attention was the opposition of the painting’s surface and the space in the painting, of black and white, of background and image. The search for uniting picture, word, and object held a special place in their experiments. The theme of their integration had been important to Favorsky, as a master and theoretician of book illustration. And then the connection of word and image with the object had been actualized in the 1960s by Pop Art, which postulated their common linguistic nature.

Paintings by Kabakov, Bulatov and Vassiliev, similar in nature, resembling geometric abstractions, but actually serving as visual aids for analytical elaborations, appeared in the mid-1960s. They indicate force lines and energy fields of energy that work on the surface of the painting independently of whether anything is painted on it or not. These works are comparable to X rays, for they reveal hidden currents, invisible to the eye. Then the three analytical authors wrapped the bones of their paintings in white canvas, as if in a leather cover, and began studying the connections of inner energy and visible image. At this stage of “white paintings” the creative paths of the group’s members diverged. Kabakov went off sharply. First he took up the dialectical ambivalence of a painting, which is both the author’s illusion and at the same time an object among other ordinary things. Kabakov’s white glowing surfaces were gradually transformed into three-dimensional box paintings with half-image/ half-objects pasted on. Their domestic component expanded, the incongruous “Couch Painting” appeared, and then the paintings was completely replaced by stands and crates filled with rubbish and broken domestic items. Kabakov’s deviation led him to an increasingly estranged and sarcastic attitude toward the very intention of creating paintings. The more substantive, scholarly, and ambitious the process of building a painting appear, the more ruthlessly Kabakov mocked the situation. He wrote:

“A work created by the author becomes the object of meditation by the author himself. He contemplates it endlessly in silence and solitude, looks at his object, and as it seems to him, improves it, brings it to completion.  […] The exaltation that inevitably arises from the author’s extended hanging around his canvas is inescapably identified as a higher, extremely spiritual state.”  Kabakov concludes, “And this is our damned lot—dust, dirt, muddy, dark smears on stretched canvases and the sensation of ecstasy, revelation, a sacred bird caught in painfully taut nerves.”  Having overcome the “decrepit Adam” in himself, Kabakov left the building of nonconformist culture, went outside, and was the first to create its external description in the landscape of world art. But Bulatov and Vassiliev stayed inside.

What Kabakov sees as “murky smears” for Bulatov is the “model of the world.”  A painting, says Bulatov, “is the only reality in which I believe. […] In order to orient myself in the life around me, I must turn to the painting and ask it. Working with a painting is a dialog, you have to listen attentively, actually, see what your interlocutor replies to you.” The primary elements of paintings for Bulatov and Vassiliev in the process of their discussions and vigils in front of paintings were imbued with numerous meanings of an idealistic, existential, and social order and took on persistent colors. The plane was red. This is a force coming at the viewer, the social reality of prohibitions and limitations. Space, on the contrary, was light blue. It is the volume of the visible world and the otherworldly infinity; the freedom of individual existence outside social conventions and a path for ascending to a higher state. Continuing the ideas of Favorsky, Bulatov calls that space “profound.” But it is one thing to verbally describe this collection of symbols and another to let the viewer sense it with his skin and experience it personally. In order to break down the threshold of nonreceptivity and move the viewer’s eye from a state of feeble wandering to a state of alert seeing, Bulatov turns to the “glowing pipe” iconographic scheme traditional in European painting. If you think of Bosch’s paintings, for example, the dead souls fly up to heaven in a column of light. Analogous beams of light powerfully cut through space in Gothic and Baroque churches. The open gates leading to the other world force the viewer to lift his head and enter into vertical communication. Bulatov redirects the flow, transforming the “pipe” into a “tunnel,” and places it at the intersection of diagonals, in the most active point, the “altar,” of the painting. The viewer’s vertical communication is correspondingly changed to horizontal communication. The gaze is sucked in wildly, farther and farther. A person willy-nilly finds himself prisoner of a contemplative soaring in the depths of the world beyond the painting. At the same time, the painting as an object in space, as a flat screen, is no longer perceived. It is swallowed by the spectacle of space. This effect is impossible to transmit in reproductions, where Bulatov’s enormous canvases look like miniature posters. But every viewer who has experienced this effect comes out reeling and, regaining his senses a bit, realizes that he had gotten a similar message, just a hint, on a weak flame, in the paintings of Vladimir Veisberg.

There are not many examples in the history of art when one artist exhausts the discourse of an entire art movement. This can probably be said of Matisse and Kandinsky. This is the situation of Bulatov’s work in regard to the culture of nonconformism. We will find echoes of Oleg Tselkov’s “mugs” and Oskar Rabin’s hopeless boredom of Soviet life.  Bulatov’s “Gioconda” reminds us of the boot-stomped manuscripts in Dmitri Plavinsky’s paintings. Bulatov is in solidarity with the “underground” artist in their harsh rejection of socialism. He shares their desire to break out of the social milieu, believes that this is the essence of spiritual perfection, and with the people of the “underground” thinks that the best means of escape is art. “To let the viewer sense himself in another space from the one in which he is physically, not to look at it but be inside it—that is the goal of the contemporary painting as I understand it,” writes Bulatov. Through the analytical construction of thought-forms, he creates the ideal escape-painting, salvation-painting, a therapeutic instrument leading people to the exit to freedom. Its distinction from the works of the nonconformists of the 1960s is its cold objectivity. Self-evidence of the image. As a rule, Bulatov does not allow anything personal, any commentary, in his paintings. He does not say, the way his colleagues do, “This is what I think, I believe, it seems to me.” Bulatov’s painting asserts reality “as it is in actuality.” Not as it is for the masses of people who could not enter the building of nonconformist culture. Not as it is for the “renegades,” like Kabakov and his conceptualist followers, who left the building. But as it is for the inhabitants of the building who accept the ideology of nonconformism as a universal cultural norm. Bulatov expressed his attitude clearly about the conceptual studies of context and of the works of Kabakov himself. “We cannot simultaneously be in the space of our existence and in the space of art. As long as we live in our space and are busy with its problems and cares, art for us is only a collection of conditionalities: sounds, letters, or color spots.” In order to understand art, we need time to renounce the context.  This point of view excludes conceptualism from being a cultural position.

Oleg Vassiliev, sharing the concepts of his best friend Bulatov, proposed his own thought-forms for a painting with deep space. They are the direct opposite of Bulatov’s. Vassiliev does not see the next life in the depth of space but instead, a heavy pitch darkness. The background, as black as soot, dims the external light right at the entrance, the light from headlights and street lamps going into the depths. So a person stepping into a Vassiliev painting won’t be soaring. Moving deeper holds an oppressive uncertainty. Or—this interpretation also comes to mind: a joyless finale.  Vassiliev takes the theme of “memento mori,” typical of Krasnopevtsev and Sveshnikov, to its grim extreme, and he turns the light of his paintings toward the past.  Shadows, fragmented memories, float in the white milky spaces. Art illuminates the past and says nothing about the future. Bulatov’s white painting and Vassiliev’s black painting, like two forms of the bordering state of hope and fear of death, summed up and completed the time of the ideas of Sartre and Camus. But naturally, they fell under the fire of conceptualist criticism as soon as the art world grew enthused with the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss and Lotman’s semiotics. From the point of view of concept, Bulatov’s paintings are not free of didacticism and contradictions, but it is enough to see them live for all complaints to vanish under the effect of a painterly beauty rare in Russian art.

Andrei Erofeev