Russian Pop-Art

Documenting the Everyday World, or Russian Pop-Art

Almost all of Oskar Rabin’s paintings are in a dark brown palette, eliciting mixed aesthetic feelings in the viewer. On the one hand, these are the noble colors of Rembrandt, Adriaen Brouwer, the minor Dutch, and, basically, of all darkened museum paintings. That is, the noble color of European culture. On the other hand, it is the color of mud, rubbish, excrement, and filth. Rabin’s city and all the components of impoverished life are immersed in it. Following the humanist traditions of nineteenth-century realism, Rabin calls on the viewer not to turn away from the “lower depths” of humanity, but to show Christian compassion, to see people in the garbage dump, to see and welcome them in filthy barracks. It does not follow, of course, that Rabin is delighted by the aesthetic features of the world he depicts. On the contrary, he diligently makes it darker, thickening the paints and multiplying the details (dark sky, dirty snow, black smoke from the chimneys and black shadows on the peeling walls) which are meant to increase the viewer’s sense of disgust. Contrasted to the dump and the chaos is the “celestial” world, lofty and beautiful.  Its bearer is a man of art. Rabin’s paintings are created from the viewpoint of that “outsider,” who has set down his violin and is looking at the swinishness around him.

The artist creates beauty. He counters the ugliness around him. This position could be called axiomatic for the first generation of nonconformist artists and poets. Each interpreted the hostile context in his own way. For some, it was the world of socialism, for others, any totalitarian society, for still others, the milieu of any society, and for a final group, any form of the mundane, the petty daily cares that block out the meaning of life. In every case, the “low world” was seen as false, amoral, and ugly. There was only one artist of the contemporary art circle who decisively spoke out against that axiom in the 1960s. That is Mikhail Roginsky. He was not a theoretician, but he was distinguished by an independence of thought and an amazing sense of contemporary tendencies. Speaking no other languages and having spent many years as a local artist and designer in the Severodvinsk Theater, he didn’t know anything about the Western art scene, much less the Moscow situation. But when he arrived in Moscow in the early 1960s, he created several outstanding works that caused a sensation. I am referring to the series of “apartment walls,” “apartment floors” and “doors” from 1965. In these objects, Roginsky recreated three-dimensional interior doors with protruding handles and fragments of the room’s walls. The wall fragments had light switches from outdoor lines and bore the characteristic horizontal division of painted panels, darker on the bottom and lighter on top, as usual for communal flats in those years. All the objects were made by the author, but an inattentive viewer could easily take them for “ready-made,” found in the garbage. There were no interior design companies in those years in Russia and residents did their own painting. The color selection was very limited, brown, dark green, bright light blue, chalk white, and if you could come to terms with the fire station, crimson red.  Roginsky clears “residential painting” from mundane details, removing all traces of life, to focus on the important thing—the powerful, crude, and extremely intense resonance of the paint slathered on like impasto, with no knowledge of valeur or tonal nuance. “So, you want abstract art?” Roginsky seems to declare with these works.  “It’s all around you, here! Not some foreign stuff from galleries and museums, but our own, local, real stuff!” Roginsky’s domestic monochromes are the direct analog of Rauschenberg’s assemblages, which also combined everyday things with Abstract Expressionist insertions.

Roginsky created the first truly original version of current Russian art, which corresponded to world art in terms of ideas, rather than concrete formal solutions. It was clear why the poet Genrikh Sapgir, an authority in art, immediately dubbed the artist’s work “Russian Pop Art.” It sounded convincing to many. That is why the artists of the turn of the 1960s-1970s who wanted to become Russian “Pop artists”—Yevgeny Rukhin (with variations of the same kind of interior walls), Boris Turetsky, Alexander Kosolapov, Leonid Sokov—continued Roginsky’s line on playing with the artistic meanings of local domestic culture. Roginsky himself was rather surprised by it, because if he had been thinking about Western art, it was within the framework of the random information that reached him about the avant-garde artists of the beginning of the century. Thus, talking about the series of “floors,” depicting the geometric pattern of Metlakh ceramic tiles usually used in bathrooms and toilets, Roginsky said, “I was doing this courageous Mondrianism, projected onto reality.”

The Pop Art thesis needs to be explained. Roginsky went much farther beyond a simple excursion into the sphere of “low culture.” He truly did catch the central meaning of the style. Like Andy Warhol, Roginsky did away with the hierarchical difference between artist and philistine. He announced: “I know just as much and no more than an ordinary housewife, an ordinary guy on the street, so there.” He rejected the stereotype of understanding art as of form of distancing from the mundane.  When asked, “What is painting for?” he said, “It exists to reconcile you, me, people, with the life that surrounds us. On the contrary, not flying off somewhere, you see, but to understand that you can like all this, that it can be interesting.” At a time of mutual hostility, when dissidents, Westernizers, Stalinists, and other sociocultural groups were squaring off, Roginsky was the first to preach resignation, the voluntary humility of the artist before the circumstances and forms of “popular life.” He was against revolutionary utopian projects to transform the local culture. But there wasn’t a grain of retreat from the ethics of nonconformism in those thoughts. Roginsky said, “I accept everything except the regime.” Yet you could sense the desire to separate the aesthetic feeling of the populace from Soviet mass culture. And the desire, essentially, to overcome the widespread disdain of ordinary people, “sovok” and “cattle,” as the intelligentsia often called them.

Roginsky called his manner “documentalism” and saw his creative task in the correct showing of the revelations of the “populace aesthetic,” rather than retelling them in his own words. Here we come to the most far-reaching and outstanding discovery he made. The artist’s role is not in preparing a masterpiece, an individual work, a personal message. For Roginsky, the artist explicates the context, which in meaning and power is beyond the author’s art. However, the context left on its own says nothing, it exists but it is invisible, or even worse, filled with negative opinions. The artist’s obligation is to help the context manifest itself, and for that he must make what Roginsky called “not-art.” “I strove to make not-art by making art, like Mayakovsky’s line: ‘Use verse to battle poetry.’” Mikhail Roginsky offered Russian art a completely different path than the one it was rolling along at that moment. But in 196, the general mood of the art scene still favored Rabin’s ideas. They triumphed over the position of the “renegade,” and that, alas, forced Roginsky to keep quiet. The train of the new Russian avant-garde did not take the track sketched by Mikhail Roginsky for another ten years.

Andrei Erofeev