Eric Bulatov

5 September 1933, Sverdlovsk

Erik Bulatov is a painter, graphic artist, and book illustrator. He graduated from the Moscow Middle Art School, for especially gifted children, where he  where he studied with Oleg Vassiliev and Ilya Kabakov, who also became masters of the unofficial art scene in Moscow. In 1952-1958, he was a top student in the painting department of the Surikov Institute and was expected to graduate with the Gold Medal. Because he organized a student rebellion against the teachers’ curriculum, he was stripped of the award. He worked as an illustrator of children’s books in publishing houses together with Oleg Vassiliev. He could not exhibit in the USSR because of censorship, with the exception of brief shows at the Kurchatov Institute and the Blue Bird Café in Moscow in 1965 and in 1968. For many years he shared a studio with Oleg Vassiliev, which is located in Chistye Prudy in Moscow. In 1988, after a series of major personal shows in the Kunsthalle in Zurich, the Centre Georges Pompidou, and the Venice Biennale, Erik Bulatov became famous and dubbed “the artist of Perestroika.” A great part of his works is in Western collections and museums. After 1989, his active artistic and exhibition work was based in New York until he moved to Paris in 1992. The year 2006 marked the first retrospective exhibition of his paintings in Russia, at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. At present he lives in Paris and Moscow.

From the very start, Bulatov, who was influenced by Favorsky and Falk, was interested in the construction and organization of a painting in relation to its content. In the mi-d1960s, he created abstract works depicting breaking through and deforming space. At that time Bulatov worked on juxtaposing space moving into infinity with the surfaces that limit it (“Tunnel,” 1964). Sometimes he depicted space charged to the limit but not breaking into depth and remaining a hidden, folded surface—and the surface, breaking through, reveals the next surface. These experiments in creating tension between surface and space led Bulatov to the creation of a recognizable manner based on the stratification of space: a flat caption or symbol is laid on top of a spatial depiction. Bulatov applied the laws of easel painting to the categories of social life. Thus, the concept of “unfreedom” correlates with surface, and the color red with prohibition. The force field in the painting was built on the diagonal, which harkens back to the traditions of the Russian avant-garde.

In 1972 he created his famous “Horizon”: in the landscape the space on the horizon is covered by a red stripe, which the viewer recognizes as a state symbol. This was followed by a series of works in which the spatial depiction is blocked by symbols or slogans of Soviet agitprop. During Perestroika, this series of paintings was perceived as works of Sots Art. Unlike his Sots Art colleagues, Bulatov does not parody the languages of ideology. and he is not given to irony, playing with characters, or eclectic methods. While the approach of the founders of Sots Art to a painting was a project to create an ironic parody of Socialist Realist painting, Erik Bulatov maintained a serious attitude to the traditional art of painting. What was important for him was not breaking with tradition but researching it and enriching it, closely studying the Russian avant-garde and the academic bases of the craft of painting.  Bulatov was one of the first postwar artists to combine word and image. A friend of the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov, Bulatov often introduced laconic quotations from the minimalist poet. In the post-Soviet period, the play of surface and space took on a more complex configuration, with spatial forms symbolizing unfreedom, while a modernist plane could be a symbol of liberation.