Ivan Chuikov

22 May 1935, Moscow

Boris Groys

Twenty Years After

From time to time you read or hear that an art critic should not write about his or her friends when they are artists – he is no longer objective then, they say. But, firstly, objectivity in art and its assessment is impossible, and, secondly, it is not desirable. When the critic is not involved, when he or she is objective and impartial, and it is impossible to understand who are his friends and who are his opponents, this is just a bad art critic who is pursuing something he should not pursue. Art is a matter of taste, in the end. And only people who share a sort of affinity in taste can become friends in it. It is precisely this affinity of taste which brings people together, making them friends, so that, in the end, the personal is mixed with the social, and the aesthetical with the sentimental. It is precisely this kind of aesthetical and sentimental ideas and recollections that come to my mind now when I am writing about the works of Ivan Chuikov, my friend. I recall, for instance, how he came to my house in Moscow in 1979 (or was it in 1978?) suggesting that I should write an introductory article for the first issue of the A-Ya art journal which was to be published in Paris and edited by Igor Shelkovsky. I didn’t know Shelkovsky in person, just as I did not know the situation with this publication, and I had no idea, of course, no rational reason to suppose that something aesthetically acceptable could result from this idea. Nevertheless, I immediately trusted Chuikov’s taste, although I did not know him well at that time, but his art – from the very moment I saw it – immediately looked extremely trustworthy.

This feeling of trust which I experience every time I see new artworks by Ivan Chuikov, even today, is doubtlessly based on the fact that one immediately realizes what these artworks are made of when one sees them. In his artworks Chuikov uses fragments of the classic repertory of painting and of mass produced images like posters or photographs. These fragments always have clear geometrical form (in most cases it is the square). They are recombined and mixed according to simple, though not quite elementary, rules which are, nevertheless, understandable to the viewer. Unafraid to sound profane in this comparison, I could say that Chuikov’s art reminds you of a restaurant with good cooking where every visitor can easily see what each individual dish is made of, what are its components, and whether they can be harmful to his or her organism. Such cooking immediately arouses trust – unlike other dishes and artworks where one cannot understand what they are made of and which look extremely suspicious because of that. People usually say that such products are made of inspiration – but this very information could trigger an acute fear of poisoning in the viewer. The discussion of fragmentation and recombination is, doubtlessly, a dominating topic in the philosophical and culturological essays of this century as it is precisely these two operations which essentially determine the functioning of the contemporary technological civilization. However, literature and art of 20th century often present fragmentation and recombination in quite tragic hues. Fragmentation – even when it is symbolical – is perceived as vivisection, as cruel rape of the organic body, be it a human body or a body of the artwork, it is perceived as a victory of the machine over the organism. All the influential discourses concerning fragmentation and recombination – from Marinetti and Benjamin to Deleuze – are brimming with the metaphors of violent “dismemberment” as it is practiced in combat or surgery. The treatment of fragmentation and collage in 20th century art, ranging from early Cubists and Dadaists to Damien Hirst, was at least as dramatic – the artists of the technological epoch are inclined to scare the viewer with scissors and saws. The technique of appropriation forms another central theme of the contemporary artistic discourse which is also used by Ivan Chuikov as a basic artistic method. The symbolical appropriation of the works by other artists – whether in whole or as fragments – is in most cases interpreted in terms of struggle for power over the aesthetical form. In the aesthetical system, as it developed historically, the authorship of an artist also implies copyright, i. e. ownership rights covering the aesthetical image. Thus, art is made to fit the system of private property relations guaranteed by the dominating structures of power. From this point of view the reproduction method, combined with the use of this method in the artistic context, functions as a weapon used in the struggle for a certain symbolic socialization of cultural values.

Yet, the drama of fragmentation is not that acutely felt in Ivan Chuikov’s works, just as the enthusiasm of fighting against authorship is quite low in them. His paintings are not an anatomy theater or an arena where the fight for power is going on. They rather produce a harmonious, balanced, quiet impression which is usually associated with the historically stable tradition of painting. The reason for it is in the fact that Ivan Chuikov resorts to distinctive postmodernist methods of fragmentation, reproduction, appropriation and recombination to reveal the pure painterly quality of his pictures, to discover the integral and potentially infinite painted surface where certain configurations of form and color replace each other, but which remains equal to itself forever nevertheless. This revelation of the pure painterly surface, concealed with the variety of the forms of painting, yet making all these forms possible, is obviously the main goal of Modernist abstraction. Traditionally this goal was achieved by the ultimate annihilation of all figurative and expressive elements of painting exposing to the eye the integral and continuous painterly surface – or, in other words, the true medium of painting. The holy history of high Modernist abstraction developing from Malevich and Mondrian to Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt is well-known. It is the history of radical asceticism and of continuous sacrifice of the visible in the name of the concealed. But it was Kandinsky who already pointed out that it was not necessary to make new abstract art – it was enough to see all existing art as painterly abstraction, i. e. as a pure combination of form and color. One could say that Ivan Chuikov’s art achieves this effect. By the fragmentation and recombination of the existing artistic forms Chuikov shifts the attention of the viewer from their plot, theme and historical function to their pure painterly form, i. e. he reveals their abstract nature – and their own medium with it, their inherent place on the integral, virtual and infinite painterly surface. This is why Ivan Chuikov’s artworks have no external drama and expressiveness – they just calmly state the fact that every painterly form has been manufactured, and that painterly practice is continuous in its nature. Anyway, fragmentation and recombination do not function as a means to include literature and narration into visual art as it was with other Russian artists who worked in parallel with Chuikov, such as Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov or Victor Pivovarov, for instance. These artists, having an extensive experience of book illustration, had the goal of reflecting upon the experience of the contemporary technological manipulations with the artistic form, i. e. of mechanical fragmentation, reproduction and recombination, through the integration in the narrative text. In a certain sense, Ivan Chuikov moves in the opposite direction, for he, on the contrary, strives to use the same methods for the new justification of the painterly autonomy, and to achieve the traditional goals of High Modernism. Yet, Ivan Chuikov’s art is not abstract in the sense of “being deprived of content”, at the same time, and it is its content that brings Ivan Chuikov’s art close to the art of his colleagues, the Moscow Conceptualists, when you look at it hard. I mean here his striving for  infinity.

It was this striving for infinity which I mentioned as a specific and purely romantic characteristic of  Moscow Conceptualism in that very article titled Moscow Romantic Conceptualism which was written on Chuikov’s suggestion and which has completely faded away in the collective memory of Russia, except for the phrase “Moscow Conceptualism”. But I could also call it “Moscow romantic Structuralism”. Everybody remembers that Structuralism was a total intellectual craze then – and it was a must to describe all cultural phenomena in Structuralist terms. But what does this Structuralist description implies? It is nothing else but the use of the same operations of fragmentation, reproduction and recombination. Yet, these operations were only used in theory with the objective to discover a limited number of rules which describe the system of culture as a whole – this was a pain in the neck for these romantic and dreamful people, and the author of this text also belonged to these romantic people who tended to think that the play of imagination, including the play of technological imagination, is infinite and cannot be limited to a finite set of operations.

It is well-known that these dreams brought about the emergence of Post-Structuralism in France in the late 1960s/early 1970s which marked the transition to manipulations with infinite fragmentation and infinite recombination. In Russia this transition was limited to the sphere of art. This infinite dreaming manifested itself in its appeal to the endless processes of fragmentation and recombination which shatter and eliminate every definite, stable, finite form can that be found in every creation of the Moscow Conceptualists. With every artist of this trend this infinite Post-Structuralist dreaming has an absolutely certain political tendency, be it in the fragmentation and recombination of Socialist Realism in paintings by Komar & Melamid, or the visions of infinity dreamed by Kabakov’s lonely individual sitting in his wardrobe. Each of these cases, besides other things, implies the struggle to overcome the finite limits of the Soviet political system. It could and may have been owing to the fact that Soviet theoretical Structuralism has always functioned inside the finite limits of the Soviet, or, at best, of the international system of academic art, which  made it impregnable to the Post-Structuralist dreaming which infected unofficial Russian artists. Every one of Chuikov’s works also hint at the potential for its infinite continuation, every series implies something invisible, some “etc.”. And a certain political component which is surely present in Chuikov’s art is associated with it. Every hierarchy is de-hierarchicized in his work, every central position is de-centered. All artistic forms are recognized as equally important – but that happens only when they are deprived of their traditional ideological pretence. Obviously, this strategy is much more efficient than the dramatic staging of single, individual protest actions which, due to their singularity and the pretence for special importance, are just another confirmation of the myth of the artist’s exceptionality, the myth which forms the basis of the system against which these actions seem to be directed.

It is well-known that permanence opposes exception. And it is precisely permanence which is inherent in Ivan Chuikov’s work. Twenty years after the day I got to know Ivan Chuikov’s art and wrote about it, the artist continues his work without being distracted by numerous antagonistic fashions, following nothing but the immanent logic of his method. And this permanence of the method is, perhaps, the most difficult thing that is achieved, through tremendous internal effort, in our jittery time.