Komar & Melamid

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Vitaly Komar, 11 September 1943, Moscow Alexander Melamid, 14 July 1945, Moscow

The First Sots Art Exhibition.

The art life in Brezhnev’s Moscow was distinguished by a shortage created artificially by the authorities. There were so few real events that the public avidly sought them out, but it could not sate its cultural hunger. I remember the Van Gogh exhibition. People stood in line not an hour or two, but dozens of hours, stood all night, to get to see it.  Then they lined up for the Mona Lisa. At the Pushkin Museum, where it was shown, viewers were not allowed to stop in front of the paintings, they shuffled slowly and were made to feel part of a gigantic “human flow.” But most memorable is what was probably the most outstanding queue of that decade, which took place in late February 1975.  People huddled together in the snow and ice, and that human tail extended for kilometers through the snowy and empty Exhibition of Economic Achievements toward the previously unknown Beekeeping Pavilion. There—for the first time officially—hung the paintings of nonconformist artists, hung on the wall, with labels, in frames, as required. A proper exhibition.

That was an outstanding exception. The usual situation looked quite different. Since the authorities created impossible obstacles to keep living art out of public spaces, the greater and most important part of the country’s art life had moved to the private sphere. There were home concerts, readings of literary works, philosophy seminars, film screenings, and exhibitions. Here is a typical picture of the art life of the 1970s: on the advice of friends you arrive at the apartment of strangers, with a policeman outside the front door, and inside an ordinary place a cultural action is happening. The owners drink tea, watch TV, and you go through the rooms and look at paintings on the walls, partially freed of furniture, or you join the group listening to a poet or bard. The event’s contours in these conditions inevitably grew blurry, and the format lost its definition. An exhibition turned into a friendly showing of works and a concert into a reading. An event could become quite virtual. Its content seeped into the professional milieu and influenced the artistic process. Nonconformist artists grew accustomed to manage without a public and even raised their isolation into the cultural norm, despising artists who appealed to the public as opportunists.

The preparations for the first Sots Art exhibit took more than two years. Komar and Melamid came up with the idea at the most stifled stagnation time, when cultural life suddenly quieted down even in private spaces. The project consisted of appropriating and changing around Soviet ideological production. “Our Goal Is Communism!” That slogan, multiplied in the millions all over the Soviet Union’s expanses, strangely enough had no author. It was an anonymous statement. Komar and Melamid signed it. With this act of acquisition, they translated “nobody’s” language of ideological agitational production into a personal statement, into their own style. Their small show offered several examples and methods for “opening up” the Soviet agitprop style for the use of the private artist painting a portrait of his father (in the style of profile bas relief of the leader) or a portrait of his wife and child (in the spirit of a poster about a happy Pioneer childhood), and so on. Playing with the official language of agitprop turned out to be terribly entertaining. The circle of Sots artists led by Komar and Melamid grew quickly. It was joined by Mikhail Roshal, Georgy Donskoy, and Victor Skersis, drawing students of Komar and Melamid. In the course of a year they made several dozen works, which they decided to show in a joint exhibition.

In 1973, the artists came to Oskar Rabin, leader of the first generation of nonconformist artists, with a proposal to start exhibiting. Rabin was very surprised and began arguing gently. “Why beat your head against the wall, you must wait, this is a difficult time.”

“Just the contrary. It’s the best time.”

“And why is that?”

“Because we have appeared. Our work demands a show.”

Of course, this announcement bore the imprint of the self-reliance of the new generation of artists that had not lived through the attack on contemporary art in 1962-1964. It also showed the new concept of art as a public action, called upon to influence the mass viewer, far away, to change his understanding of social and cultural hierarchies, to transform his vision of history and contemporary culture.  Its creators considered Sots Art a lever to change the general cultural text. In other words, it was a political tool, which lost its meaning if not applied to the viewing masses. For the classical nonconformist artists, an exhibition was to be wished but not a necessary addition to the work. Komar and Melamid understood an exhibition, accompanied by meetings, discussions, and conversations, to be an obligatory part of artistic activity, and no less and perhaps even more important than the creation of the objects and paintings. “What is important is not the painting but the conversation about it,” their Manifesto of Sots Art read. Alexander Kosolapov, who came to meet a group of future participants in the Sots Art exhibition, was taken aback by the small number of works and the endless discussions and commentaries everyone indulged in about them.

The idea was for the Sots Art show to be truly public, that is, accessible not only to friends and acquaintances, but to the most random of viewers. Vitaly Komar was in negotiations with the director of the “red corner” (the public space) of the regional housing office about holding the show in the room for general meetings.  Alexander Yukov prepared the galleys for the catalog booklet with pictures and for the invitation. The preparatory works dragged on. They planned to open the show in 1973, then in 1974. The constant change in deadlines made by the director of the space led the artists to hold preliminary viewings (the way the director Yuri Lyubimov of the Theater on the Taganka invited as wide a circle of people as possible to the previews when he feared that the show would not be allowed to open). As a result, an enormous number of people saw and discussed the exhibits before the actual show, including many artists who became members of the Sots Art movement.

The show never did take place. When everything was ready in mid-1974, at long last, the artists received a warning through a friend that as soon as the hanging of the works was completed, the exhibit would be sealed, the opening canceled, and the artists should be prepared for the very worst. Therefore, the Komar and Melamid duo reviewed their plans and decided to go back to the idea of a joint appearance with Oskar Rabin and his group of nonconformist artists of the older generation.

On 15 September on the edge of the Bittsevsky Forest in the southern outskirts of Moscow, twelve artists held the “First Autumn Viewing of Paintings in the Open Air” in the pouring rain. Among them were Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who had brought a few works from the Sots Art series for the show. No sooner had the artists unwrapped their paintings for the numerous foreign correspondents than the bulldozers and water cannons appeared, drenching the artists with liquid mud and forcing them out of the field.  Some works were ruined, including “Double Portrait” by Komar and Melamid, squashed by the wheels of the trucks, and “Friendship of the Peoples” was severely damaged. The police chased the participants and viewers to neighboring streets and arrested three artists. The foreign press called this event the Bulldozer Exhibit. The reports, with eloquent photographs, were on the front page of newspapers all over the world. It caused a major scandal that forced the country’s leaders to retreat and provide the nonconformist art community an exhibition space with permission to hold exhibits regularly.

 Andrei Erofeev