Komar & Melamid

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

Nostalgic Socialist Realism

Komar and Melamid began their career in the USA by long-distance—their works were secretly brought out of the USSR for the first shows.  Their very first exhibition in New at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1976 received very well-disposed reviews. They arrived in New York in 1978 and began applying their methods of criticism, which they had elaborated for use with Soviet ideological products, to the American myth, as usual trying to reduce ideas to extreme idiocy.  For example, they created a series of pseudo posters called “Capitalist Realism,” which might have been created by the State Department if… If anyone there could have possibly imagined it necessary to depict ultraconservative President Ronald Reagan as a fiery and muscular centaur.

Then, the new immigrants learned that the neoconservatives were calling for a “return to roots” and so created the series “Ancestral Portraits,” where against the typical background for formal portraits they depicted vanished prehistoric monsters, known only from reconstructions. At this point, the local observers who were well-disposed toward Komar and Melamid admitted, not without self-irony, that they lacked the sense of humor to understand such critical passages.

And here, Komar and Melamid performed a complex somersault. Their exhibition in 1982 at the Feldman gallery was a radical challenge to all conceptions of what contemporary art should be. The new style countered Clement Greenberg’s assertion that Socialist Realism was kitsch that is juxtaposed to the true avant-garde (Clement Greenberg. Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Art and Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962). Amusingly, in the famous essay written in 1939, the future theoretician and promoter of Abstract Expressionism misjudges by almost a century in his example of “Socialist Realism,” mentioning the paintings of Ilya Repin, a classic of nineteenth-century Russian realism, who was given to a mild post-Impressionism. In 1939, the fervent Trotskyite Greenberg was not that far wrong—the classics of Socialist Realism really liked weaving in bright color motifs into their heaviest ideological compositions. The important thing is that Komar and Melamid performed a clever switch, creating ideal kitsch in Greenberg’s terms, purging any hints of “artistry” from Socialist Realist classicism.  That is, they created what Greenberg much later called middle-brow, taste that is opposed to high-brow much more than is low-brow.

The walls of the Feldman Gallery had never shown such a hopelessly tasteless exhibit, with huge pseudo-academic works. A public used to Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Conrad Atkinson, and Chris Burden did not seem likely to appreciate this new brilliant style. Yet the sly Russian artists lured the American viewer into the meaningless but extremely entertaining guessing game: “Who can tell the painting motif?” The critics fought one another to find in paintings of Stalin and Lenin the motifs from Chardin, Holbein, David, Delacroix, Rembrandt, and even the Venus de Milo and Discobolus. The mass media machine cranked up—everyone was interested in how and why Greek goddesses revered Comrade Stalin and why a Soviet Pioneer girl was so overtly masturbating before the mirror in a neoclassical interior.

The “famous Russian conceptualist artists” pulled the legs of journalists with sophisticated cynicism, telling them how one of them saw Stalin when he was a child and how Socialist Realism, that great style, powerfully affected them in their early youth. Oh, those stories were marvelous! Alexander and Vitaly explained to the journalists such tooth-shattering details of the backstage struggles among the Stalinist elite that it’s almost impossible to recount them now. We can honestly admit that we will never be able to decipher some of the art japes. What does that red flag soaring in space mean? Perhaps it’s a reference to the American flags of Jasper Johns. This theory seems perfectly probable, but if we were to ask the authors, we would encounter yet another one, just as plausible as all the previous ones.

Yet the artists honestly admitted that they weren’t all that good at the radical painterly simulations of Social Realism, which created such excitement in the US, and that they weren’t all that diligent when studying the Soviet academic school. Even though the term “simulacrum” wasn’t as popular then as it became a decade later, the clever pranksters were found out. Glenn O’Brien in a review for ArtForum (April 1984) bypassed all the traps set out before him and figured out the real author of the project, Rrose Sélavitsky, wittily giving a Slavic twist to Marcel Duchamp’s famous opus. He thereby swept all the endless references, quotes, and citations to a place worth of them—the cultural dustbin. Komar and Melamid had found them there as pure readymades in the first place.  By the way, one of the first found objects, the first conscious museum appropriations, was done in 1980 by the British group Art & Language (“Portrait of V. I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III”).

No one had come up with using the term “postmodernism” then for such accounts of such sophisticated pirate raids on museums.  By the way, Melamid back in 1984 intuitively stated the key term of postmodernism for a New York Times reporter: “We are really professional aliens” (January 29, 1984). This kind of decisive revelation demanded one more complex operation. Having started their career in America as Russian Conceptual artists, along with the German Joseph Beuys, the Frenchman Chris Burden, and Englishman Conrad Atkinson (who all worked with Ronald Feldman), Komar and Melamid determinedly presented their identity to America. After which, they continued broadcasting from their Russian émigré niche. This strategy became commonplace much later.  Despite this, Komar and Melamid quickly abandoned their successful commercial brand; the project which later came to be known as “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” lasted only three years, 1981-1983.

Andrei Erofeev