Victor Pivovarov

14 January 1937, Moscow

In Soviet times, Victor Pivovarov, like many of his brethren in Moscow Conceptualists—Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and Oleg Vassiliev—made a living by illustrating children’s books; but unlike his colleagues, he did not make a fundamental distinction between his official, children’s art and his unofficial, adult art. The album genre, which he began developing simultaneously with his friend Ilya Kabakov, evinces its similarity to a children’s picture book much more clearly in Pivovarov. Kabakov himself has written about the fact that the traditions of Moscow Conceptualism are rooted less in the international tendencies of contemporary art than in book classics, in Russian literature. But Pivovarov’s works speak of fairy tales, not just books. This fairy tale aspect makes visible the connection between Moscow Conceptualism and Surrealism, primarily with the works of René Magritte and his rebus paintings, which also resemble puzzles and examples in schoolbooks, except that these puzzles have no answers.

Pivovarov is much more humane in this regard; he does not try to make his viewer feel that absurdity lies beneath the smooth surface of the banal images—his audience knew very well how absurd Soviet reality was. On the contrary, Victor Pivovarov shows the possibility of somehow managing in that reality. He is probably the only actual contemporary artist whose works can elicit a feeling of profound coziness, a sense that would seem to be deliberately alien and even hostile to contemporary art with its eternal disdain for the average man. While most modernists and avant-gardists make every effort to drag viewers out of their warm den of habitual concepts and to force them to rebuild, one on one, their attitude toward reality and themselves, Victor Pivovarov, on the contrary, allows his protagonists and viewers images of an ideally lived-in world and inhabited culture. His quasi-abstract canvas, where idyllic landscapes and interiors with a solitary human figure are revealed between color fields, or his clearly surrealistic “portrait,” where instead of a face the person has a white spot, on the periphery of which appear elements of an unremarkable urban landscape, so welcoming in its mundaneness, do not seem threatening but calming and beckoning. Like Erik Bulatov, Pivovarov constructs the composition of his paintings as a plan for escape beyond the borders of the canvas and beyond the borders of reality. Yet Bulatov’s escape is to the outside, into a clearly other-worldly space, and Pivovarov’s is flight inside, into a private inner world. This world is not closed to others, it is in fact very hospitable.  The inner world can always turn into an inner circle. His 1996 album “Personae dramatis” is dedicated so such an inner circle of like-minded people—the heroes of the Moscow underground art scene. Victor Pivovarov tells the story of Moscow nonconformism they way it might be given in a textbook—for primary school: like a fairy tale with a happy ending. Good friends and fantastical characters, parties in Kabakov’s studio and the KGB interrogation of the artist Ivan Chuikov, conversations about art on a picnic in some industrial zone and kisses near the Kremlin, a hung-over morning in an artist’s studio and a ceremonial family holiday meal, as well as crows in the snow, a granny cutting onions in a communal flat kitchen, and the sun setting over Moscow lanes—all these are episodes of an entertaining and edifying book with adventures and trials that the heroes survived, we imagine, with honor.

If Kabakov’s metaphor for the “paradise” an artist wants to achieve is a museum where every object, from works of art to the last bit of litter is given attribution and is described, valued, and preserved, then Pivovarov’s “paradise” would probably be a book, in which the artist and his friends and colleagues are the heroes and their life will at last acquire the completion, meaningfulness, and value of a literary plot, and, we would hope, a happy end, and that book would be a fairy tale. Pivovarov invented this “paradise”-book, paradise album, paradise fairy tale in “Kholin and Sapgir Exulting,” in which the artist gives his late friends, both nonconformist poets, an afterlife that is insouciant and full: we see Kholin and Sapgir with books and girls, flying and raging, walking and swimming, drinking and spitting, in the Garden and in Hell.  But even a walk through the notorious circles in the company of Dante does not look like punishment but like an entertaining excursion, for after all, hell is also a book, also a story, and a story, even a scary one, gives the sense of unreality and safety with which Pivovarov has been tempting his viewers for a long time.

Irina Kulik