Yevgeny Rukhin

2 July 1943, Saratov—24 May 1976, Leningrad

The Leningrad artist Yevgeny Rukhin had no art education. He was born to a family of well-known Soviet geologists and he followed in his parents’ footsteps, getting a degree in geology. But on his very first expedition, he asked his parents to send him brushes and paints, and he started painting stumps and trees. He did not yet belong to the underground milieu, with its rather strict criteria. Perhaps it was this state, being an artist whose mind was not overloaded with clichés, that allowed him to create one of the most radical works of the 1960s. A glance from a distance makes “The Wall” look like an ordinary seascape. A closer look reveals something quite different—it is a, meticulous re-creation, without a hint of perspective, of a fragment of a wall in the entryway of an old building, where new paint was layered of many old coats, creating a rich structure (from the artistic point of view) and showing that the residents of the building were far from wealthy. On top of all those painterly layers, young residents scratched stupid phrases—“Sasha is a jerk”—and the indecent word ХУЙ (prick) was scratched in a way that would spare public morality from being shocked. The work is dated 1962-1963, that is, the artist was barely twenty. Around that time, members of French Nouveau réalisme and Italian Arte Povera began to study the “dichotomy between art and life,” in the words of Germano Celant (Flash Art, 1967).

However Soviet nonconformists knew almost nothing about what their colleagues in Western Europe were doing and followed, strangely enough, Nikita Khrushchev’s call “To catch up with and surpass America.” That is why independent artists in the USSR associated themselves more frequently with American Pop Art. Once Rukhin was looking at an album of works by James Rosenquist and found the American artist’s address. They started a correspondence and an amazing event followed. In 1965, Rosenquist showed up on the doorstep of the nonconformist’s Leningrad studio, and soon afterward, dedicated his work “Whipped Butter for Eugene Ruchin” (1965) to him.

I think the work’s name is a bit ironic about the friend from the USSR—by then Yevgeny Rukhin had moved away from the severe and alienated style of his “Wall” and had begun making collages, in which thick layers of paints covered and hid parts of antique furniture. For Rosenquist that style, we can imagine, was somehow too aestheticized.  Even though, it is clear that works of this type are a lively reminder of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Bed” (1955), where a worn blanket is painted in the spirit of Abstract Expressionism.

By the way, Rukhin was described as a follower of Abstract Expressionism[1] at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, which handled Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Rauschenberg, and where Rukhin’s work appeared in 1966. (I think this was one of the first times that an artist from the USSR worked with an important Western gallery.) This was probably a correct definition, for abstract art was perceived by Soviet nonconformists at the time as absolute freedom, much more intensely than by artists in the USA.

Objects he found in the rubbish (primarily pieces of furniture—old chairs, encrustations, trunks, tables, shelves, old couch springs) were soldered (implanted) into the solid painterly tissue. It is often covered in craquelure, the result of complex technological experiments. This is how the artist described his works of the 1970s: “These objects had lost their concrete and always schematic reality and were reborn in an abstract and changed state. … In this synthesis of contemporary art and fragments of objects of the past, I express my nostalgia for Russia’s past.”

This nostalgia for the lost past is the main feature of the mindset of Russian artists, which distinguishes them from the direction in which their American colleagues were moving. The Americans spoke of contemporaneity and criticized the consumer society. There was nothing for a Soviet person but to experience painful emotions over the object world of tsarist Russia; a world that had been literally tossed on the garbage heap and replaced by gray, ugly reality.  Rukhin shared this depressed outlook with his Moscow mentors from the Lianozovo group, Vladimir Nemukhin and Lydia Masterkova, whom the Leningrad artist had met in 1968. Lydia Masterkova was one of the first to work in collage, incorporating remnants of ancient laces and expensive fabrics into her work.[2]

It was in Lianozovo that Rukhin, a man of turbulent social activity, met Oskar Rabin and became one of the organizers of the Bulldozer Show in 1974. However, we will never know how Yevgeny Rukhin’s work would have developed; he died tragically in 1976 in a studio fire.

Andrei Kovalev


[1] This is precisely how Rukhin’s work is examined in Abstract Expressionism: The International Context (ed. by Joan Marter and David Andam). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

[2] See for example, Lydia Masterkova. Untitled, 1968. Collection of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers.