Yuri Zlotnikov

Born 23 April 1930, Moscow

The pioneer of Russian postwar abstract art, Yuri Zlotnikov, had not even heard the name Clement Greenberg when he created his series “Signal Systems” in the late 1950s. But undoubtedly he shared the passion of the American theoretician of high modernism regarding the separation of the avant-garde from kitsch. For Zlotnikov, kitsch was not only the Socialist Realist system, but the work of many of his colleagues in the nonconformist camp, who brought metaphysical elements, which he considered inappropriate, to abstract art. He was meticulously purging these elements from his painting just as Kazimir Malevich in the 1920s used his quasi-scientific theory of the “additional element” in his teaching work. Yet Zlotnikov was severely critical of Malevich’s utopianism and said that he was continuing the tradition of spiritual seeking begun by Wassily Kandinsky. This is an important aspect for the understanding of the intellectual atmosphere of that period—the Soviet dissident artists categorically rejected Malevich’s ultracommunist utopia.

Yuri Zlotnikov, a confirmed positivist and rationalist, firmly believed that the new language in art had to be supported by precise scientific research. “Signals,” burnished to crystal clarity, had to be perceived not as “just” paintings, but should “reveal the laws of psychophysiological motor behavior and the nature of reactions to color and form.” Bear in mind that most Soviet nonconformist artists of the period who chose abstraction as a style were under the direct influence of the works of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, which were shown to the Soviet public at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Zlotnikov went in the opposite direction and insisted that it was important “not to give in to the chaos of emotional self-expression but to analyze.” Most interestingly, his studies found the greatest support not among artists but among mathematicians, philosophers, and cyberneticists.

This is a very characteristic detail of those times: the people who felt themselves most free in the post-Stalin period were engineers working in closed military institutes, who were developing new weapons systems for the Soviet army. They supported independent artists and allowed them to use their clubs for exhibitions. They were happy to test Yuri Zlotnikov’s hypotheses in their laboratories. He was certain that his discoveries would be of use in the design of space ships and even worked as an artist designer at a plant. The young technocrats felt like conquerors of time and space, and Zlotnikov, like the Russian Constructivists, truly believed that art would change the material environment, and society, as the dreamers of the 1960s thought, would then evolve on its own toward universal values under the influence of a new, extremely aestheticized milieu.  But he came to realize that his efforts were obliquely aiding the creation of new, terrible weapons of destruction, and he stopped those experiments. The idea of restructuring the world through total aesthetic change once again collided with the insoluble ethical problem.

Nevertheless, this experience of contact with the heroes of the scientific and technological revolution was fundamental for Zlotnikov’s creative method. For his contemporaries, those elements soaring in empty space looked like computer microschematics and were potentially filled with important information. His first abstract painting (1955) was called “Geiger Counter.” Zlotnikov followed Kandinsky, who wrote that “one of the most important obstacles on my path fell apart on its own thanks to a purely scientific event. That was the splitting of the atom. It resonated in me like the sudden destruction of the entire world.” [1]

This machine quality and desire for absolute mathematical precision in real works paradoxically contrast with the softness and free facture of form. The artist recounts that when he was working on the “Signals” series, he was particularly involved with the music of Anton Webern. So what we see is research intentionally uncompleted, actually the process of research, whose goal is to try to shift the clichéd perception of reality, actually to create a new reality. And here is the particularly important aspect: psychologically, that reality is perceived as being completely comfortable and even friendly to humans.

This inner emotional freedom, amazing for the 1950s and early 1960s, which was still a rather grim post-Stalinist time, is the most important evidence of the period’s hopes for renewing society. Zlotnikov never tried to become European, he simply was European.

Andrei Kovalev


[1] W. Kandinsky. Stupeni. Tekst khudozhnika [Steps. An Artist’s Text], Moscow: IZONKP, 1918, p. 20.