Tsukanov Igor Erofeev Andrey

“Individual freedom of expression, if it does not correspond with the official state ideology, is always perceived as dissidence…”

As the exhibition was being assembled, Jo Vickery spoke with Igor Tsukanov.


The main question raised by the show “Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s”, so global in scope and yet rather compact, is about the selection criteria of the organizers.

I’ve long wanted to do an exhibition that would stand out from the series of shows done in the last ten to fifteen years of Soviet nonconformist art.  There were several important factors that were taken into account when  formulating  the concept of the exhibition. Firstly, we decided to do a historical show, that is, to limit it by a clear temporal framework and locus of creation. Hence the title, “Moscow Art, 1960-80s,” and the selection of paintings done “in that place and at that time.” The exceptions are a few works by Sots Art painters who immigrated to New York in the mid-1970s. Secondly, with the exception of two or three names who gained a wide international standing in the West, most of the nonconformist artists are known exclusively in the Russian art market, which is essentially not integrated into the international art market (unlike the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century). These names mean almost nothing to the broad audience of the art capital of the world: London. Bearing this in mind, we decided to build the exhibit not on “names,” but rather on themes and ideas, and displaying their actualization in the work of leading Moscow artists. Besides which, we believe that this approach will allow the international audience to understand both what the artists of the Moscow underground have in common with contemporary artists in London, New York, and Paris and also how they differ from them. Thirdly, out of a wide choice of artistic themes and ideas we selected a mere few that are meant to focus a vector of development throughout an artist’s entire creative path. Finally, after choosing the themes, we had to select the artists in whose work the themes were not merely present, but predominant. That is why a number of legendary names in Moscow circles were not selected for this exhibition, including Alexander Kharitonov, Eduard Shteinberg, Mikhail Shvartsman, Boris Sveshnikov, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Vladimir Yakovlev and Anatoly Zverev.

What were the basic principles guiding your personal selection?

Naturally, the curator, Andrey Erofeyev, had I had preferences and partialities, but it was easy to work on the show because our views  coincided  on 90% of the selection. As for the differences, I can give you an example: the curator decided to include Roginsky and Prigov in the exhibition, and I chose Rukhin and Bruskin. What led me to this particular choice? Besides the obvious aesthetic qualities, both artists have a prominent place in the international art market for reason other than fleeting popularity. Yevgeny Rukhin was perhaps the most international artist of Soviet nonconformism, and he used varying and complex texture and facture in his abstract works, that resemble those found in the works of the American abstract painters Rauschenberg and Rosenquist.  For this reason the works of Rukhin (who died in a tragic accident in Leningrad in 1976) were enormously popular amongst Western diplomats and journalists in Moscow; in fact, today Rukhin ranks amongst the Russian artists whose works are in greatest demand on the public art market.

Grisha Bruskin has characteristics one could find in a contemporary international artist—a personal, vivid and recognizable style, with two or three “readable” themes that are fleshed out in paintings, as well as sculptures, on canvas, porcelain, fabric, in bronze, and so forth. It is no accident that in the late 1980s Bruskin was one of the first young Russian artists to achieve international success, and much of his work from that period is in private collections and museums in the West.

Twenty-two artists have been selected out of an enormous number of nonconformists. Yet that is still more people than in the nucleus of major figures of American Pop Art or European conceptualism and “new realism.” Could you name the leaders of the community of Russian artists and elaborate on their particular roles in the artistic process?

More than twenty years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A fundamentally different economic and social sphere has formed and a serious art market with its rules and preferences has established itself.  A period of twenty years is, of cause, not particularly significant one in the context of the history of art, and many of the artists continue to find success to this day. It is still interesting to see, however, to what extent the subjective perception about the artists of the underground, held by a narrow group of the Soviet intelligentsia and a small group of Western diplomats who were in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s, corresponds with the evaluation of the art market in the early twenty-first century. Undoubtedly the first name on my list is Ilya Kabakov: he contributed enormously to making Moscow Conceptualism part of the international context. Kabakov was the undisputed intellectual leader of Conceptualism in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s and in the 1990s became an integral figure of the global art market and the most expensive contemporary Russian artist. Erik Bulatov is a major Russian artist with broad international recognition throughout the professional artistic community (museums , critics, and artists) and has achieved the highest market ratings from galleries, auction houses, and the biggest collections. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who pioneered a new artistic direction in the early 1970s called Sots Art, immigrated to New York early on and were the first Russian artists to have successful international career in the West. Twentieth-century art history textbooks use their names to explicate the concept of Sots Art, and we see now this method being developed by contemporary Chinese artists (without reference, as a rule, to the work of Vitaly and Alexander). Oscar Rabin and Oleg Tselkov. These two artists are so dissimilar, and yet are united by one thing—no creative compromise in following their artistic destiny. What most irritated the powers-that-be about Rabin and Tselkov was their creative freedom, which at the same time served as the basis of their high authority in the Moscow artistic milieu. Also, it is interesting that the creative manner of Rabin and Tselkov had formed on the cusp of the 1960s and did not significantly change even after their moves to Paris in the second half of the 1970s. Today Rabin and Tselkov are the leaders among Russian artists in terms of volume of works sold on the public art market, and the number of their collectors (most of them of Russian origins, however) is constantly growing. Finally, I would also add Dmitry Plavinsky to the list of the most important artists of that period, on account of the metaphysical nature of his works. The central project is to reflect the concept of time in archetypes of past civilizations. His works, executed with astonishing visual mastery and using a wide range of textures, give no clue to the era of the artist, and I don’t think the next fifty to a hundred years will make the answer to this puzzle any clarity for future viewers.

How are the temporal limits of this show set? When did nonconformist art in the Soviet Union begin and when did it end?

The period that began with the post-Stalin “Thaw” in the late 1950s and ended with perestroika in the second half of the 1980s is unique to the history, and it was this that determined the chronological framework of the exhibition. These time boundaries can probably be used for the start and completion of nonconformist art, since the concept of “nonconformist” characterizes art only in terms of its attitude toward the external socio-political milieu, its juxtaposition to the accepted official cultural doctrine in that milieu. Khrushchev’s relaxation of the political regime’s restrictions led to the emergence of talented, creative people in all spheres of culture — film, literature, music, and art — who thought about and perceived life in new ways. In Russia, this creative generation is called the shestidesiatniki (people of the 1960s), emphasizing the colossal influence that the atmosphere of the Thaw had on their creative achievements later in their careers. The end of the period of stagnation that came in the 1970s and early 1980s is linked to Gorbachev’s program of perestroika. In key moment in art point came in 1988 in Moscow, when Sotheby’s held the first international public auction in the USSR. This is usually seen as the end of the nonconformist underground era.

Is it correct to think that Russian nonconformist art has been studied thoroughly enough at this point that the leaders and main actors of this movement have been determined, their main works known and understood, and that any subsequent additions will contribute only insignificant details and corrections?

I think that today the general understanding of the main figures is more or less clear, and I don’t expect any fundamental changes. The point is not that there won’t be any more monographs on “undeservedly overlooked” or “underappreciated” nonconformist artists.  There will certainly be such monographs, as well as new exhibits, museum acquisitions, and so on. It is normal to expect this kind of activity from galleries, art critics, curators, and museum workers. If we were talking about artists in their thirties and forties, this process could have a major influence on an artist’s reputation (which we see, for example, with a number of contemporary Western artists). In the case with nonconformist artists, however, I believe that the effect of future research will be limited. It is not merely because of their age. Just as influential is the fact that in the last ten to fifteen years, the public art market has already examined the artists, and identified the most important periods and significant works.

I find it hard to imagine a situation in which an artist’s works are not reflected in, say, the global ArtNet (that is, the works have not been sold on the public market in the last twenty years), but then because of some circumstances the evaluation of the artist fundamentally changes. I don’t know of a single example of that in Russian contemporary art, even though I can list a number of examples of the opposite: when well-known names of the Moscow underground have ended up outside the art market, and I doubt that they will be back in it in the future. Besides which, new names continually appear on the art market, and they get enough promotion to draw attention away from the “old” new names, making any re-evaluation of artistic legacy even harder. I want to stress that my opinion concerns an artist’s place on a dynamic art market - there will always be artists who are evaluated differently by a museum than by the art market, but that is a completely different paradigm.

Why does this exhibition lean toward paintings? Nonconformist art is known for its abundance of playful interactive objects, texts, and performances.

Introducing texts into paintings started with the experiments of Ilya Kabakov and Victor Pivovarov in the late 1960s-early 1970s, and these works are displayed in the show. As for interactive objects and performances, with just a few exceptions (such as the performances of the “kinetic group” of Lev Nusberg and Francisco Infante, Komar and Melamid, and Alexander Kosolapov) these art forms were primarily linked to the appearance and development in the 1980s of the art movement dubbed “Moscow Conceptualism” by Boris Groys. A number of  articles and a number of monographs (the latest being Moscow Conceptualism in Context, edited by Alla Rosenfeld) have appeared about Moscow Conceptualism in the West. The scale of our show does not permit us to present the main directions of Moscow Conceptualism, but the works of the “founding fathers” Kabakov and Pivovarov, as well as of the talented Dmitri Prigov, give a good idea, I think, of the sources of its origins, aesthetics, and ideology.

What are the main specific traits of the technique, aesthetics, and ideology of this art? How does it stand out against the background of other forms and varieties of world contemporary art?

I don’t believe that being “in the same place at the same time” is enough to establish ideological or aesthetic doctrines that are common for all nonconformist artists. In fact, the reverse is true.  Nonconformist artists  desired to overcome the stereotypical thinking and depiction using the terminology of Socialist Realism that  was inculcated in the best Soviet art schools, which led them to resist resembling other artists at any cost. This rejection led to an intensive search for one’s own form, color, and theme. There was no common platform or vector of development.  That is what this show is about: the desire to break out of the airless space, “to break the ice in order to breathe,” gave rise to incredibly variety and diverse creativity.  The artists actually did have something in common—what they were fleeing—but where to go was each artist’s choice. In his memoirs on artistic life in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s,  Kabakov wittily noted that  each artist saw a different life through his or her own porthole despite being in a common bathyscaphe (underwater boat), and what they saw was interpreted as a revelation that shaped their style and artistic thinking. Each had his own. I think that this comparison (I may be mistaken in the details, but not in the essence of Kabakov’s metaphor) contains the reasons for the astonishing variety of Moscow’s underground art world, the dissimilarity among the Russian artists, and their lack of resemblance to their most famous Western comrades-in-art. Where could you find someone else like Tselkov in terms of form and color, or like Kabakov in terms of the intellectual foundation of his albums and installation projects (which simply move into a higher this plane of art and become cultural phenomena of a vanished “communist” civilization)?

Many of the artists in this exhibition left for the West in the 1970s. Is it a correct perception that they were still nonconformists once they became émigrés and that the works done in the West are a direct continuation of their work in the Soviet Union?

I would answer that negative. It’s a “no,” and I’ll explain why. As I noted earlier, I associate “nonconformist” with a creative personality juxtaposing his or her principles to the milieu that enforces rigid ideological or cultural standards. Obviously, there are nonconformist artists present in cultural life of China, Iran, Pakistan, etc. In some, it is tied to political systems, in others, to religious ones, as well as to official cultural doctrines based on an inflexible secular or religious ideology.

Finding themselves in the West in the 1970s either through coercion (Rabin, Tselkov), or out of ideological considerations (Komar and Melamid, Kosolapov) or having arrived without problems in the late 1980s (Kabakov, Bulatov, Vassiliev), the artists inevitably encountered a different linguistic and cultural milieu and an enormous art market, the rules of which had to be taken into account one way or another. I’m not talking about nonconformism as an aesthetic or moral form of resistance to state-imposed cultural ideology, but rather as a normal entrance into the international art market where you have to find one’s place. It was no accident that in New York, Komar and Melamid consciously simplified their traditional style of early Sots Art to the language of the poster. In the “Nostalgia for Socialist Realism” series of the first half of the 1980s, or in the “Synthetic Series”, “the artists appeared in a new way: with refined pictorial mastery and with both a historical and philosophical subtext that was understood by Western collectors and art lovers. Or take Kabakov’s fantastically productive period in the 1990s with his  “total installations” across the globe.  This genre was in demand both by major museums and the administrations of many cities in various countries.  It is not clear how this period of work in the West is a continuation of what the artists were doing in the USSR.

There are, however, other examples. Neither Oleg Tselkov nor Oskar Rabin changed his approach after settling in Paris.  Some of the objects Oskar depicted changed, but neither his palette nor his style ever did. Oleg exists outside any socioeconomic context, and because of this his surroundings have an insignificant effect on his art.

Do you consider the political protest or dissident component in the work of the nonconformist artists here an important factor?

No, I don’t think so at all, unless, of course, you consider the ability to say what you mean or to depict the world as you see it as a form of protest. Individual freedom of expression, if it does not correspond to the official state ideology, is always perceived as dissidence, and not only in the Soviet Union. In that sense, many artists were automatically relegated to the “alien elements.”  I don’t, however, see any political subtext in the works of the nonconformists with the exception, I suppose, of the figures behind Sots Art. Their works contain an aspect of irony and laughter toward the products of socialist ideology, and such irony can be interpreted as artistic political dissident thought. I am certain, however, that the artists themselves were not thinking in such a way when they were turning products of socialist ideology into artifacts – as, in his day, Warhol had turned a soup into a work of art.