It only took Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid five panels to expose the arrogance of empire. The Russian nonconformist artists were like that: They were the sort of critics who could carve up their opponents in a couple of quick strokes.
The global ambitions and power games of the U.S.S.R. would have been risible to the pair if they hadn’t been a direct threat to their artistic expression. So they fought back in the way they knew how — with a series of paintings of puny human figures surrounded by swathes of open canvas. These, we’re told, chronicle pivotal moments in Russian history. In each one, a group of stick-figure autocrats announce the annexation of territory. The decision makers are small and remote; the negative space is vast, drab and suffocating. No better metaphor for the long-distance ungovernability of the Soviet republics can be imagined. No work of art augured the estrangement of the Kremlin from the provinces or the collapse of the Union quite so chillingly.
Komar and Melamid spent their early careers chafing against the restraints imposed by the U.S.S.R. Then, after an aborted attempt to relocate to Israel, the dissident artists wriggled free of Mother Russia and settled in America in 1978. “Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History,” a sweeping retrospective that will hang at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick until July 16, covers both halves of this Cold War story. Works made while under the boot heel hang in the special exhibition galleries closest to the museum’s front door. Art made in the more relaxed (for artists, anyway) environment of the United States occupies the larger rooms in the back.
The two halves of the show are an uneven match. In Moscow, Komar and Melamid were gasping for air. In New York, they were art scene celebrities, refugees from a repressive regime, caustic about their old home and gently irreverent about their new one.
Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, relations between the United States and Russia have been as frosty as they have at any period since the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History” will not precipitate détente. The communist regime that literally ran bulldozers through their art installations in the 1970s is long gone. But the relentless propaganda, the vigorous twisting of truth, the hovering air of violence and the unswerving adherence to the party line that they exposed through their work will feel awfully familiar to anybody who has followed the news for the past 12 months.
The exhibition, which was curated by Soviet nonconformist art expert Julia Tulovsky, continues the Zimmerli’s broadside against the Russian imperial project that began a year ago with “Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival 1985-1993.” That stunning show took visitors inside a roiling Ukrainian capital at the time of Chernobyl and the chaotic breakdown of Soviet control. “Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History” peeks behind the Potemkin façade of empire instead, and finds things just as fissile, and just as frightening.
Like many Russian creators, Komar and Melamid detested the intellectual inflexibility of Socialist Realism, the state-approved, agitprop-drenched style of the U.S.S.R. Few artists put that disdain into action more boldly than they did. Their main métier was Sots Art, a volatile home brew that undercut the pomposity of Socialist Realism through engagement with the casual impertinence of Pop Art. That meant shredded portraits of military icons, Red banners with self-satirizing slogans, and articles from the Soviet Constitution rendered, and obscured, in color-coded paint. Together, they pushed the forced optimism of the official style to absurd, shattering lengths.
One handsome painting imparts classical grandeur to a factory that belches a tornado of blue smoke into the sky. Fake advertisements use the overblown language of Party propaganda to push commonplace or downright useless objects. Because they could not bear to play Socialist Realism straight, Komar and Melamid invented fake artists who would, and proceeded to crank out painfully dreary paintings under their names. (One of them, a one-eyed renderer of pastoral landscapes, included the side of his nose in all his canvases.)
This pranksterism drew the ire of the Soviet authorities and the dreaded KGB. Komar and Melamid were arrested in the early ‘70s. Corrosive portraits of Lenin and Stalin were destroyed by the police. At considerable personal risk, the two artists kicked back. A series of photographs capture the pair feeding the pages of Pravda into a meat grinder.
The final work in the Soviet galleries of “Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History” is the show’s most direct piece, and the purest expression of the artists’ feelings about their homeland. They superimposed famous images of Russia on curved wooden panels, and then went after them, defacing them with chisels and other tools.
Komar and Melamid brought that audacity with them to New York. However, the pain and torment that animates their early work didn’t make the trip. In America, they were resistance heroes — visionaries whose talent withstood the worst excesses of a repressive regime. Cynicism and satire were essential elements of their artistic practice, so it wasn’t much of a conceptual departure when they applied their caustic wit to Western commerce. Yet their observations were so playful, and so squarely and enthusiastically on the nose, that it all feels rather celebratory.
For instance, in a critique as weary as capitalism itself, they took out ads in the name of a firm buying and selling souls (their buddy Andy Warhol, always a step ahead, gave them his for 30 rubles). A series of works done in collaboration with animals is giddy, and pointed in its send-up of the arbitrary conventions of modern art. But it’s awfully obvious, too.
And while they’d left their government behind, they never quite wriggled free of its characteristic style. Ironically, Komar and Melamid mobilized more Soviet-style imagery in America than they did in Russia. Their “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” project consists of large, expertly rendered tempera and oil paintings of Joseph Stalin and other revolutionary heroes. These works radiate scorn: the Soviet leaders are frequently depicted in the poses of gangsters and false priests, drunk on self-regard, assuming the poses of Greek gods. But a tremendous amount of labor went into this gesture of sarcasm. It’s tough not to wonder why they were trying so hard to make a point that their flight from repression had already proven.
Similarly, renderings of George Washington in Soviet style are visually arresting, but easy to exhaust. A gorgeous painting of a factory in Bayonne under a flaming sky demonstrates how much observational acuity and pure technique the two artists possessed. Applying that talent to vicious portraits of tyrants whom everybody in America already despised was beneath them.
There are American-born artists who would have flourished under the Soviet system — those for whom the restrictive parameters of an official style would not have been an impediment to creativity. We see them inveighing against the consumer choice in the West, and longing for a motivating ideology and sense of political purpose.
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid were just the opposite: American-style individualists who had had the misfortune to be born in the Soviet Union. Appreciators of art couldn’t deny their skill, but life in Moscow was always going to be dangerous. It’s a good thing for them that they made it to a country with wider skies.
As a fan of irreverent human beings, I’m glad they’re here. But as a fan of art, I’ve got to admit I’m glad they stuck it out in Russia long enough to give us a history lesson from the front lines of a global conflict that won’t stop reverberating.
“Komar and Melamid: A Lesson in History” will be at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick through July 16. Visit zimmerli.rutgers.edu.
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