Robert Rauschenberg met the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky in 1978 when Tatyana Grosman introduced them. So began their collaboration on a set of six visually engaging prints with texts by Voznesensky and images by Rauschenberg, undertaken at Grosman’s Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). This suite of prints would be included in Rauschenberg’s exhibition at the Central House of Artists in Moscow in 1989, itself one of the sites of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI).1
In an interview in 1978, Voznesensky discussed the release of his most recent collection of poems, Nostalgia for the Present, and observed, “There is one word in Russian for present and honest and reality.”2 In her translator’s note, Vera Dunham explains, “In Russian the word nastoyaschee means not only ‘present,’ but also ‘real,’ ‘genuine,’ or ‘authentic.’”3 While these terms describe Rauschenberg’s approach to art, being present was often not possible for artists living in the Soviet Union. Yet, despite seemingly different worlds on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, Rauschenberg and Soviet unofficial artists created art that reveals a compelling and little-explored history of exchange, including a shared focus on an array of common visual vocabularies and political strategies, ranging from employing national newspapers (as a medium for reflection on political and cultural unrest in their respective nations) to subverting nationalistic discourses and imagery. This essay examines the surprising intersections across the Cold War divide.
Rauschenberg began his career at the end of the 1940s when the United States became one of the two undisputed economic and military world powers, and during the rise of mass commercialization and American “Levittown” culture, a euphemism for planned communities.4 Despite celebrating individuality, innovation, and the often-overlooked objects and events of everyday life, ironically Rauschenberg was considered a precursor of Pop Art and an advocate of mass culture. That culture came into being, in part, when veterans received benefits from the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the GI Bill), giving them access to education and housing in suburban homes like the four-room Levittown houses, which reinforced the importance of the nuclear family as the primary driver of U.S. prosperity.5 Families also contributed to the growth of two important economic sectors: the motor vehicle industry6 and the housing industry.7 With prosperity came the expansion of the white middle class, more leisure time, the rise of American commercial culture, and a demand for more variety and availability of goods. As a result, the advertising industry exploded, exploiting the new technology of television and turning the previously aural medium of radio into a powerful new visual tool.8
Such rapid changes encouraged the cultural homogeneity that authors like Sloan Wilson in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and William H. Whyte in The Organization Man (1956) depicted as stultifying. Whyte lamented the passing of the ideology of rugged American individualism and the growing pressure to conform. The Company Man replaced the Marlboro Man, a symbol from 1954 until 1999 of the virile American smoker; and women were relegated to the caricature of robotic housewives, who dressed immaculately, wore pearls, were enamored with their household appliances, and catered to their husbands and children. Wilson and Whyte’s predictions proved prescient. The false veneer of the 1950s economic boom descended into chaotic nightmare in the 1960s, augmented by the searing rise of the Cold War, which came close to nuclear cataclysm in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Exempted by the “American Dream,” African Americans expanded the civil rights movement, which, together with the growing involvement in Vietnam under President John F. Kennedy, resulted in widespread unrest in the U.S. On June 11, 1963, just hours after President Kennedy’s “Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights,” in which the President insisted on the moral imperative of civil rights, the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back and killed. Five months later, JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963. A tragic spate of assassinations followed: Malcolm X on February 21, 1965; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968; and Senator Robert F. Kennedy on June 16, 1968, among others. The violence of the civil rights movement increased, with riots in the inner cities; the generational divide, already emerging with the 1950s Beat generation’s rejection of conformity and mass consumerism, expanded in the Hippie generation’s “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” and its resistance to the Vietnam War.
For a conscientious citizen like Rauschenberg, who served in World War II, the overwhelming social discord could not be ignored. He later explained that he had felt assaulted by current events and, not surprisingly, his personal life and work became increasingly political. Following JFK’s assassination, Rauschenberg included the former president’s image in a number of works, such as Retroactive I (1963). He also worked on a poster to benefit the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1965, collaging images of New York City and JFK with “a Native American, the Statue of Liberty, and the statue of a Civil War soldier.”9
Also in 1965, Rauschenberg lobbied to support the passage of a bill to establish the National Endowment for the Arts and contributed funds to the Peace Tower in Los Angeles, a fifty-eight-foot tower covered with over 400 different artists’ work and designed by the sculptor Mark di Suvero and others. In 1968, the Youth International Party (or Yippies), organized by anarchist activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin alongside the Black Panthers, fought the police in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Presidential Convention. That year Rauschenberg completed Political Folly, a transfer drawing with “images of Democratic presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy and the Grant Park antiwar demonstrations in Chicago.”10 He exhibited Political Folly in Response to Violence in Our Society, a Chicago show on the demonstrations and police brutality that erupted during the Democratic Convention.
Then, in August of 1969, the cult led by criminal psychopath Charles Manson perpetrated satanic murders, including that of the eight-month pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Left-wing groups began to fragment as the decade ebbed, and 1969 witnessed the anti-imperialist, anti-racist Weather Underground detach alliance with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and issue its “Declaration of a State of War” against the U.S. government, a statement that presaged their terrorist bombings. On December 4, 1969, a unit of the Chicago Police Department, along with the FBI, killed Black Panther Fred Hampton in his sleep. Five months later, on May 4, 1970, a unit of the Ohio Army National Guard fired on students, killing four and wounding nine others as they peacefully protested the Vietnam War on the campus of Kent State University.
Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), 1970. Cut-and-torn newspaper, solvent transfer, and gouache on illustration board; 30 x 30 inches each (76.2 x 76.2 cm). Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York, New York. clockwise from top left CAT. 68 Study for Currents #9. CAT. 69 Study for Currents #13. CAT. 70Study for Currents #15. CAT. 71Study for Currents #24. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.
By 1969, when Rauschenberg started Studies for Currents (CAT. 68–71), the American social fabric was unraveling. The political chaos, social bedlam, and generational anarchy led to these thirty-six collages. Measuring 30 by 30 inches and each photo-mechanically transferred to screens for printing at Styria Studios in Glendale, California, Studies for Currents in turn led to Rauschenberg’s crowning meditation on the state of the nation: Currents, a sixty-foot-long silkscreen that he produced in 1970. In Currents, Rauschenberg personally came to terms with his dismay over the disorder, violence, and destruction of the period. Each unique collage included news clippings from the January and February editions of the New York Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers. Rauschenberg employed headlines to detail the immense political unrest, as well as disturbing events in society in general: “B-52’s Raid Despite Foes Truce,” “GM Locomotive Workers Stress Pension Issue,” “Cop Stabbed in the Back on 1-Man Patrol in Harlem,” “Speed M-16s To Laos To Match Red Rifles,” “Philosopher-Pacifist Bertrand Russell Dies,” and on and on.
A range of images supplemented these stories, and as Rauschenberg explained: “The world condition permitted me no choice of subject or color and method/composition.”11 The aim of these works was “to shake people awake”:
I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of individual responsibility, both for themselves and for the rest of the human race. It has become easy to be complacent about the world. . . . I made [Currents] as realistically as I could, as austerely as possible, in the most direct way I knew how, because, knowing that it was art, people had to take a second look, at least, at the facts they were wrapping their garbage in.12
Uncharacteristically strident for Rauschenberg, current events directed his thinking and emotions at the time. The curator Britt Salvesen nevertheless concluded: “Art, Rauschenberg suggests, has constructive potential amid general disintegration.”13 In accord with his effort to help others, and his belief in the potential of art, Rauschenberg established Change, Inc., in 1970. This nonprofit worked to provide emergency grants to artists of up to $1,000 of Rauschenberg’s own money, as he believed that by helping artists, he could foster creativity in an otherwise bleak time.
fig. 9 Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Signs, 1970. Screenprint (published by Castelli Graphics, New York), edition of 250, 35 1/4 x 26 3/4 inches (89.4 x 67.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York. Gift of Leo and Jean-Christophe Castelli in memory of Toiny Castelli. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.
That same year, Time magazine commissioned a cover by Rauschenberg to herald the new decade, but when the work he created — Signs (1970; fig. 9) — featured a summation of the violent 1960s, Time rejected the piece. Signs “was conceived to remind us of the love, terror, violence of the last ten years,” Rauschenberg explained, “Danger lies in forgetting.”14Signs unites various images from the 1960s such as stills from Abraham Zapruder’s film of JFK’s assassination and photographs of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the body of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, riots, Vietnam soldiers, and Rauschenberg’s fellow Port Arthur-bred friend, singer Janis Joplin. Although reporting on the tumultuous state of the country, Rauschenberg also introduced ironic humor in the form of a military jeep that reads “Convoy Following.” But the “convoy” is, in fact, an image of a peace vigil. In another section, Rauschenberg placed a photograph of Robert Kennedy with his mouth open adjacent to Joplin’s breast, and he made protestors appear as concertgoers cheering her on.
Nearly fifteen years later in 1984, Rauschenberg expressed his continuing concern for the world when he announced ROCI. An evolving exhibition, ROCI would find him working with local artists and artisans in countries from Cuba, Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela to China, Tibet, Japan, and Malaysia. He also went to East Germany and to the Soviet Union, funding nearly the entire venture himself in order to remain free of financial obligations to corporations or the government, which might constrain his work and require him to follow a particular state or institutional protocol or ideology. That same year, when asked by the New York Times to comment on “your fondest wishes for the arts in 1984,” Rauschenberg responded:
Peace is not popular because it is equated with a stoppage of aggressive energies. Starting a new use, aggressively, of our unique curiosities, our impatience with ignorant cruelty and encouraging the most general personal contributions will make war ashamed of itself and art clear.15
In spite of consistent political pressure to embrace collective identity in the former USSR, Soviet unofficial artists like Yuri Albert, Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, Vera Khlebnikova, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Leonid Lerman, Igor Makarevich, Pavlo Makov, Shimon Okshteyn, Boris Orlov, Nikolai Panitkov, Leonid Tishkov, and Oleg Vassiliev, among others, created work of individual distinction, commenting on a society of uniformity and suppression.
Similar to Rauschenberg’s use of newspapers in Currents, Vassiliev also used newspapers to comment on various states of Russian and Soviet society. Vassiliev cut up issues of Pravda, the ideological organ of the communist Central Committee from 1912 to 1991 whose title in Russian means “Truth.” “When I draw on a newspaper, a sort of material witness to the times,” Vassiliev explained, “I either take its transformation into account, or ignore it.”16House with an Attic (1992) is an outstanding example of a series of prints in which Vassiliev used Pravda. His suite of thirty lithographs is divided into three themes. In prints one through fifteen, Vassiliev carries on a visual dialogue with Anton Chekhov’s short story House with an Attic: An Artist’s Story (1896), nostalgically remembering nineteenth-century Russia prior to the revolution. Print sixteen, a transition print from the past to the present, is devoted to Vassiliev’s own family history. Prints seventeen through thirty address twentieth-century Soviet history.17 “The present is saturated with the past,” Vassiliev once commented, “as a live sponge is saturated with water.”18
CAT. 98 Oleg Vassiliev (1931–2013), Image #7 from the series House with an Attic, 1992. Lithograph on paper, artist’s proof, 29 7/8 x 21 1/4 inches (75.9 x 54 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of the artist, 1995.19.1. Art © Oleg Vassiliev / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York, New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
CAT. 99 Oleg Vassiliev (1931–2013), Image #21 from the series House with an Attic, 1992. Lithograph on paper, edition 9/40, 29 5/8 x 21 1/8 inches (75.2 x 53.7 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of the artist, 1995.19.3. Art © Oleg Vassiliev / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York, New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
CAT. 100 Oleg Vassiliev (1931–2013), Image #24 from the series House with an Attic, 1992. Lithograph on paper, artist’s proof, 29 3/4 x 21 1/8 inches (75.6 x 53.7 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of the artist, 1995.19.2. Art © Oleg Vassiliev / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York, New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
In her extensive study of this body of Vassiliev’s work, the art historian and curator Bettina Jungen writes that the first print visually summarizes the artist’s misery in contemporary Soviet culture. It “features the artist’s self-portrait in front of a . . . dilapidated nineteenth-century Moscow manor [captured] by the realist landscape painter Vasili Polenov . . . in his painting Grandmother’s Garden (1878).”19 While establishing the overarching theme of the series, by print Image #5 (1991) Vassiliev has introduced himself standing outside of the frame looking at the house with the attic. But in Image #7 (1992; CAT. 98), he steps inside the frame and the visual narrative entwines Vassiliev’s life with that of Chekhov.
Image #21 (1992; CAT. 99) moves the drama of history into the present, as a large figure in black boldly steps forward, with an image of a tiny, forward striding Lenin represented in his head. The composition suggests that the massive black figure has no mind of his own, only what he has learned from the teachings of Lenin. “The black silhouette to the right depicts Nikita Khrushchev [and] the black figures wearing hats to the left represent the Soviet nomenklatura — holders of important administrative positions.”20 By Image #24 (1992; CAT. 100), Vassiliev has turned his focus to critical contemporary events such as the nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. “The headline under the hunched-up figure in work boots reads, ‘The trouble of Chernobyl is our trouble, too,’” explains Jungen, who adds: “The sentence refers to the threatening clouds in the upper half . . . of radioactive fallout all over Russia, Europe, and other parts of the world.”21 Indeed, Vassiliev chose his newspaper topics carefully, selecting such headlines as “Tired of Wandering,” “No Forum About Economy,” and “The Pain of Chernobyl is Our Pain,” among others.22
CAT. 97 Oleg Vassiliev (1931–2013), Chistoprudny Boulevard, 1992. Lithograph on paper, edition 9/40, 29 5/8 x 21 1/8 inches (75.2 x 53.7 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of the artist, 1995.19.4. Art © Oleg Vassiliev / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York, New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
In Chistoprudny Boulevard (1992; CAT. 97), Vassiliev refers to one of the celebrated boulevards on Boulevard Ring in central Moscow.23 An old woman in a heavy coat walks forward under the looming monument of Aleksander Griboyedov by Aleksander Manuilov, mounted in 1959 near the Chistye prudy metro station. Griboyedov, a famous Russian diplomat and playwright, is dressed in a suit with a cloak thrown over his shoulder. Author of Woe from Wit (1822–24), a comedy in verse satirizing post-Napoleonic Moscow society, the play was prohibited during Griboyedov’s lifetime and only fragments were published. Nonetheless, Griboyedov’s lines and characters are legendary, especially Chatski, the hero who satirizes bribery, class ambition, and pretention in Russian society. Chatski is the first example in Russian literature of the “superfluous man,” perhaps represented by Vassiliev in the nameless woman in the foreground. “You see regret for ‘the old world, destroyed to its foundations,’” Vassiliev observes. “Soviet reality [is] inextricably intermixed with the romantic theme of an empty abandoned house; and scenes of nature, terribly close to me.”24 For Vassiliev, Soviet life was one of disrepair dominated by party politics, disgruntled citizens, and a general sense of existential anxiety and hopelessness.
Despite these sentiments, the death of Joseph Stalin rocked Vassiliev’s foundation. “After Stalin died in 1953, those absolutes were subject to revision, they were erased from official memory,” Amei Wallach explains, and “Vassiliev and his friends experienced a crisis of identity.”25 In House with an Attic, Vassiliev utilized Chekhov to demonstrate the morass of the Soviet Union, explaining, “We have seen how the ‘bright and progressive young things’ turned into demagogues, and what came of that. I am certain that Chekhov intuitively sensed the absurdity and horror of the abyss that a realized utopia presents.”26 Stalin’s death left a legacy of thirty years of ruthless, rigid rule in which all aspects of Soviet life were controlled, including the role of the artist, who was compelled to serve the ideological imperatives of Communist party policies. While in control, Stalin collectivized society and culture, both in rural communities and cities, leaving little room for individualism. Such efforts are manifest, from the collectivization of agriculture (with the kolkhoz, or collective farms) to the urban communalization of city apartments.
Expanding such social and economic controls, in 1934 Stalin mandated the Doctrine of Socialist Realism at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, and appointed Andrei Zhdanov in 1946 to direct Soviet cultural policy. Zhdanov divided the world into imperialist (epitomized by the U.S.) and democratic (represented by the Soviet Union) factions that underscored the Cold War divide. “Zhdanovian Doctrine” would soon guide the arts in the Soviet Union until Stalin’s death, even though Zhdanov fell out of favor with Stalin in 1947 and died in 1948.27 His doctrine forbade political art, satire that exposed the folly of the Party and its programs (i.e. collectivization or industrialization), religious art, erotic art, and formalistic art. The last of these categories, formalism, is particularly notable as the prohibition distinctly banned artistic creation outside of the Neoclassical and Baroque styles common to Socialist Realism.
Art was to be accessible, easily understood by the masses, and advance the mission and message of the state. The Ministry of Culture, the Academy of Arts, and the Union of Artists all policed artists. The latter was the most significant as the intermediary between artists and their potential employers, providing funding and supplies and helping to organize exhibitions. The Union also produced publications, the best-known being the magazine Ikusstvo (Art). The most important aspect of the artists’ Union was that “political conformity [and] failure to comply with regulations could result in dismissal and loss of all privileges,” Elena Kornetchuk writes. “An artist could be dismissed for political reasons,” she adds, “as well as for such seemingly minor reasons as failure to pay membership dues for two consecutive years.”28 Following Stalin’s death, much artistic production continued to depict the leader, manifesting his lasting power and influence over the Soviet Union. However, debates over Socialist Realism led to relaxation of artistic styles and, in 1954, the dissident painter Eli Beliutin, a painting instructor in Moscow at the Textile Institute, formed the Free Studio of Art focusing on more uninhibited techniques in painting.
Nikita Khrushchev, first Secretary of the Communist Party from 1953 to 1964, encouraged these modest changes in the Soviet art world, an unanticipated result of his renowned 1956 February speech “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences.” Although he had participated in Stalin’s reign of terror, Khrushchev eased Stalin’s stranglehold on the diverse peoples of the USSR and denounced many of Stalin’s practices. Thus began “Khrushchev’s Thaw,” which continued until his ouster in 1964. During the course of this modest relaxation of Stalinist controls, Khrushchev allowed daring exhibitions of contemporary Western art in which Soviets came face-to-face with Western abstraction, reviving the memory of the birth of abstraction in the Soviet Union during its revolutionary years, 1913 to 1933.
The Khrushchev period hosted The Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students on July 28, 1957. The first such exhibition held in the Soviet Union, 4,500 works by artists from over fifty-two countries filled its art spaces, and it drew 34,000 visitors from 130 countries.29 In 1959, the American National Exhibition was held in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, including Rauschenberg and other American contemporary artists. This exhibition emerged from the state-sponsored exchange staged by the U.S. and the Soviets, which had the latter exhibiting Soviet technological and artistic triumphs in New York, and the former exhibiting consumer goods (as well as contemporary art) in Moscow.
This period of relative openness culminated in December 1962 with the exhibition at Manezh, a Neoclassical building adjacent to Red Square, where the show Thirty Years of Moscow Art was held. It featured primarily Socialist Realist paintings, but a presentation of newer, innovative works also took place. Following the opening, along with other artists, members of Beliutin’s studio displayed their work in three smaller exhibition rooms on the second floor of the Manezh, a bold action signaling an effort to change contemporary conditions for art. Three days after visiting the exhibition, however, Khrushchev began a “purge of liberals in the artistic establishment” with the result that some artists were banned from exhibiting publically.30 This suppression, however, gave way to an increase in unofficial underground art, which would continue to grow in the Brezhnev era.
Leonid Brezhnev replaced the autocracy of Khrushchev and his predecessors when he became the First Secretary in 1964 of a collective leadership. Economic reforms followed until the mid-1970s when the Soviet economy stopped growing and political corruption ensued. While the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower continued under Brezhnev, economic slowdown, known as “stagnation,” characterized the culture during his era (1976 to 1986). Selective censorship continued, and the “remaining liberals and liberal sympathizers were gradually weeded out of all the official unions, committees, schools and journals,” and continued adherence to Socialist Realism as state policy ruled the day.31 Meanwhile artists turned to “their historical, philosophical, religious, and national roots, as well as to radical western art: surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art, and other avant-garde movements, all of which were frowned upon.”32 These influences led to the “dissident,” or “unofficial,” art of the 1970s, which continued until the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, when the USSR acknowledged twelve independent republics and created the Commonwealth of Independent States. Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party (1985–91) and President of the Soviet Union (1990–91), resigned on Christmas day, handing over power to Boris Yeltsin, the first President of Russia.
Stagnation fueled the growing fire of Soviet unofficial artists in literature (with self-published underground samizdat publications) and in art (with undercover, self-run exhibitions in private apartments known as “APT-Art”). Although closely and constantly monitored and forbidden to exhibit publicly, artists desired to show their work, a desire that outweighed the risks. Already in 1969, the dissident painter Oskar Rabin had begun proposing outdoor exhibitions in an effort to exploit “a loophole in government regulations.”33 While he had attempted to follow the ideological aesthetic dictates of the state and paint, “slick, syrupy, ‘safe’ things . . . easily [understood] by the ‘powers that be,’” Rabin eventually “destroyed these paintings one by one” because he could no longer “bear to look at them.”34 “Celebrated in the West as the ‘Solzhenitsyn in painting’” for how he “honestly and eloquently reflected the mood in society during the 1960’s and 1970’s,” Rabin turned to European expressionism, using distorted perspectives and collaging “fragments of newspapers, stickers and labels.”35
Together with the poet Aleksandr Glezer, Rabin was the major force behind the “Fall Open-Air Show,” installed on September 15, 1974, in an empty field in the Cheryomushki district on the outskirts of Moscow, a site selected with the explicit intention of avoiding a “public disturbance.”36 The exhibition was to take place “from 12 to 2 P.M. at the end of Profsouzmaya and Ostrovitianov streets,” and the invitation included eleven artists.37 Aware that governmental resistance might occur, Rabin and Glezer contacted Christopher S. Wren of the New York Times to report on the show. Indeed, on the day of the exhibition government workers arrived to plow it down with bulldozers. The state’s crude show of force earned the exhibition the affectionate nickname “The Bulldozer Show.”38 The next day on the front page of the New York Times Wren’s article appeared with a large photograph captioned, “A water truck pursues crowd from the scene of an outdoor art show in Moscow after authorities halted exhibition.”
Four days after this event, the artists delivered an ultimatum to the government: either they would return to that spot and attempt the show again, or they must be given permission to exhibit at another location. Their courageous act resulted on September 29 in the “Second Fall Open-Air Show of Paintings,” held in Izmailovsky Park outside of Moscow. Following this presumed victory, permission to hold and contribute to exhibitions in official galleries was given. The decision did not go uncontested, as the state systematically penalized many of the artists, sending some to insane asylums, others to the military, and still others to be observed and constantly threatened by the KGB. As Michael Scammell has written, “The exhibitions of the mid-1970s, therefore, were not the harbingers of better things to come, but a swan song . . . the result — on the surface at least — was a decade of stifling conservatism, reaction, and conformity.”39 Lacking a better alternative, many unofficial artists began emigrating to the West: Ernst Neizvestny, Oscar Rabin, Aleksandr Rabin, Leonid Lamm, and Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, among others, all moved to Paris, London, or New York.
CAT. 50 Boris Orlov (b. 1941), The General, 1989. Painted bronze, 16 x 20 x 6 inches (40.6 x 50.8 x 15.2 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of Drs. Irene and Alex Valger, 2000.24.4. © Boris Orlov. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
CAT. 51 Boris Orlov (b. 1941), Russian General, 1990. Painted bronze, 17 x 24 x 6 inches (43.2 x 61 x 15.2 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of Anatole and Maya Brekkerman, 1999.14.2. © Boris Orlov. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
Meanwhile, Boris Orlov, originally associated with the Sots Art movement, continued to satirize while mourning the glory of the Soviet empire. Referring to himself as an “imperial artist,” Orlov creates sculptures that reckon with the symbols of Soviet power and greatness, all the while saturated in irony and kitsch. In bronze works like The General (1989; CAT. 50) and Russian General (1990; CAT. 51), Orlov considers the grandeur of the Soviet past, utilizing the imagery of the former ruling military elite by appropriating its insignia of power in the symbolism of the decorative medallions and ribbons of military regalia. “We read Western existentialists,” Orlov remembers. “The key was irony. Irony was soaked in everything — the whole social art is ironic, as well as post modernism. This term originated in the 1980s, but we realized we had been doing it in the 1970s.”40 Orlov also explores the fall of the history of the Soviet empire in sculptures of airplanes that mock its cult of aviation airplanes, “a paraphrase of imperial eagles, a new symbol of the empyrean and sublime.”41 Orlov’s airplanes appear to have been shot down and in decay, a blatant metaphor for the state of the nation.
Departing from the aura of nationalist symbols, Yuri Albert asks: “What is art?” Answering, “One might say [my work] is about the possibility of making art in an area where all arts are coming to an end or have already ended. Also about what it means to understand or not understand.”42 Albert’s monochrome series Alphabet for the Blind represents his consideration of the challenges to and state of contemporary art. All of the nine works belonging to Alphabet for the Blind, like About Beauty (1988–89; see CAT. 2), include Russian braille texts that articulate different conceptual concerns and were made by gluing plastic children’s toy balls covered in black paint to each black monochrome canvas. The texts range from “Inspiration is not sold, but a painting may be sold,” to “It is better to have seen once than to have listened a hundred times.” About Beauty seems to recalls Leo Tolstoy’s famous comment, “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness,” among a host of philosophical comments regarding aesthetic theory. About Beauty seductively tempts us to brush our fingers lightly across the braille text, but the painting’s status as Art halts viewers, who are socialized not to touch paintings, from such direct engagement. Drawing attention to language and communication, Albert also comments on the elite status of art and its institutions, while suggesting that art must be experienced, touched, and explored, giving voice to those who are unheard: the blind and the uninitiated.
CAT. 40 Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (b. 1943 and b. 1945), Stalin with Hitler’s Remains from the series Anarchistic Synthesism, 1985–86. Oil on canvas, 84 1/4 x 60 1/4 inches (214 x 153 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Museum purchase, 1992.8.1. © Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
Like Albert, Nikolai Panitkov is interested in communication and language, particularly as it pertains to censorship and the suppression of creativity. Panitkov was an original member of the Collective Actions Group (KD), which formed in 1976, and his Stuff up the Hole, Stuff up the Crack (1987; see CAT. 52) is an unusual work in the context of the group’s conceptual and performance-related art. But if considered as a political critique, when Panitkov flips the canvas so that its wooly backing fills the space between the frame and the painting’s white monochrome surface, he visualizes the effort to jam the holes in the fabric of the USSR just at the moment of its demise. The cork pushed through its center, like a gag on the mouth, also points to state censorship and its cousin, self-censorship. These associations bring an entirely different body of considerations to Rauschenberg’s comment “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world.”43 For in Panitkov’s work, and in the real Soviet world of 1987, reality could only be hinted at even if it was overflowing its frame.
Before leaving the Soviet Union, first for Israel and then for the U.S., Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid were key practitioners of unofficial art in 1970s Moscow. The artists met while studying at the Stroganov Moscow Higher Industrial Art School, and participated in many of the unofficial art happenings, including APT-Art shows and the Bulldozer Exhibition. Their work was among the first Soviet dissident art exhibited in the U.S., smuggled out of the Soviet Union by private collectors and friends. Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York gave them their first U.S. exhibition in 1976, two years before the artists arrived in New York City. Considered the founders of Sots Art, a Soviet form of pop art satirizing Soviet Socialist imagery, Komar and Melamid began painting in a style they termed “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” after leaving the USSR. This style mimicked the Baroque/Neo-classical state-imposed Socialist Realism of the Stalin era. Undercutting the purpose of these nationalistic dictates and rendering them kitsch, Komar nonetheless advised in 2002: “To imagine is to remember.”44
CAT. 41 Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (b. 1943 and b. 1945), The Wings Will Grow from the series American Dreams, 1999. Screenprint on paper, edition 10/46, 41 1/2 x 27 1/2 inches (105.4 x 69.9 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of J. Gibson Waitzkin, 1999.5.1. © Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
Following the “nostalgic” period, Komar and Melamid embarked on their Anarchistic Synthesis series, the title being a reference to the Russian anarchist Vsevolod Mikhailovich Eikhenbaum, or Volin, and his essay Anarchist Synthesis, included in a book edited by renowned anarchist Sébastien Faure.45Stalin with Hitler’s Remains (CAT. 40) belongs to this series, begun when the artists turned their attention to the pluralism (read: anarchism) of Western art during the 1980s. The painting pictures Hitler shrouded in a white cloth, baroque light dramatically highlighting his form. Stalin stands with a white physician’s coat draped over his shoulder pointing to Hitler’s corpse. Below this superbly rendered realistic image, the artists hinged a white monochrome panel, recalling those that Rauschenberg painted in 1951, as much as Malevich’s work of 1918 (see fig. 4). But unlike Rauschenberg’s pristine surface, or Malevich’s tilted white square on a white field, in the middle of Komar and Melamid’s monochrome, the artists painted the title of the work in block letters, perhaps summoning, as much as satirizing, conceptual art.
In their American Dreams series, Komar and Melamid shifted to an examination of the patriotic symbolism of their new home in the U.S. Still drawing on Socialist Realism, they suggest a parallel between the “cult of personality” of George Washington and that of Lenin or Stalin.46 Fascinated with American kitsch versions of the “father of the nation,” they explored U.S. national symbols, such as the bald eagle and the stars and stripes. In The Wings Will Grow (1999; CAT. 41), they portray Washington with a globe, a column, and drapery, symbols appropriated from Edward Savage’s famous painting The Washington Family (1789–96). In Komar and Melamid’s work, Washington holds the eagle/baby uncomfortably, “as though he is not used to it,” a reference both to the instability of the American Dream and the relative infancy of the United States.47 The artists appropriated the baby’s body from Rembrandt’s The Abduction of Ganymede (1635; fig. 10), which depicts Zeus in the guise of an eagle abducting a beautiful child. As a result, Washington assumes the role of Zeus, and the work seems to imbed a critique of the European rape of Native American land.
fig. 11 Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Canyon, 1959. Oil, pencil, paper, metal, photograph, fabric, wood, canvas, buttons, mirror, taxidermied eagle, cardboard, pillow, paint tube and other materials; 81 3/4 x 70 x 24 inches (207.6 x 177.8 x 61 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York. Gift of the family of Ileana Sonnabend, 1782.2012. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.
fig. 10 Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606–1669), Ganymed in den Fängen des Adlers (The abduction of Ganymede), 1635. Oil on canvas, 69 1/2 x 51 inches (177 x 129 cm). Collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden. Public domain.
Rauschenberg, too, was absorbed in Americana and nationalistic imagery — seldom as kitsch, but sometimes as irony — as it related to mass media and print culture. In fact, Rauschenberg’s combine Canyon (1959; fig. 11) utilizes the same mythological tale of the rape of Ganymede appropriated by Komar and Melamid. Famous for its taxidermied bald eagle surrounded by a diverse array of photographs, Rauschenberg added his own photograph of his son, Christopher, to the Combine, as well as a deconstructed white shirt, a drum, a postcard of the Statue of Liberty, and a bed pillow hanging down from the canvas, among various other objects and collage elements. “Canyon . . . is often taken to refer to the classical myth of Ganymede,” Catherine Craft observes, explaining the classical figure as “a youth abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle, and especially Rembrandt’s rendition of the story.”48 In this vein, Rauschenberg may have considered the photograph of his son to represent Ganymede and the pillow to present the young boy taken in his sleep.49
CAT. 43 Leonid Lerman (b. 1953), Study for Other Horizons, 1992. Oil on offset print, 37 x 37 inches (94 x 94 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Museum purchase, 1995.14.3. © Leonid Lerman. Courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
While Komar and Melamid reflected on the anarchistic synthesis of art in the U.S., appropriating images from an array of sources, including some of the same artists from whom Rauschenberg borrowed, Leonid Lerman embarked on The Phantom of Malevich series, his reflection on the impact of Kazmir Malevich’s art in the history of abstraction and landscape painting. “Since Malevich emerged, his ghost is strolling about the world,” Lerman explains, “This is the ghost of a new world-view towards art, a new set of values.”50 In his study for Other Horizons (1992; CAT. 43), Lerman draws a comparison between Western masterpieces and Malevich’s legacy, appropriating Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948), and picturing Christina crawling on the grass under a bright Malevich sky composed of bars of red that sweep diagonally across the upper register of the picture. Another work in the series, Evening at Volga (1992), turns to Isaac Levitan, the Russian master of landscape painting. For this work, Lerman appropriates both Levitan’s picture and its title, but introduces Malevich’s Suprematist planes hovering over the landscape. A member of the Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers), who abandoned the Russian Imperial Academy of Arts because of its restrictions, Levitan represented a radical new way of depicting Russian history and the inequities of contemporary life. Lerman views Levitan as “the Chekhov or Dostoyevsky in literature, able to convey mood, [for] when you stare in this deeply felt landscape, you hear the music.”51
While Lerman was working on The Phantom of Malevich series, Dennis O’Neil, a printmaking professor at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., began collaborating with artists on printmaking in what would eventually be called the Moscow Studio that he established in 1991. O’Neil credits Rauschenberg with his own interest in prints, and when he visited Moscow for the first time in 1989 and noticed the paucity of artists working in printmaking, he became determined to work with Russian artists to develop the medium. O’Neil remembers:
Based on the trial success of a three-week workshop at Senejh, an artist colony seventy miles outside of Moscow, operated by the Soviet’s Union of Artists, I was invited to create a more permanent studio on Gogolevsky Boulevard in central Moscow in 1992. In 1993, the final home of the Moscow Studio was established in partnership with the Russian Academy of Art on Laverinshky Per. across the street from the Tretyakov Gallery and two miles from the Kremlin.52
Nevertheless, O’Neil insists that Moscow Studio was never a school but a place where he worked “collaboratively with Russian artists six months of the year,” before returning to Washington.53 O’Neil also raised funds for printmaking technology and supplies to bring to Moscow to bridge “the great distance between his own studio in Washington and Moscow.”54 He expressed the mission of Moscow Studio to be “a conduit [and] a place that is open to all kinds of ideas, clear-cut ideas about how [the Soviet artists] see their country evolving politically, socially, artistically.”55
CAT. 38 Vera Khlebnikova (b. 1954), Wallpaper from The Wallpaper Project, 1996. Screenprint on wallpaper, 36 3/8 x 25 1/2 inches (92.4 x 64.8 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of Gibby and Buz Waitzkin, 2001.34.13.4. © Vera Khlebnikova. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
CAT. 47 Pavlo Makov (b. 1958), Fountain of Exhaustion from The Wallpaper Project, 1996. Screenprint on wallpaper, 36 1/4 x 25 1/2 inches (92.1 x 64.8 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of Gibby and Buz Waitzkin, 2001.34.13.5. © Pavlo Makov. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
O’Neil also initiated Wallpaper Project, in which a number of Russian artists embarked in the mid-1990s, among them Igor Makarevich, Elena Kudinova, Pavlo Makov, Leonid Tishkov, and Vera Khlebnikova. As O’Neil recalls:
All the wallpaper was printed in Moscow at the Moscow Studio in 1995 or ’96. I brought a large roll of fabric backed vinyl paper to Moscow and “commissioned” eight artists to make their own wallpaper. (It was curated in the sense that I selected the artists to make it.) It was exhibited in Moscow first. I think it was at the Central House of Artists. I wasn’t there for the exhibition, since I was commuting to Moscow then. (After 1993, I was there every other two months through the end of 1996.) I did bring a strip or two back of each artist’s wallpaper to DC to be used in the exhibition The Moscow Studio: 1991–96 at the Corcoran Gallery in December [of 1996]. I made some wallpaper too as did my master printer for the project, Yaroslav Karpoulin, who lives here [in D.C.] now. The other artist was Alexi Simeonov.56
While Makov’s Fountain of Exhaustion (CAT. 47) is devoted to abstraction, O’Neil remembered that Khlebnikova’s print (CAT. 38) “dealt with the traditional way of preparation of an old wall for wall papering: to paste newspaper first as a liner holding the plaster firmly together before it was papered.” Her Wallpaper was first painted to imitate an old white wall, then old newspaper clippings were attached, many of which were receipts from generations ago of the purchase of wallpaper. In preparing for the “new,” her work was a look back at these long kept clippings that became the repaired walls’ delicate foundation.57
Leonid Tishkov, perhaps the best known of the artists participating in the Wallpaper Project, was trained as a physician, but left medicine to enter the “elaborate world of character and symbols.”58 His Wallpaper (CAT. 96) features an assembly of anthropomorphic Dabloids, which he described as “miraculous and versatile creature[s] . . . made up of an autonomous leg with a small head at its top.”59 In Tishkov’s cosmology, Dabloids mutate, symbolizing “a conjunction of high and low,” with the head “in heaven” and the leg “down . . . firm and big,” representing the “image of man.”60 Tishkov’s first exhibition in the U.S. took place at Duke University in 1993, organized by Michael P. Mezzatesta, then director of the former Duke University Museum of Art.61
CAT. 96 Leonid Tishkov (b. 1953), Wallpaper from The Wallpaper Project, 1996. Screenprint on wallpaper, 36 1/4 x 25 1/4 inches (64.1 x 92.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of Gibby and Buz Waitzkin, 2001.34.13.2. Art © Leonid Tishkov / RAO, Moscow / VAGA, New York, New York.
CAT. 46 Igor Makarevich (b. 1943), Wallpaper from The Wallpaper Project, 1996. Screenprint on wallpaper, 36 1/8 x 25 1/4 inches (91.8 x 64.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of Gibby and Buz Waitzkin, 2001.34.13.3. © Igor Makarevich. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
Igor Makarevich (CAT. 46) also explores the human condition through the fantastical figure of Buratino, the Soviet version of Pinocchio. Makarevich’s Buratino is a “disturbing perversion of the children’s story” where “the character becomes a metaphorical figure for the shared goal of his contemporary official Soviet culture and Russian avant-garde artists: to create and promote an identity.”62 Fashioning an entire world for his Buratino, Makarevich’s wallpaper includes different characters: Skater, Reader, Horn Player, Football, Artist, Skiier, Stranger, Master Builder, and Young Buratino.63 Interested in rethinking “the image of the cheerful wooden puppet,” Makarevich also quotes Thomas Mann to observe: “The history of the soul is the history of pain.”64
In his effort to break through the history of pain, Robert Rauschenberg declared in 1989: “My goal is to open people’s eyes to the surrounding reality, to deepen mutual understanding between people and to aspire for peace.”65 Rauschenberg took ROCI to Moscow that year. Due to the relationship between the Russian government and Armand Hammer, an American oil magnate and art collector, and the efforts of Donald Saff, who served as the artistic director of ROCI, Rauschenberg met Vassily Zakharov, the Soviet Minister of Culture, and an invitation from the Union of Artists to exhibit in the USSR was forthcoming. ROCI USSR took place at the Tretyakov Gallery in the Central House of Artists in Moscow, making it the first solo exhibition of a Western post-WWII artist in the Soviet Union. Reflecting on the momentous event, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko remembered: “For us, his exhibit is one of the symbols of a spiritual perestroika of our society.”66 A line of 145,000 people wove through the halls of the exhibition. According to Moscowvskie Novosty or Moscow News, Rauschenberg “not only brought his masterpieces, but also walls, lights, ninety gallons of paint; everything down to the last nail. He contributed to the exhibition not just talent, but also tremendous capital.”67
CAT. 85 Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Soviet/American Array VII, 1988–91. Photogravure on paper, artist’s proof, 78 1/2 x 51 1/8 inches (199.4 x 129.9 cm). Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.
Rauschenberg opened the show with his print series Soviet/American Array, which he had printed at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in West Islip, Long Island. Rauschenberg made the series at ULAE, where he had previously collaborated with Voznesensky. The works interweave images saturated with bright colors and photographs of New York construction workers interlaced with Moscow subway stations; St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square greets the Empire State Building and the former World Trade Center in one work. Soviet/American Array VII (1988–91; CAT. 85) specifically contrasts what appears to be a New York City apartment building with the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building in Moscow, among various other less recognizable images clearly taken from Rauschenberg’s travels throughout Moscow and New York. Most notable is how difficult it is to discern which images represent the USSR and which the U.S., which are from Moscow and which from New York. Rauschenberg turns images from the two Cold War nations, which stressed their differences for over forty years, into a poetic montage of an inextricably interconnected life, neither Soviet nor American, but an imbricate array of both. Concurrent with Rauschenberg’s 1989 Soviet iteration of ROCI, a group of Russian artists organized an exhibition with Aydan Salakhova, director of Moscow’s first independent art gallery, First Gallery. The exhibition Rauschenberg to Us — We to Rauschenberg consisted of works made in tribute to Rauschenberg by the Soviet artists, and served as the first exhibition at the first commercial gallery in Russia. This moment might be considered the crowning accomplishment of Rauschenberg’s intention for ROCI: to meet different artists in their own locales and come together in conversation and peace.
Following the success of this show, the Soviet Minister of Culture enlisted Salakhova to organize an exhibition for the 1990 USSR Pavilion at the 44th Venice Biennale, the theme of which was “Future Dimension,” and Rauschenberg was invited to exhibit in the Soviet pavilion. Following the theme, Rauschenberg sent a huge painting Orrery (Borealis) (1990). Its display in the Soviet pavilion marked the first time that an artist at the Venice Biennale exhibited in a national pavilion that did not belong to his or her own country.
In Orrery (Borealis), Rauschenberg reached beyond his aim to capture the world, instead seizing the entire universe as an inspiration. As a model of the solar system, an orrery shows the interactions and movements of the planets through time as driven by a clock mechanism. Borealis, Latin for northern, is most often joined with the word Aurora, or sunrise. Together the Aurora Borealis signifies the northern lights. Thus, Orrery (Borealis) signifies time and the planets, while its colors suggest the hues of the northern lights, with its brass base and swaths of red and brown. The work includes the depiction of eight main objects and images, suggesting a correspondence with the eight planets of the solar system. The painting also boasts parts of a Sousaphone (related to the tuba and helicon and used in marching bands) attached to the surface. Images of double chairs, a white cloth hanging on a clothesline, the imprint of a placard, a primate, a clock, and a telegraph pole interlace the ordinary with the extraordinary, and the majesty of the planets with the ancient history of timekeeping. Despite conjecture about the cosmic meaning of these elements, Orrery (Borealis) is “not just a miniaturized view of the world, not just the music of the spheres, not just a world clock, but a multimedia search for a new light in a world that is growing cold, a search for Ptolemaic warmth.”68
Rauschenberg’s Moscow ROCI exhibition, together with the installation of Orrery (Borealis) in the Soviet Union’s pavilion at the Venice Biennial, may have played some small part in improving cultural relations between the USSR and the U.S. at this crucial moment of perestroika, just as Yevtushenko suggested. Certainly Rauschenberg’s collaboration with Andrei Voznesensky in 1978 had an impact on the poet when Voznesensky wrote the first Russian rock opera, Yunona I Avos (1981). It included the poem “Russian-American Romance” whose verse reads:
In my land and yours they do hit the hay / and sleep the whole night in a similar way. / There’s the golden Moon with a double shine. / It lightens your land and it lightens mine. / At the same low price, that is for free, / there’s the sunrise for you and the sunset for me. / The wind is cool at the break of day, / it’s neither your fault nor mine, anyway. / Behind your lies and behind my lies / there is pain and love for our Motherlands. / I wish in your land and mine some day / we’d put all idiots out of the way.
The title of this poem, “Russian-American Romance,” may have been in Rauschenberg’s mind when he conceived of his prints Soviet/American Array, such that the conversation between Rauschenberg and Soviet poets, artists, and cultural establishment remained in dialogue. This view is best summed up by Rauschenberg himself: “I’m looking forward to the day when we can declare that it’s not a Russian show, it’s not an American show, that all art is international.”
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