The New Artists.
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The New Artists learned this tactic of undermining a deadening environment from the OBERIU: they learned to talk and paint in such a way that each picture was constructed as a site of celebration, an air shaft, an elevator into the noosphere. Thus, in 1983 Oleg Kotelnikov produced the book “Iruction” (Pyatka) by using a ballpoint pent to blot out letter after letter on the cover of an “instruction” pamphlet (pamyatka) containing “Decree No. 21” of the Leningrad Chemical-Pharmaceutical Institute. Kotelnikov turns this long bureaucratic moniker into a peculiar chant that ends with a joyous yes: “[Y]EKH […] [Y]EZ […] [Y]E[Y]E […] [Y]ED […] [Y]EL […] [Y]ER […] [Y]EN […] [Y]EV[…] [Y]ES.” Kotelnikov employs labels with the inscriptions “Pirate ship” and “Volga” to effortlessly turn the pamphlet into a rebus/comic strip that everyone can enjoy. Comic strips are usually reserved for the back pages of cheap magazines, but Kotelnikov’s strips expand into breathtaking polyptychs about an artist and his model or a heroic picture of mad Doctor Death, who rips his unfortunate victim to shreds as if he were a hunter dressing a carcass. (The wall of a cupboard came in handy for Kotelnikov’s instant realization of this image.) Kotelnikov thus discovered that comic strips are as capable of expressing power and grandeur as David’s neoclassical manner. In Kotelnikov’s rendering, for example, Senate Square does not resemble its usual depiction on postcards. The Bronze Horseman—a giant on a stunted horse—unexpectedly recalls the iconography of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and his furious phrase, not usually associated with this event: “I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
Vadim Ovchinnikov chose as the site of his virtual headquarters Chukotka, a region of the Soviet Union whose inhabitants were the butt of “dumb Chukchi” jokes during the eighties: Soviet society projected onto Chukotka its own helplessness and sense of inferiority.
Ovchinnikov magically purifies this wretched image in his Chukchi Poems—strange assemblages of simple things and objects (combs, keys, stones, feathers, etc.), often broken or discarded, that he has threaded onto long cords like the beads on a rosary. The myth of Chukotka is given full voice in such painting cycles as Spring in Chukotka, The Life of Plants, and Atmospheric Phenomena. These paintings deal with the constantly changing sky, the rising and setting of the moon and the sun, and the northern lights. They are addressed to lone wolves, arctic birds, and all the inhabitants of this land, whom the artist naturally regards as its real owners because only they preserve in their hearts its spirit unsullied by the interventions of modern civilization. Novikov would likewise restore the timeless radiance of arctic daylight to the northern realm of Soviet prison camps and forbidden zones. In his cycle Horizons, an unprepossessing tattoo-like sun rises at dawn to illuminate all corners of the earth.
A connoisseur and collector of folk art (including its most common form, which he dubbed “swan painting”), Ivan Sotnikov chose from late-eighties youth pop culture the iconography of computer games. Various streams of international folk consciousness generate the fir trees and tiny cars that twirl about and kick up their heels in his paintings at the extreme limit of coloristic brilliance and compositional dynamism. The color is turned up to full volume, and the paint layers are showily and calligraphically plopped onto any appropriate surface, whether crude planks from the countryside or the synthetic paneling from a kitchen sink stand in the city.
Inal Savchenkov invented his own world of fantastical creatures in which cartoon beasts, insects, and toadstools unexpectedly prove to be closely related to the majestic images of ancient Egypt, thus witnessing to the kinship between the idiom of computer animation and hieroglyphics. The New Artists were storytellers who transfigured the endless waste products that came more and more to dominate the late-Soviet landscape. Their ecological revolution of the absurd (in one telling episode, Vadim Ovchinnikov painted a plywood notice board green and dubbed it The Green Square: Symbol of the World Ecological Revolution) was particularly impressive in those years against the backdrop of the reverse process—the littering of the iconosphere. Visitors at the annual group shows of official artists were bound to wonder what was done with all those square kilometers of canvases about the lives of Lenin and Krupskaya, Brezhnev, shock workers, and proletarian toilers. The energetic, absurdist style of the New Wilds (an offshoot of the New Artists) gave birth to a piece, jointly authored by Alexei Kozin and Oleg Maslov, in which an enormous skeleton depicted from the chest up hammers a large nail into its skull against a bright-blue background. This painting, which was reproduced in 1988 on one of the posters for the landmark show From Unofficial Art to Perestroika and was reprised by Maslov in 2007, might be seen as a symbol of late twentieth-century/early twenty-first century Russian history.
Timur Novikov began realizing his biography during the last decade of Soviet power, when the living Soviet discourse collapsed (although its morbid mechanical double continued to resound), and the movement of society itself nullified the state’s historical significance. Novikov’s career was built on a combination of complex circumstances. On the one hand, he fought for the victory of clarity; on the other, he had already realized as a young man that victory is tantamount to defeat, that a conquering truth can easily turn into its opposite. In the article “Collage in the New Art” (1986), he describes the growing influence of the New Artist collage aesthetic, while also noting that “a widening of the front ([when] everyone is ‘for’ [something]) will provoke the opposite reaction on the part of the youngest [artists]—but they have not come of age yet.”
During this period, the group vigorously moved onward and upward. It was in this same year, 1986, that members of the group set out on a series of popular public showings of their work and started touring with Sergei Kuriokhin’s Pop Mechanics orchestra.
In May 1986, the New Artists mingled with thousands of viewers at the city day celebrations in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress and showed their work in Moscow at the famous 17th Youth Exhibition.
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From 1985 to 1988 Novikov penned several versions of the group’s history, which he then shared with the group’s first historiographers—Andrei Khlobystin, Alla Mitrofanova, and Mikhail Trofimenkov. In Novikov’s accounts, two different years figure as the founding dates of the group—1977 and 1982. The first date is found in the text “The New Artists.” (In 1995, Novikov claimed to have written the text in 1986; like many of the other texts from this period, it is signed “Igor Potapov.”) This expanded chronology enabled Novikov to unite the first and second stages of his own artistic biography—his joining the Chronicle (Letopis) group in 1977 (the group was founded in 1976 by Boris Koshelokhov) and his own founding of the New Artists in 1982. This is what he writes there:
We encounter the founding date of 1982 in the vast majority of documents in Novikov’s archive—in the biographies that he either wrote himself or dictated, as well as in all the other texts that he selected for publication in the anthology Novye khudozhniki.
The most curious of the documents that were not published there is the typewritten catalogue for the exhibition Happy New Year, which took place at the Theater of Amateur Creativity (aka the Leningrad Palace of Artist Unions, aka the Leningrad Rock Club) from December 27, 1985, to January 10, 1986. The catalogue was clearly printed after the show opened, in 1986, insofar as two 1986 articles by Igor Potapov (“The New Artists” and “Festival of the Arts”) are mentioned on the first page and a 1986 exhibition in the Kadriorg Museum (Tallinn) is listed in Novikov’s biography. The catalogue is designed in the absurd style of the New Artists: on the title page, the names of the publisher (“ASSA Press”) and the author of the introductory article (“Igor Potapov”) are printed upside down. The article explains that “the exhibition HAPPY NEW YEAR has been three years in the making and is the fifth exhibition of the new artists [sic]. In addition, it is the largest such exhibition and the one that has attracted the most attention from the public. […] All the artists presented here are, without a doubt, geniuses. But there is no point dwelling on this because everyone knows it anyway.” There is extant yet one more text entitled “The New Artists,” in which the year of the group’s founding is listed as 1984, although someone has corrected it by hand and written in the year 1982. I regard this date as an ordinary typo insofar as the text itself is dated 1987—that is, earlier sources give earlier dates for the group’s founding.
The group actually began to function in late 1982. In 1983, the ASSA Gallery (housed in Novikov’s room in a communal flat on Voinov Street (present-day Shpalernaya) that was in the process of resettlement) hosted a group show of the New Artists and Oleg Kotelnikov’s solo show, which immediately made him famous. This is how Yuri Krasev tells it:
There are two lists of New Artists exhibitions as compiled by Novikov. The first list contains only shows that took place at the ASSA Gallery:
1981 – 4th exhibition of the Chronicle group
1980 – 1st Timur Novikov portrait biennale
1982 – 2nd Timur Novikov portrait biennale
1983 – 2nd exhibition of the New [Artists]
1983 – Oleg Kotelnikov solo exhibition
1984 – collage exhibition
1984 – 3rd Timur Novikov portrait biennale
1984 – Valery Cherkasov posthumous exhibition
1985 – 5th exhibition of the New [Artists]
1985 – Yevgeny Yufit solo photo exhibition
1985 – exhibition of artists from the Novorossiysk School
1986 – 7th exhibition of the New [Artists]
1986 – Sergei Bugaev solo exhibition
1986 – Exhibition of the remains of the work jointly authored by the artists of Moscow and Leningrad during the Popular Mechanics concert at the opening of the exhibition Happy New Year. more: German >> Russian >>
1986 – Timur Novikov solo exhibition
1987 – Exhibition of the New [Artists] in honor of the closing of the ASSA Gallery
The second list, contained in the Happy New Year catalogue, is distinguished by its double numbering system. This is perhaps explained by the natural desire of a “zeroist” (Novikov) to begin with a “null cycle”—that is, with a “zero” exhibition:
0. 1. 1983. [ASSA] New Artists Group
1. 2. 1984. [ASSA] New Artists Group
4. 5. 1985. [ASSA] New Artists Group
The main discrepancy in these two lists concerns the first exhibition of 1983: in the first list, it figures as the second exhibition, while in the second list it figures, alternately, as the “zero” or first exhibition. Partial light is shed on the matter by references to the first New Artists exhibition (the lineup of Novikov, Sotnikov, and Kirill Khazanovich showed their work in 1982 at the Kirov Institute of Textile and Light Industry) in Khazanovich’s 1990 posthumous biography and in the exhibitions list of Novikov himself. In this case, the 1983 group show can be considered the second such show or even the third, if we include “The Zero Object.” The first list does not refer to the 1984 group show, although it does mention a group collage show. The playful, non-obligatory way that the New Artists managed their exhibition work—as if by the light wave of a wand—contributed to the group’s solid, dynamic exhibition résumé, which included approximately twenty events over seven years. Moreover, this figure does not take into account TEII group shows and shows in other cities from 1986 onwards.
Just as impressive is the variety of the names and definitions the group adopted for itself and its rapid lineup changes. The name “New Artists (Group)” is now the commonly accepted term, but there were others as well. For example, in the Happy New Year catalogue we find the abbreviation “ONKh”—that is, the “society” or “association” of New Artists. On a flyer for a New Artists show from 1988 or 1989 (the flyer is marked with the stamp of the “V.V. Mayakovsky Friends Club”—a silhouetted red circle made with the lid of a photo-film canister) we read: “The New Artists are more a movement than a group. They have been in existence since 1982. No one knows the exact lineup: it is fickle.”
Thus, according to a text by Novikov, the exhibiting artists at the group’s first big show—Happy New Year, at the end of 1985—were: Evgenij Kozlov, “a participant in all the shows of the [New Artists]”; Valery Cherkasov (1946–1984), who “should definitely be regarded as one of the [fore]fathers of the paint[erly style of the New Artists]”; Timur Novikov, “a follower of Boris Koshelokhov”; Ivan Sotnikov, “one of the wisest contemporary artists[;] at present he has given up painting and lives in the countryside”; Oleg Kotelnikov, “one of the country’s most popular artists”; Andrei Krisanov, from the Novorossiysk School; Yevgeny Yufit, “a famous director, actor, master photographer, and painter, founder of the literary style necrorealism[;] presented [here] as the co-author of the painting Twisters (+ O. Kotelnikov)”; Kirill Khazanovich, “an unusually gifted, original auteur, a major theorist, scholar, [and] outstanding practitioner”; Vadim Ovchinnikov, “painter, master of the new [artist’s] book, musician and cinematographer, participant in all shows by the [N]ew [A]rtists, and much more”; Sergei Bugaev, “the rising star of the new painting, the popular actor and musician [known as] Afrika, the head of the Novorossiysk School.” In Igor Potapov’s review “Festival of the Arts,” we find a reference to two participants of the show who were not included in the catalogue: Arkady Tager and “the primitivist” Natalia Batishcheva, who were husband and wife.
A few months later (May 1986), the lineup of the group for an upcoming TEII show included the artists listed in the Happy New Year catalogue as well as several new names: Andrei Mertvyi, Roman Zhigunov, Viktor Tsoi, Vladislav Gutsevich, Mikhail Taratuta, Alexander Nikolaev (Zakhar), Yuri Krasev, Alexei Kozin, Oleg Maslov, and Sergei Shutov.
We should round out this brief survey with a text by Novikov that must have been written no earlier than December 1988 because it mentions the Leningrad Free University, which opened that same month and where Novikov ran the painting program. This text brings the group’s history to its conclusion. In the last period of his life, Novikov must have considered it canonical: it coincides to a great degree with the oral account of the New Artists he gave me on December 21, 1997, by way of preparation for the publication of his autobiography in connection with an exhibition at the Russian Museum.
What all the texts I have just cited tell us is that, as a collective body, the New Artists were incredibly mobile. When it was necessary, their policy was to cover as many “locales” as possible by quickly recruiting new allies. These allies were not necessarily artists themselves. Georgy Gurjanov thus recalls that, in preparation for a group show, Novikov and Sotnikov “produced works in different styles on behalf of a dozen different artists. Moreover, they didn’t pick names out of thin air, but borrowed them from friends. Each friend was assigned a different tendency in contemporary art.”
 Novye khudozhniki, p. 88.
 Trofimenkov was friends with the film critic and artist Sergei Dobrotvorsky, who participated in the actions of the group The War Minister, was close to zero-culture ideologue Alexei (“Willie”) Feoktistov, and corresponded with New Artists Vadim Ovchinnikov and Vladislav Gutsevich. Mitrofanova and Khlobystin met Novikov at the recommendation of the poet Arkady Dragomoshchenko. This first encounter had to have taken place no later than 1986, the date of Khlobystin’s own portrait of Novikov. However, during 1985 and the early months of 1986, there were no art historians or critics in the New Artists circle, and so Novikov performed this function himself.
 Novye khudozhniki, p. 85. Novikov exaggerates: the only other member of Chronicle who joined him in the New Artists was Evgenij Kozlov, who had participated in the Chronicle show at Novikov’s ASSA Gallery in 1981.
 “Happy New Year! The Sixth [Fifth] Exhibition of the New Artists,” DNKh-86-30(12) (in Russian).
 “The New Artists,” DNKh-87-42 (in Russian).
 Timur, pp. 117–118.
 Novye khudozhniki, p. 99. In Sergei Bugaev’s biography (DNKh-86-44/4) we read that his solo exhibition took place at the ASSA Gallery in 1984.
 Kotelnikov’s biography (DNKh-87-35(8)1) also includes him among the participants in this exhibition, although he and Sotnikov were unable to confirmation this information. According to Sotnikov, the show was unfurled during the November (Revolution Day) holidays and consisted of a patchwork panel by Khazanovich and two “walls”—landscapes by Novikov and still lifes by Sotnikov.
 The catalogue also contains lists of the works that were exhibited. Evgenij Kozlov exhibited Ya-Ya, Animated Films, and Chic, Shock, Show (all dated 1985). Ivan Sotnikov presented In Winter (1985), Sailor (1982), Portrait of Khazanovich (1982), Frying Pan (1983), Portrait of Kovalsky (1983, with Kotelnikov), and Autumn: People Go Mushrooming (with Novikov); Oleg Kotelnikov’s nine listed works include the portrait of Kovalsky co-authored with Sotnikov; Twisters, produced jointly with Yufit; The Flight (Kotelnikov’s recycling of a student study), which is attributed to Kotelnikov and Andrei Medvedev; Portrait of Sasha (1984); This Is Great (1985); The Battle for Abkhazia (1985); Ye-Ye (1985); Afrika (1985); and The Two (Artist and Model) (1985). Krisanov presented Flying Saucers Are a Myth (1985) and a work jointly authored with Novikov, Stage Backdrop [for] the Group Kino (1985). Khazanovich showed three undated works: Rotten Kicks, Biology, and Timur. Bugaev exhibited Landscape No. 84; Anna Karenina (1985, fragment of a stage set); Honor the Memory of Those Who Died Excavating the Egyptian Tombs (1983); and AIDS (1985). After the exhibition, the works by Kotelnikov and Sotnikov seemed to have ended up in Novikov’s possession. In 1991, they were given to the State Russian Museum as part of the Novikov/Bugaev collection.
 Novye khudozhniki, p. 91.
 Novye khudozhniki, p. 99.
 Novye khudozhniki, p. 87.
 “The New Artists,” DNKh-87-42 (in Russian).
 Timur, p. 137.
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