The New Artists.
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The teachers of the New Artists, Koshelokhov and Rossin (it matters little whether their instruction was direct or “remote”), also subscribed to this notion of art making as the realization of explosive bodily energy. (Koshelokhov has been known to say that painting a picture is practically the same thing as bumping your head against a sharp object: the main thing is that your head ends up bloodied.)
This question—about the differences between the Moscow and Leningrad schools—was also of course asked by the first interpreters of the New Artists, in particular, Andrei Khlobystin and Alla Mitrofanova. In a 1989 article about the Mayakovsky Friends Club, they argue that
The brutal, the formal, the random, and the profoundly personal are not taboo. In this sense, the work of the club’s members might be traced to the Russian tradition of “futurists of life,” “nothingists” [nichevoki], and the OBERIU, which in many ways paralleled western Dadaism. For us, Dadaism is not mockery of life, but, on the contrary, acceptance and affirmation of all its forms and aspects. The use of the clichés of Soviet symbolism is not so much an appeal to the conceptual criticism of Sots Art, as it is an aesthetic mirroring of everyday life’s ornamental aspect. It can be traced to Vadim Ovchinnikov’s “Chukchi principle”—“I sing what I see.” That is, in certain cases we may speak of “pseudo-Sots Art.” In Leningrad, people have come to realize that the totalitarian problematic is a landscape, a gigantic baroque stage set in which a play is being performed. You can keep your distance from it, but you cannot do away with it. Life does not solve its own problems. It just withdraws them and replaces them with new ones.
It is also the antithesis, however, of the unmasking of shabbiness and inauthenticity that characterized the anti-modernism of the Moscow school. The New Artists—for example, Vadim Ovchinnikov, who created his own myth of Chukotka—established the equal worth of all points on the cultural landscape as its moral compass. Thus, unlike the Moscow school, which dedicated its work to critiquing truths and exposing untruths, the New Artists used their art to promote trustfulness and the kind of truth that discovers itself only in borderline situations, in moments when life and death visibly converge and reveal themselves in full. In the article “The Charms of Gibberish: The New Artists in Leningrad and Moscow Post-Structuralist Conceptualism” (1988), Mitrofanova and Khlobystin offer the following assessment of the relative chances of the Moscow and Leningrad positions:
An inversion of various ideological levels is under way, and the desire for hard structure and strict meanings has begun to be associated with the concretely historical totalitarian ideology. At the same time, this “flip side of the birth trauma” cannot alter man’s natural desire to move from multiplicity to definition; it cannot change the essence of art, which is to impart form to formlessness. In artistic practice, a battle is being waged against the philosophy of essences, which strive towards themselves, towards their own triumphal identity. As they struggle to grasp any essence whatsoever, artists have taken to tormenting themselves; in this way, they come to resemble airplanes that, instead of landing, bomb the runway. […] In Leningrad […] we see a greater trust in the material aspect of the world. In connection with the New Artists, this is outwardly manifested in tendencies that have been called neo-Dadaist or neo-pop art. We might surmise that here we see the effects of a more secure and conservative tradition that we could trace to the Ginkhuk [State Institute of Artistic Culture]. At the same time, what we see accentuated is not a positivistic attitude to the thing, but an emotional attitude, which is recorded at the moment of the thing’s destruction or the loss of its basic functions and context—that is, during a borderline situation that is almost death. In this case, truth, however foggy, is also recognized as something that exists outside the artist.
Continuing this argument, we might conclude that the New Artists chose as their own the transitional historical period in which they lived, and they saw it for what it was as it completed its work in Leningrad and other Russian cities during the era of Gorbachev’s reforms. The artists of the Moscow school, on the contrary, viewed this period and this same geographical space from a distance, like foreign observers, or, as they said themselves, like “Livingstones in Africa.” Whereas Ilya Kabakov has quite fairly compared the Soviet world to a fire-breathing, flaming trash heap, New Artist teacher Boris Koshelokhov headed straight to a gigantic city trash dump, in 2007, in order to show a group of filmmakers who were shooting a documentary about him that this was just the place for finding coloristic inspiration for a painting—in the form of a plastic bag that had already been “abstracted” for the art of painting by life itself.
Insofar as it manifests itself in the desire to find the energy of beauty even in life at its shabbiest, “folk conceptualism” is the basis of an ethical understanding of aesthetics. The New Artists saw in pan-culturalism (a word that Novikov sometimes used himself)—that is, in manifestations of the aesthetic instinct on all levels of existence, including the humblest—a guarantee of the very possibility of life. In their case (that is, of young people, not all of whom, like Novikov, had the opportunity to attend art history classes at museums in early childhood), the aesthetic instinct guides the spontaneous self-organization of culture’s vital forces. Novikov made a similar assessment of Gorbachev’s perestroika: he saw it as the spontaneous self-organization of society’s vital forces. He argued that perestroika happened not thanks to the actions of Gorbachev himself, but in spite of them, because its beginning was the Chernobyl disaster, which the Soviet government was unable to cover up. In essence, Soviet society in the mid-eighties stepped back from the brink of an even greater disaster thanks not to a political program, but to its embrace of anarchy.
The work of the New Artists can be seen as a successful experiment in anarchic sociocultural therapy. It was precisely in this context that it made sense for them and their apologists to speak of a movement of “new wilds” in the west.
There was in fact a common basis for this comparison. In Leningrad, Berlin, New York, and Italy, the spirit of anarchy suffused the postmodernist art of neo-expressionism, the Neue Wilde, the new wave, and the Transavanguardia, and this enabled them to alter the state of contemporary culture. This art did not advance a unified aesthetic doctrine in opposition to the art of the sixties and seventies. The paradox was that it merely rehabilitated the practice of the fine arts, of subject-based painting, which had long been pushed to the margins of the cultural mainstream. Postmodernism did not revoke the further existence and activeness of two tendencies in modernist art that had alternately joined forces or battled it out over the decades: the formal tendency, exemplified by the world-structuring, technogenic culture of engineers and other managers, and the socially critical tendency, as exemplified by the political agitators. In the eighties, a new art began to sprout up more and more intensely over this new twentieth-century civilization and through its crevices, as in a tropical forest. This art rebroadcast multifarious stories, fantasies, and new myths composed from the mosaic-like fragments of all the narratives that had ever been told on the various continents. Caught in the vise-grip of rationalism, society found compensation in the space of imagination.
Like their brothers and sisters in the west, the New Artists were pioneers of this process. After their heyday, a culture industry arose to satisfy mass demand for fantasy literature, cinema, and computer animation, which became the main products of art in the nineties and the decade that is now ending. Kotelnikov’s dark comic strips on canvas (Schism, School Years), Ovchinnikov’s symbolic riddle pictures (What Is Killing Us?), Gutsevich’s epic Wizard, Krisanov’s Toadstool, Novikov’s and Sotnikov’s versions of the Aurora, and Kozin and Maslov’s Head can easily be imagined in the form of posters, covers, screensavers, and other visual decor for the products of the digitalized fantasy style that has dominated the thirty-year reign of postmodernism. The stories of Inal Savchenkov’s characters (Mozart and I Guard My Dream Myself) might serve as the plots of computer games and animated films.
What is curious is that in all the cities (and countries) where this variation on postmodernist painting emerged, there was a problem with history. For various sociopolitical reasons, history was either fully or partly forbidden and inaccessible to society; entire historical periods were taboo. Such preeminent new wave painters as Basquiat, Clemente, and Baselitz returned this history to the public, not in documentary form, however, but packaged in a cocoon of personal fantasy and mythology that was sustained by the heterogeneous informational flows generated both by cinema and television.
The therapeutic effect of early postmodernist painting lies in the fact that it really does rescue culture from the fatal iconoclasm of twentieth-century art’s mainstreams (abstractionism, minimalism, conceptualism) by returning to the world its artistic image and its essential natural integrity. It is this absolute integrity of vision that amazes us in the visual idiom of the New Artists, rendering it simultaneously universal and elitist. While their individual techniques differ, in their best works the results are similar in that they evoke a planetary unity of images. We see this whether we look at Novikov’s paintings and Horizons, or at Kotelnikov’s The Two (Artist and Model). In this picture, we see a certain artist—the first artist on Earth, naked and suntanned, as in Rubens’s painting, and wearing dark glasses, of course—relaxing alongside his light-skinned model and the masterpiece he has just finished. He holds what is either a brush or a hand-rolled cigarette. We immediately understand that his painting is the principal work of world painting, and within this life-as-painting he is like Adam. We know all this without asking because the figures have been quickly sketched on fiberboard with the barest palette of basic, unmixed colors (white, black, red, blue, yellow, and green). The figures hover lightly and divinely on a paraplane of bluish crimson, the color of icons, a color they inhabit as their birthright. They thus demonstrate the most essential thing about the art of painting from the Renaissance to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: when we look at such paintings we get the chance (a chance already used by the artist himself, who experienced the emergence of his image with every fiber of his body and brain) to inhabit another state of consciousness, to step into another (powerful and absolute) space and time.
Or we gaze at Vadim Ovchinnikov’s strange composition Symbols—a musical score of the signals emitted by the universe. They descend from the sun’s golden rays into the ocean’s ultramarine night. They penetrate into the blue-green living world of plants and the ocher, sandy swelter of the deserts. They set alight the crimson, pyramidal campfires of human history (now blazing up, now dying down), before finally submerging into the colored darkness of nonbeing, a realm that lies alongside the realm of being.
Or we examine Sotnikov’s To the South. As we have already seen, it is just one second’s worth of a TV news report transferred to a painting. This second, however, has impressed itself on the minds of millions of people with the same force that miracles and other unusual events had lodged themselves in the memory during earlier ages. And so Sotnikov has depicted it with a palette of beautifully radiant blues and whites. He has saturated it with a multitude of details that are essential for a chronicle: helicopters whirling round the sky, cars racing around on the ground, fir trees and all manner of beasts. Without them, the cosmos is not a cosmos, but chaos. Finally, Sotnikov has outfitted his painting with the golden symbols of the eternally happy trail, the perennial way of goodness.
Or we scrutinize Inal Savchenkov’s Flight Control Center, a strange and humorous composition. Here we feel as if we are seated in an alien movie theater where they are showing a thriller about the voyage of a spaceship that is about to be swallowed by a monstrous unknown galaxy, which Savchenkov has energetically encircled in a field of dark blue. All the details of this spectacle are as flagrantly schematic as cheap plastic toys, but Savchenkov’s compositional talents and imagination are such that the four red silhouettes in the dark-green spacecraft (observed by rows of yellow silhouettes seated in bluish black chairs) are rocketed away from the cosmic predator, carrying us along with them into an endless saga of star wars.
In the Soviet Union, rationalism exerted its pressure alongside a normative thematics that rendered as unfit for circulation entire worlds and layers of culture that usually are natural parts of human life. This form of coercion operated for much longer than it did in Italy or Germany. When the New Artists took up the practice of art, the avant-garde artists were regarded as distant classics of the twentieth century, and the 1979 exhibition Moscow–Paris did much to canonize this perception within Russia itself. The New Artists were not only motivated to violate ideological taboos; they were also interested in specific artistic traditions. Hence the numerous references in Novikov’s texts to the fact the New Artists were traditionalists, not iconoclasts. We should take his words seriously, especially because in his late essays Novikov always stressed that Petersburg’s avant-garde artists were builders of systems, not anti-systems. The art of Novikov himself, many pictures by Kotelnikov and Sotnikov (despite their natural-born Dadaism), and Ovchinnikov’s visionary dissonance-based painting are not inimical to harmony, but quite obviously belong to it.
This is something that distinguishes all the major artists of the Leningrad avant-garde. Even the expressionists among them—Filonov, Arefiev, and the abstract painter Yevgeny Mikhnov-Voitenko—were classical in the same way that (as we understand with time) certain works of the destructive avant-garde are classical—at very least, such surrealist works as Picasso’s Guernica.
This program is still in effect today as well. Anyone who spends time with the New Artists (no matter what they are up to these days) can feel its power. The New Artists have their own aura, an aura that has survived since the eighties, when together they experienced daily miracles or (as Novikov put it) “the continual self-emergence of art.” The paintings, drawings, watercolors, films, letters, and sayings of the New Artists are the batteries where this amazing creative energy has been stored. An avant-garde in their own right, they function autonomously—that is, they have no expiration date.
Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas Campbell
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