Abstract Art

Abstract Art. A Second Birth

Abstract art, that world style of the twentieth century, has Moscow roots. It was born in the Russian capital at the very start of the 1910s in the work of Mikhail Larionov.  His experiments were called “rayonism [luchizm in Russian].” Depictions of the Kremlin and the bell tower of Ivan the Great are often interwoven into Wassily Kandinsky’s compositions tensely burning with vivid colors. It was in Moscow that Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism appeared with its round dance of colored geometric forms in milky space. Then came Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivism and Alexander Rodchenko’s proto-minimalism. The different versions of nonfigurative art turned into a mass art movement after the revolution. On the eve of the 1930s, they were declared to be “bourgeois formalism” and banned as a noxious foreign influence. Ever since then, the word “abstract” became the vilest curse word in art on the territory of Soviet Russia. But Russian abstract art continued to develop abroad. Thus, the majority of artists of the second, “new” Paris School—Nicolas de Staël, Serge Poliakoff, André Lanskoy, Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo—were of Russian origin.

For the young Moscow artists of the 1950s, who had rebelled against “Socialist Realism” almost immediately after Stalin’s funeral, this fact was enormously significant. It demonstrated that national art was not doomed to be in opposition to the West, as the Soviet ideologues insisted, but under the right conditions could be part of world art. This was a unique prompt on how to behave in order to catch up with the long-gone train of artistic progress.

Therefore, as soon as the first works of postwar abstract art reached the Soviet shores, they instantly became models to emulate. This happened at the Sixth Festival of Youth and Students, which took place in Moscow in the summer of 1957. Vladimir Nemukhin visited the exhibit of European artists at the Festival with his wife, the artist Lydia Masterkova, and described his impressions this way: “When I saw all that, for instance, I just went dumb, I couldn’t speak. I saw the show with Masterkova and we went back together to the village, a hundred kilometer trip, the train was slow moving, and we sat in silence and didn’t talk about anything. We were so immersed in what we had seen. It was incredible. Lydia was first, after we got back, on the second or third day, to paint an abstract in gouache. I sensed how everything had changed in her—her eyes, her face, she had become a different person. It was a special sensation, to feel yourself in an abstract canvas, inside the visual space. Yesterday I had been painting landscapes—understand? And today, suddenly—enough!”

Looking at Nemukhin’s paintings today, with a distance of fifty years, it is not easy to feel their radicalism for the times. The abstracts he began painting then belong primarily to the “lyrical” genre. You can easily read the landscape foundation, which is present, by the way, in the works of his idols of the Paris School. The construction of the paintings follows the rules of the landscape genre—horizon, solid ground in the lower part and lightened sky above, backstage, a road disappearing in the distance and leading our eyes after it. Nemukhin paints states of nature, metonymically replacing objects with their recognizable qualities. We see the characteristic sparkle of sunshine on water, its agitation, the flicker of sun “bunnies” on grass and tree trunks, the lacy structures of shrubbery, and feel the prickliness of branches and twigs. At the same time, these abstract landscapes lack contemplative distance. This is rather the vision of a person acting in the landscape, breaking through the brush, crawling in the grass, chopping trees in the heat of the sun. Nemukhin’s paintings are charged with vital energy which must have been felt particularly acutely by viewers accustomed to the shy lyricism of the realists. But the revolutionary aspect of these works is elsewhere.  Before these paintings, Nemukhin, like all his comrades, was a modest, unnoticed “singer of Russian nature.” By the 1930s he had exiled himself voluntarily to the village and came to Moscow infrequently, to exhibit his landscape observations in shows that almost no one attended.

By creating these rather lyrical abstracts, Nemukhin joined the ranks of the cultural heroes of the Thaw. He came an oracle of change.  His renewed art, which masses of young people demanded to see, was a vivid sign of the time of reforms. But his contemporaries perceived it as a harbinger, the start of radical change in the life of the country. That is why it was hailed with such fervor. The essence of the change was the removal of the USSR-West alternative and the normalization of Russian life following the European model. Hence the amazing paradox of Nemukhin’s abstract art. It was radical in post-Stalinist Moscow because of its resemblance to Western European art. Similar works were being made in countries that had a system of museums, galleries, and most importantly, a market of collectors. At that moment in Moscow, not only were there no galleries, there wasn’t a single collector of such works. Nevertheless, Nemukhin dared to make large-format paintings for museum walls. They could not fit physically into his small, foxhole-like, studio. He was clearly assuming that time, which he had substantially surpassed by imitating the Russian Parisians, would catch up and reward him for his innovations. In general, his calculation was justified, but it was off by 40 years.

Masterkova’s painting broke through another kind of opposition built by Stalinist culture: the rejection of the early twentieth-century art. Her paintings of the early 1960s reveal the artist’s passion for the ecstatic lacquer red and emerald glow of Kandinsky and Franz Marc of Der Blaue Reiter period. The still life or landscape motif, which can barely be seen in her works, is more of an excuse for festive painting.  Masterkova also throws a bridge across the Stalinist years toward Natalya Goncharova, whose creative path and even fate she repeated in many ways. Her art is just as joyous in a major key, just as decorative, a bit folkloric, and moderately religious as the works of Goncharova. This kind of art is not done for just oneself or a small circle of friends. It is intended to decorate interiors, to be in “synthesis” with design and architecture that is analogous in character.

The burning desire to get out of the seclusion of the studio and out into the world, city squares and the outdoors, imbues the work of the Movement (Dvizhenie) kinetic group, which formed in Moscow in 1963-1964, and particularly of its best-known participant, the artist designer Francisco Infante. The group declared itself to be the Russian section of international kinetic art.  Its participants, most of whom were still under twenty, corresponded with Nicolas Schöffer, the French-Rumanian leader of the movement, so that they could leap from their school desks with barely enough time to discard the lessons of their academic professors and jump into the ocean of avant-garde experiments of those years. They replaced the free manner of painters with the strict design approach of geometricians, draftsmen, and engineers in order to make maquettes and design proposals for new forms of urban sculpture, which they wanted to turn into mobile installations for color and sound performances. Within the general kinetic movement, they made a few successful works, particularly Infante’s marvelous matryoshka object, with three identically shaped geometric figures, inserted inside one another, and each revolving in one of the vectors of the coordinate system.

Some of the artifacts of the Movement Group were taken abroad and were part of a traveling exhibition right up to the mid-1970s. But in Russia things did not get beyond the maquette stage for the most part. Unlike their European colleagues who made their kinetic objects in factories, on commission, and with subsidies from city authorities, Movement artists had to do everything themselves in a basement, on the fly, with whatever was at hand. Then they had to struggle with officials on every level to at least be able to show the maquettes to an audience as models of new exhibition design. Francisco Infante alone of their entire group managed to learn a lesson from this endless resistance of the social context.  He abandoned forever any thoughts of public art and like a hermit monk concentrated his subsequent creativity on the problem of the interaction of the technological and geometric object with the natural environment. His mirror objects are not sculptures of polished steel, as it may seem at first. There are ephemeral constructions of fragile sticks and foil which the sculptor hangs on threads in space, which will catch the appropriate light and state of nature to create an “artifact,” a photograph documenting the aesthetic and sometimes mystical effects of the merging of object and environment. For Infante the work is not the photograph but the event of interaction that is born as a result of the author’s complex performance manipulations.

The performance basis of Russian abstract art of those years was manifest in the work of the most varied artists. For instance, in the Chaliapin mansion, where apartment exhibitions were held, the crowd watched delightedly as Mikhail Kulakov, a slender youth in tights, as graceful as Baryshnikov, threw cans of paint at a gigantic canvas, demonstrating action painting.  In the studio of Vladimir Slepyan, his young colleagues stretched a two-sided canvas or, more often, a paper tablecloth, and then had a pretend battle with rapier brushes, to the music of Webern, Mahler, or the young Moscow composer Volkonsky, each side of the field taking turns to attack with paints. Colored dots, stars, like pulsars, comets, or constellations exploded and tracked the trajectories of hurtling heavenly bodies. Although the inventor of the “signal system,” Yuri Zlotnikov, left this overly naturalist interpretation of the abstract piece of paper as a picture of cosmos, he retained the originating parameters of his image.

The main element in Zlotnikov’s paintings is the empty surface.  The space covered with drawing is incomparably smaller than the emptiness. Moreover, the circle of the “signal” is never placed in the center of the page, where the diagonals intersect, the usual spot for the main protagonist of the depiction. Unlike Malevich and other geometrical artists of the first half of the century, Zlotnikov gives the center of his painting to Nothing. The space between bodies, the pause between exclamations. Zlotnikov’s paintings resemble portholes through which we see with peripheral vision various configurations of bodies. Entering into a weak force field of interaction, they swim in an enormous ocean of emptiness, surfacing here and there. It is as if the artist is inviting us to participate in mystical Zen contemplation. Or to contemplate the starting purity of the surface, which the author values more highly than his own statements on it. Unexpectedly early, Zlotnikov’s “system” pushed the author to the very leading edge of the avant-garde of those years. The leading artists of Europe were working with the monochromatic dichotomy of emptiness-fullness of the canvas and with objectifying abstract structure and liquidating sensual gestures. But no one learned about Yuri Zlotnikov then, and so the artist remained a solitary and unknown curiosity of Russian art history for many years. Of course, the theme of emptiness, begun by the artist, turned into one of the major visual subjects of Russian art. Traveling through the generation until it reached the Moscow Conceptualists, it came to be understood not as a pause between meanings, but on the contrary, the concentration of unrevealed meanings, a field of possibility glorious in its purity.

At the turn of the 1950s-1960s, interest in abstract art turned into a cultural epidemic. Almost all the young artists went through it. Their careers developed in different ways, many took up the new official style, and almost no one remained true to abstract art. But if you dig around in their studios, you will almost surely find a “youthful sin,” a sweet canvas with naive and inspired lines and amoeba-like forms à la Jean Arp, which were in particular favor then. You’ll see that little canvas in an old photograph, where the now decrepit master is a handsome young man with a haircut like Jean-Louis Trintignant’s or wearing a beret like Fidel Castro’s.

Abstract art is the extrovert democratic art of a public expression of feeling, constructing or ornamenting the environment. When totalitarian regimes in the middles of the twentieth century badgered abstract art into the underground, it quickly withered and died. It’s not surprising that something similar was repeated in Russia after the brief and bright flash of the Thaw period. The abstract directions in new contemporary Russian art faded. They did not—as they had in other national schools of Western culture—turn into a referential base for the development of the following directions of minimalism and Pop Art, they did not become part of the generally accepted visual language, understood even by children. Abstract art in later Russian culture sounds (with notes of either irony or tragedy) as the history of a grandiose fiasco of well-meaning utopian artists who had planned a beautiful future but fell under the bulldozer of ideology.

Andrei Erofeev