Mikhail Roginsky

14 August 1931, Moscow—7 July 2004, Paris

Mikhail Roginsky has long been known as the first Russian Pop artist; the nonconformist poet Genrikh Sapgir dubbed his works Pop Art back in 1964.  And in fact, Roginsky’s paintings, his canvases representing simple objects of daily life with energetic directness and openness—Primus stoves, tea kettles, pots, matchboxes—look amazingly like contemporary works by 1960s American artists, albeit the term Pop Art for an artist who lived in a social reality that was the opposite of the “consumer society” may seem paradoxical.  What relates Roginsky to Pop Art is not an interest in the democratic, anti-elite, and low aesthetic of mass culture, even though the Russian artist did create paintings inspired by matchbox labels and signs explaining safety rules at railroad stations. The key problem for the Russian nonconformist, as it was for his foreign contemporaries, was the very concept of reality. The 1950s-1960s were a time when art—be it the European “new realists” or the American neo-Dadaists and Pop artists—sought a new definition of realism, the opportunity to return to quotidian reality after decades of the triumph of abstract expressionism; at the same time, their Russian colleagues in contemporary art, on the contrary, were rejecting the doctrine of socialist realism. The nonconformists of Roginsky’s generation in one way or another exposed Soviet realism and reality as something essentially false, base, and uninteresting from an artistic point of view. They wanted to get away from it into the lofty worlds of metaphysical abstraction or the lyricism of the private, almost solipsistic inner world. Others, like Oskar Rabin, for example, turned to reality only to expose official realism and juxtapose to its sham formal appearance the truth of that reality as something miserable, repugnant, tormented and expressionistically grotesque, in the final analysis, unreal.

Mikhail Roginsky was the first and essentially the last great Russian artist of the twentieth century, who showed that the Soviet world had its own reality, hidden by the fake façade of Socialist Realism. Having spent several years as a theater designer in the provinces, Roginsky had first-hand knowledge of the sham. His famous “Door” and “Wall with Socket” (1965), considered the first objects in Russian postwar art, are fragments of a sort from theater sets. Except the artist chose completely unrealistic colors for them. The door and wall are painted crimson, associated with official Soviet symbols, the very ideological hassle from which the artist wants to break away and get to reality—the sobering materiality of a real door handle, a real electrical socket. The choice of these objects does not seem random—the socket allows you to “turn off” the red hassle and the handle turns the red plank into a door which after all can be opened in order to go into another space: the reality that exists beyond the ideology. The objects of Roginsky’s attention are the simplest, most basic elements of mundane reality, the things that lie below the level of any ideological, metaphysical, or symbolic speculation. His Primus stoves, kettles, pots, bottles, and houses that are not architecture but housing and people who are not citizens or comrades but simply human figures, all look recognizably “Soviet,” but also universal. There is no ethnography in his depiction of life, which appears, albeit in different ways, in the work of such chroniclers and researchers of the Soviet world as Rabin and Kabakov. Coming face to face with Soviet reality, Roginsky could examine it and show that at its deepest, essential and only true level, it did not differ from the universally human. Just as universal was Mikhail Roginsky’s aesthetic, for he did not try to make real contemporary art “like in the West.”

Nevertheless, his works from the 1960s look no less “actual” than those made in the same period by Jasper Johns. “Door” and “Wall with Socket” resonate with John’s “Fool’s House” (1962), a painting with a real broom attached. It is appropriate to compare Mikhail Roginsky not with the classic Pop artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, who consciously rejected an individual painting manner, but with Jasper Johns, who worked on the cusp of Pop Art and more traditional modernist painting, valuing the hand-made uniqueness of a painter’s brush stroke. While being the “first objects,” “Door” and “Wall” remain paintings, and if you mentally remove the socket, what’s left is not plywood painted by a house painter, but a powerful monochrome abstract work imbued with the energy of color. One of Roginsky’s most famous and paradoxical works, “Metlah Tile” (1965) is a painting that is simultaneously extremely abstract and absolutely realistic. The “Mondrian”-like squares are in fact depictions of a tile floor, executed in a restrained but clearly hand-made, painterly manner.  True reality for Roginsky, be it a matchbox label, railroad sign, door, pot, floor, or honor board, was what in the final analysis could be painted “in the first person,” in your own handwriting, and not quoted together with an alien, anonymous, or borrowed language, as Ilya Kabakov or Komar and Melamid would do, deconstructing and adding mystification to perceptions of Socialist Realism and Soviet reality.

Irina Kulik