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A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

S.Y. Kochelev paintings displayed at Ronald Feldman Gallery, 1992.

The Art of S. Y. Kochelev

The name of S. Y. Kochelev often comes up in discussions of Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall, with all of whom he had close friendships. But the difficulties posed by the provisions of his will, which place all his studio pictures in the collection of the Barnaul Museum of Art and Natural History–Barnaul, a mining town of half a million or so, is 110 miles south of Novosibirsk–have made exhibitions of his work infrequent in the West. There can be little question, however, that Kochelev was the real visionary of postrevolutionary Russia. There is no room here to dwell on how he laid the foundations of Suprematism; this essay is about Kochelev, not his followers. Nonetheless, the layman should recall Malevich’s statement that “although it was my idea to adduce white-on-white abstraction, . . . it was a principle I first located in the remarkable geometric plumage . . . of Kochelev’s chickens.”

The Kochelev retrospective mounted in September in New York included much of the artist’s best work from the period 1926 to 1934, though one was disappointed that the Barnaul would not loan the great “New Plough at the Farm.” And of course one cannot arrive at a true appreciation of Kochelev without study of the murals–“The Meeting of New Friends,” in the electric plant in Barnaul, and, most particularly, “Toward a New Frontier,” in the Pavilion of Exploration at VDNCh in Moscow. Still, it was a triumph to bring together in the West, for the first time, so many of the artist’s late masterworks, and Kochelev enthusiasts may rest assured that this exhibition will bring him the recognition that he has so far failed to receive.

Little of Kochelev’s early work has survived; many pictures were destroyed in the terrible fire at the Sredne Kolymsk Museum in 1941. The earliest work in the recent exhibition was the “Lunchtime” of 1926. This painting, from Kochelev’s middle (pre-Zagorsk) period, demonstrates his characteristic use of radiant but diffuse light to define complex outdoor spaces. There has been some debate as to whether these are the chickens that inspired Malevich; if so, the painting must have existed in an earlier version. Certainly the complex interplay among the monochrome white forms, punctuated by the red of combs and wattles, reveals Kochelev’s lifelong obsession with pattern and surface. “Windy Day” and “The Actors Have Arrived,” from the same period, share this picture’s Cezanne-like selfconsciousness in the manipulation of form.

Viewers previously unacquainted with Kochelev will respond most readily to the work created around 1930. These pictures exhibit the artist’s new understanding of the scale of his country’s transformations. “Stay Still!,” subtitled “Foreman A. Gracheva and her charges,” shows a beautiful farm woman with two cows. In a letter to his friend B. Y. Kabachuk, written in late May of 1930, Kochelev mentions spending several days painting near Yestov, where “the peaceful harmony of farm life and the simple humor of the farm laborers… have restored my very soul, and shown me what the future of our great nation’s art must be.” Kochelev’s notes, now housed in the Lenin Library in Moscow, suggest that “Stay Still!” was completed during this trip; and indeed the close observer finds a certain easiness in Kochelev’s brushwork here that presages the supernal clarity of his late masterpieces. The woman in the foreground is surely Kochelev’s Yestov hostess, “a woman whose fresh face and strong bones . . . call to my mind the shape of a new Soviet state.”

This brings us to the late work. The New York exhibition included “First Snow,” “The New Teacher,” and “Whose Shawl is Better?,” of 1932; “O. V. Zhiltsova and the Hog Zhenjka,” of 1933, perhaps Kochelev’s masterwork; and “The Lucky Number” and “The Apples Are Ripe!,” both 1934. In his last years Kochelev was extremely productive; these works seem to be stretching toward a new and greater vision. “I am so close,” he wrote in his notebook in 1932, “to finding a visual language of . . . love and . . . philosophy. The secret . . . is always light.” The shining faces of the laughing women with their colorful shawls are at once individual and universal, reflecting an integral part of Kochelev’s deeply spiritual vision, in which the collective was made up of but at the same time surpassed individual character. There now seems to be little doubt that the painting “O. V. Zhiltsova and the Hog Zhenjka” shows the previously unidentified woman about whom Kochelev wrote, “In her arms . . . I can feel that flushed inspiration of youth . . . without losing . . . the knowledge of my age, and when we are together in the fields, I am like a child in my happiness. To see her with the animals who love her . . . is to find again the depth of my own love.” This wise but youthful energy further illuminates “The Apples Are Ripe!”: the viewer is drawn into the shimmering promise of the heavy, Edenic orchard, which Kochelev would so soon leave behind.

Many Western critics have been critical of Kochelev’s work because they disavow the idealism of the Russian revolution. Kochelev was indeed among that original group of visionaries for whom communism meant the glorious equality of all men. The shimmering optimism of his art, which is only the more moving for the failure of the system to which it relates, is the real basis of its greatness. In the smiles on the faces of these happy workers, students, horticulturists, and farmers are written the beliefs that were, for Kochelev, a path to divine beauty.

The circumstances surrounding Kochelev’s untimely death in 1935 are as mysterious today as ever. I can only join with the Russian critic G. Y. Pajolstina in saying, “What Kochelev envisioned… would become a new way for art. If he had lived a bit longer… he might have been… more strong than his strongest followers; what he left us… was a vision that would change… the… work of a generation… and also a body of his own work… to speak the dreams of an era of dreams.”


Paintings, above right:

Ilya Kabakov, S. Kochelev, After a Workday. (At the Myakishevsky Dam), 1927, 1992.
Ilya Kabakov, S. Kochelev, The New Teacher, 1932, 1992.
Ilya Kabakov, S. Kochelev, Windy Day. (Long Lake near Barnaul), 1929, 1992.
Ilya Kabakov, S. Kochelev, The Apples are Ripe! (Before the harvest at the New Way Farm), 1934, 1992.
Ilya Kabakov, S. Kochelev, Stay Still! (Foreman A. Gracheva and her charges), 1930, 1992.
Ilya Kabakov, The Actors Have Arrived (Village Club in New Dawns), 1927, 1992.
Ilya Kabakov, S. Kochelev, First Snow. (At the Pioneer Sanatorium), 1932, 1992.
Ilya Kabakov, S. Kochelev, O.V. Zhitsova and the Hog Zhenjka, 1933, 1992.

All oil on canvas, 54-1/2 x 74″.