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Young, Hip and Well Heeled

by Harlow Robinson

Late in 1982, on the eve of Leonid I. Brezhnev’s death, a Moscow acquaintance invited some friends to her tiny room in a crowded communal apartment to view her quasi-legal collection of “unofficial” art. We sat in a conspiratorial circle sipping tea, expecting the K.G.B. to raid the premises at any moment. Canvases stood stacked against the walls. Speaking in a hushed tone, our hostess displayed her favorites, many of them subversive glosses on the hyper simplistic iconology of Soviet Socialist Realism. Shunned by the cultural establishment and frequently harassed by the police, the artists were unable to travel or sell their works abroad, she explained.

Nearly nine years later, in April 1991, as perestroika stumbled through its sixth year, two young curators invited me to a different sort of exhibition, one that was hung in five spacious rooms on the top floor of Leningrad’s Marble Palace. Catherine the Great built this polished classical monument as a gift for a lover, but today it serves as one of the grandest of the country’s many Lenin Museums. Here prim attendants stand guard over meticulous exhibits documenting every exciting phase in Lenin’s saintly life. The curators had chosen this most official of buildings as the setting of their flamboyant two-day show — a celebration of the classical ideal of the male physique — for fun, knowing that it would provide the perfectly ironic atmosphere.

All the pieces by the five young artists dealt with male physicality and sexuality. Some were frankly homoerotic. A male performance artist, video crew in tow, swirled through the rooms gleefully impersonating Marilyn Monroe and ridiculing Soviet television cliches. No less campy, the last page of the photocopied catalogue showed a ballerina in a tutu perched atop Lenin’s armored car. The opening-night crowd might have come from SoHo: young, hip and outfitted in multicolored hair, earrings and attitude. The artists, who had already traveled and sold work abroad, glowed with smug sophistication. Even five years ago, such an event would have been unthinkable. Glasnost really has brought change.

Nowhere, perhaps, has the cultural revolution exploded more vividly or forcefully than in the realm of the visual arts. As Andrew Solomon documents in The Irony Tower, a timely, perceptive and highly entertaining combination of art criticism, social analysis and personal revelation, times have not merely changed for long-suffering Soviet painters and sculptors since Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in early 1985; they have accelerated beyond all comprehension.

The familiar, and oddly comfortable, world of oppression, isolation and dangerous dissidence that had determined every aspect of the artist’s existence for the last 50 years has been dismantled, shattered into tiny pieces. One of Mr. Solomon’s main achievements is to make us realize that no one really knows just how — or whether — the pieces will be put back together.

Western (especially American) observers have tended to assume that the recent infusion of freedom and capitalism into the Soviet cultural scene is an absolute good for both artists and audiences. To Mr. Solomon’s credit, he realizes that glasnost also presents Soviet artists (and writers, musicians, dancers, theater and film people) with complexities and dangers. They have, of course, gained many things: the right to greater personal choice, artistic self-expression, travel and economic independence. But they have also lost a certain emotional and cultural security. Having suddenly become producers of commodities with fluctuating and temporarily inflated value on the Western market, courted by dealers and flattered by buyers, “unofficial” artists have sacrificed something essential: their traditional role in Russian society as martyrs and holy fools, indifferent to money and conventional success. All this has led to the intense identity crisis that is the subject of The Irony Tower.

“The problem with our art history is that we have been preparing ourselves to be not great artists, but angels,” Nikita Alekseyev, a one-time member of the “Seminar” — a group of artists who met regularly for readings and discussion — who left the Soviet Union in 1987 and now lives in Paris, told Mr. Solomon. “We have been outside the ordinary idiom of art. And unfortunately, things have changed so that everyone has become an artist. . . . It was religious history, and now it’s art history. And that’s why there is all this confusion.”

The confusion became news at the Sotheby’s sale of contemporary and avant-garde Soviet art held in Moscow in July 1988. Mr. Solomon, a London-based American freelance journalist, covered the auction for a British magazine, and he takes it as his starting point here. Most of the Westerners who attended the heavily hyped sale knew very little about Soviet art — or the Soviet Union for that matter — but were whipped into a feeding frenzy by the historic excitement of the moment. As the bewildered artists watched in amazement, souvenir-hungry buyers snapped up paintings that had languished for years in unofficial obscurity, paying hard-currency prices (to the artists) of fairy-tale proportions. The sale brought in $:2,085,050, twice the initial estimate. Only the works of the “official” Artists’ Union painters (most notably, Ilya Glazunov) failed to sell.

The artists left the blandly modern Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel “feeling that their whole world had caved in, and they could not imagine what would arise to replace it,” according to Mr. Solomon. Formerly members of a relatively cohesive and staunchly noncommercial group, many of them persecuted for their dissident convictions, they had now been split into two camps: those who sold well and those who didn’t.

Occasional lapses into condescension and pompous critical jargon notwithstanding, Mr. Solomon knows how to tell a good story. He describes the Sotheby’s sale and its aftermath with wit and psychological insight. Subsequent chapters on the history of the Soviet avant-garde, and accounts of some of the artists’ misadventures abroad — including a hilariously trendy exhibition and concert in Liverpool that exemplified the inability of Western promoters to fathom the artists’ ironic humor — are discerning and well researched. Excerpts from interviews (with, among others, such artists as Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Andrei Monastyrsky, Ira Nakhova, Sven Gundlakh, Kostya Zvezdochetov, Sergei Anufriyev and Timur Novikov) illuminate major stylistic trends and preoccupations; the influence of early Soviet avant-garde artists like Malevich; attitudes toward the Western art world; and the striking differences between the Leningrad and Moscow scenes. (Mr. Solomon clearly prefers the Moscow artists’ more philosophical world view, and rather too easily dismisses their Leningrad colleagues as lightweight, self-indulgent products of a beautiful, decadent city where “it is very, very important to be cool.”)

In both cities, he rightly points out, the booming rock scene and the artistic avant-garde have grown up together. Several prominent artists — Georgi Guryanov in Leningrad and Sven Gundlakh in Moscow, for example — have performed in popular rock groups, where they have experimented with visual concepts. Unfortunately, the author makes little attempt to examine the avant-garde scene outside European Russia.

Wisely, Mr. Solomon has also included harrowing accounts of life before glasnost, when the K.G.B. made life miserable for many of the artists he has come to know. Kostya Zvezdochetov, a member of an artists’ group called the Mukhomors (lethal mushrooms), barely survived a brutal army stint with a battalion of criminals in Kamchatka. Forced to dig through icy sewage around the foundations of a military building throughout the Siberian winter, he was questioned incessantly about his “subversive” activities and pressured to sign a confession that the Mukhomors were traitors and enemies of the motherland. He refused. No wonder, then, that Mr. Zvezdochetov and his colleagues find it difficult to accept their sudden new status as media darlings, or to enjoy exploitation as income sources for Western dealers and the Soviet Government. No wonder that they sometimes tire of playing “the game of Russian exotic” on visits abroad, seeming rude and ungrateful at chic openings in Manhattan and Berlin. And no wonder, as Mr. Solomon concludes, that the ultimate message of their work is “beware, and remember.”

What makes The Irony Tower special is not just its wealth of new and fascinating material, or even the lively intelligence of the analysis. It is Mr. Solomon’s deep compassion for these artists — his passionate involvement in their lives — that grabs and holds the reader. He has not merely observed the events and changes he describes. He has participated in them, eating and sleeping with the artists in Soviet squalor and capitalist splendor, joining in their ironic jokes and endless gossip, sharing their bad brandy and vodka.

While such intimacy can rob a writer of essential distance and objectivity, Mr. Solomon seems to have risen above the intensity of his experience without losing its immediacy or color. Even more, in following the artists’ journey from dissident obscurity to uneasy Western fame, he has made his own parallel odyssey: from the idea of art as salable commodity to an appreciation of its enviable spiritual power in Soviet life. In discovering these “angels” and their disrupted heaven, he has also discovered himself.