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Mission to Moscow

An account of Sotheby’s 1988 sale of contemporary Soviet art, adapted from The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost, by Andrew Solomon.

On the night of July 7, 1988, at the ostensibly luxurious Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel in Moscow, Sotheby’s staged an auction of Soviet contemporary art that rivaled the Andy Warhol auction in New York for its infamous business smarts and unbridled hype. It was in fact so heralded an event that in the years that followed, critics, curators, collectors, and artists variously credited the auction house with discovering a movement, inventing a movement, and destroying a movement. To some extent, all of them were right. Sotheby’s had indeed discovered a brilliant group of artists but had at the same time misleadingly presented them as a movement (simply by putting them all together in one catalog); and the mercantilism it brought to a hitherto noncommercial world, though it opened up grand prospects, might have had damaging effects on the very thing it was trying to promote — the work itself.

Sotheby’s is, after all, a public company, so it had reasons other than an interest in the artists’ futures for staging the sale: it was an opportunity to establish good relations with the Soviet government at the dawn of perestroika, with the possibility of monopoly contracts and other boons down the line. It now seems clear that contemporary art and artists were initially seen as a convenience — a means to an end, perhaps — and Sotheby’s plied that fact on a scaled that may have alienated many important critics and collectors. The hype paid off: while the sale included some real dross, there was a beautiful supply of spectacularly good art, and it sold like T-bone steaks in a state-run shop. The trouble was that no one knew enough about contemporary Soviet art at that point to tell which was which. It was merely serendipity that some of the works merited the publicity.

Soviet art had actually been discovered incrementally during the decade preceding the Sotheby’s sale, when a few Soviet artists started to get exposure in the capitals of Western Europe and in New York, but the big players in the art game didn’t pay much attention. There were three lesser players, however, who had been operating behind the scenes for quite some time, slowly building up interest to the level that had been reached at the sale. The first was a European executive, whom for legal reasons we shall call Fritz Horne. The second was a wealthy Swiss diplomat, Paul Jolles, who, with his daughter Claudia, wanted the glory of discovery, although they gave authority and dignity to the search. The third was a Berlin artist, Lisa Schmitz, who brought passion and high idealism to the communication between the Moscow vanguard and the West. After they had laid the groundwork, Sotheby’s followed, bringing in fame, glamour, and worldwide attention, legitimizing a once sub-rosa artistic community. The artists themselves at first remained aloof, but on the night of the Sotheby’s sale in Moscow they abruptly entered into an ambivalent relationship with celebrity and fortune that was to undermine their whole system of values.

Many of the artists utter the name of Fritz Horne like that of an evil spirit. Horne went to the USSR in the early eighties and there met various artists whose work he promised to sell in the West. He swaggered up to their small, rat-infested studios, announcing that he would place their work in the major museums of the world — the Whitney, the Met, MoMA, the Pompidou — and then fled with the goods without ensuring proper payment. He may well have hoped that he could bring it off, and he certainly must be credited with recognizing some good artists. The work he sought out was the best — including that of Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and the Furmanny artists, a group of seven conceptualists who were leaders of the avant-garde — much of it better than what Sotheby’s would offer with so much pomp and circumstance a few years later. But Horne didn’t have the connections or the cash needed to realize his plans.

“He was so charming,” a woman who worked for him says. “He said he would place the work in the best collections, that he would pay the artists in hard currency. Then he took the paintings and they disappeared. No one got any money.” Of course, at that point the export of “unofficial” work was illegal — only someone who had the savvy to bribe border guards, pay off officials, compliment where compliments were needed, and leave discreetly when it was discreet to leave could get work shipped out of the Soviet Union. Horne managed to negotiate export and between 1985 and 1987 regularly took paintings to the West, where they all but “vanished,” a few having been sold to private collectors. No one entirely honest could have done it. “It was so stupid of us not to see that he couldn’t be a decent man,” one Moscow artist says.

Horne’s betrayal was an especially unfortunate introduction to the Western art world for artists such as Sergey Volkov, Kostya Zvezdochetov, and Sven Gundlakh — whose work was all about trust and secrets and coded forms of communication. Designed to be meaningless, even boring, to the eyes of the KGB, this work was constructed in terms so secretive that, paradoxically, it remained incomprehensible to the West long after it became famous.

Through decades of oppression, during which avant-garde art could not be exhibited in public, artists hung their work on their walls and invited their friends and acquaintances and the friends of friends to come and look at it. They were, in their own words, “like the early Christians, or like Freemasons.” They could recognize one another almost at a glance, believing that they knew a higher truth than was vouchsafed to the rest of the Soviet people. From their circumstances of difficulty they learned the integrity that is the true subject of their work. Their world of mutuality was shot through with intense ironies and petty conflicts, of course, but it still gave urgency and secret meaning to existence in a country where for many all gesture seemed futile.

Since the fifty or sixty people who made up the avant-garde were at the same time the creators of Soviet art and its audience, the artists’ strong personalities were a key to what they created. They are not only painters of sculptors but also (because their work is grounded in riddles) poets and actors. This curious amalgam makes them irresistible, implacable, and, ultimately, impenetrable. In the power of their expression and their belief in what they have to say lies their genius. Bit by bit, since the West discovered them, they have learned to communicate in more public terms, but it has been a slow and painful process. Some have thrived on publicity, but others have shriveled in the face of it, and a new order has begun to emerge. The Sotheby’s sale was the first night of that new order.

Horne hit the Soviet artists where they were most susceptible; his presence in Moscow was a further step in the system of oppression they had always known. On the other hand, Paul Jolles and his daughter Claudia, both of whom became seriously involved with Soviet art in the mid-eighties, at the height of the Horne depredations, are decent, honorable, and very serious. Paul Jolles, the Swiss minister for foreign economic affairs and chairman of Nestlé, has been a connoisseur of and advocate for underrepresented art; Claudia, his thirty-something daughter, a serious scholar of art, was deeply committed to the work her father had begun.

Their involvement with Soviet art began in the mid-seventies when they went to see an exhibition in Zurich of a handful of drawings by Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulator, Vladimir Yankilevskiy, and a few other artists of the older generation of the Moscow vanguard. Though it went largely unnoticed by others, it fascinated Jolles, who while on a trip to Moscow asked the Swiss embassy staff to locate the artists he had seen in the Zurich show. In Kabakov’s studio, he says, he was “warmly received. Kabakov immediately took me to meet the other artists. They were not remotely competitive; they all wanted to introduce me to one another, and I bought some small works, drawings mostly, from the people I met.” Though Jolles was impressed with the artists, he bought their work almost as souvenirs. The following week Kabakov was called in by the KGB for entertaining a stranger. “I didn’t invite him, and I didn’t solicit his visit,” Kabakov told the KGB officials at the time. “What should I have done when I saw him standing at my door? Refused him a cup of tea?”

Ten years passed before Claudia Jolles visited the USSR in 1984 with her university class. Looking for diversion, she and her friends called on Kabakov and Bulatov. Later that year Paul Jolles, again in Moscow on government business, visited the artists and took photos of their work, which he showed to Jean-Hubert Martin, then director of the Kunsthalle in Berne and now of the Pompidou. Martin expressed great enthusiasm at the prospect of a Kabakov show. But there was no possibility of getting official Soviet approbation or export permits, and obviously — since Paul Jolles had an important government post — the idea of quietly transferring the art out of the country was out of the question. Instead, Jolles applied for official permission to take out individual paintings and encouraged friends to do likewise, thus originating many important Soviet art collections among a number of wealthy Swiss families. The authorities did not review paintings exported by individuals for private collections as they did those taken out for exhibitions or resale. Delays were terrible, but the paintings eventually began to arrive in the West, each with stamped export documents, across which the authorities had written: “Of No Artistic Value.”

By Christmas of 1985, the Jolleses had enough work to mount an exhibition. Claudia, now deeply involved in her father’s projects, went with Jean-Hubert Martin to Moscow to present Kabakov with a list of work and a floor plan of the gallery where she and Martin would co-curate his exhibition. Kabakov designed the show. In the summer of 1986, it opened in the Kunsthalle in Berne. No one knew whether it would strengthen Kabakov’s position in the USSR or lead to more trouble; because she wanted to avoid causing Kabakov serious difficulties, Claudia took care to say that it was not a dissident exhibition, and since the Soviet Union was then seen solely in political terms, the press was not interested. This was fine by Claudia, whose chief purpose was that the work be seen by informed people capable of understanding some of its immense complexities, its private language and internal, encoded references. Later, Claudia Jolles helped Kabakov and Bulatov leave the Soviet Union for the first time; in recent years she has curated some of the best exhibitions of Soviet art in the West, including a major 1990 retrospective at the Centro Luigi Pecci in Prato, near Florence.

While the Jolleses were getting to know the most important figures of the Soviet vanguard, mounting shows of their work, the complex structures of the Soviet art world were being explored by a West German conceptual artist named Lisa Schmitz. A teacher at the Berlin art academy, she is in her mid-thirties, tall, with long, wavy hair, big clear eyes, and a craggy nose reminiscent of one of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Very stylish, she is a serious artist in her own right, whose work includes performance pieces, installations, and texts.

Lisa traveled on the trans-Siberian express in 1986 and loved it; when she arrived in Moscow she fell in love with a Russian and for a year made regular visits to see him. Just before a visit in the spring of 1987, six other Berlin artists suggested to her that they might all collaborate on a project with some Soviets. “There must be artists there,” they said, and so began the first major group exhibition of Soviet art in the West at the Bahnhof Westend in Berlin.

Organizing the projects was an exhausting task. Lisa approached the cultural attaché at the West German embassy in Moscow, who said that it was interesting but impossible, since the artists she might meet no doubt had had trouble with the KGB. He did, however, suggest that she call the Union of Artists, the neo-Stalinist organization to which government-subsidized artists must belong. The union refused to negotiate directly with a nongovernment agent, adding that, in any event, exchange programs were fully scheduled through the early nineties (some of which included retrospectives of Francis Bacon, Gunther Uecker, and Gilbert and George; by contrast, the Soviet artist sent to the West were, without exception, undistinguished). Back in Germany, however, Lisa learned that one of the best Soviet painters, Nikita Alexeev, had moved to Paris six months earlier with the help of an arranged marriage to a Western friend.

She went to see him immediately. He doubted her project was feasible but gave her the telephone numbers of the most important artists in Moscow and wished her luck. In mid-July, with two other Belin artists, she went to the USSR. Sotheby’s auction was still a year in the future, and there was no glint of competitiveness among the Soviet artists. The West was still only a dream or a game. Everyone took Lisa Schmitz and her friends to see everyone else. That no one had ever thought of such a project as hers posed no problem; the artists were quite content that, like all interesting things in Moscow, it should have come out of the blue. In any case, they thought the whole undertaking so far outside the bounds of possibility that decisions were little more than amusing rhetorical exercises. For Lisa, the project meant more: “Here was the community of the intellect that I had sought for so many years and never found, an echo of my student days. I felt instantly at home with the seriousness and playfulness of the conversation, with the deep engagement with art and with life.”

When she returned to Germany, in August of 1987, she burst into the office of Tina Bauermeister at the Berliner Festspiele, organizer of many important international festivals, who had put her off on the phone. “Hello,” she said, after pushing past the secretaries into Bauermeister’s office. “I am Lisa Schmitz.” Bauermeister shot her a blank stare. “I told you I don’t have time to discuss this with you,” she said, and Schmitz replied simply, “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.” Bauermeister glared at her for a moment and then laughed, and when she saw Schmitz’s proposal, she said within ten minutes, “Lisa, it’s exactly the project we need. When can we get started?”

So Lisa returned to Moscow with the backing of the Karl-Hofer-Gesellschaft, a cultural institution, and the Berliner Festspiele. Remembering the frosty attitude of the Union of Artists, she went to the newly formed Cultural Foundation, which wrote a letter of recommendation to the union. The union, however, would cooperate only if it could choose a new, bureaucratically acceptable list of Soviet artists. Lisa then went to the Ministry of Culture, where her right to choose artists was sustained in principle. But when she submitted her list, the director of the ministry turned purple with fury. “Two or three of these are all right,” he said, “but the rest are simply out of the question.” He refused to do more than write a recommendation — “if you want one for this project of yours that will never take place.” Lisa left without it. “Excuse me,” she said, pausing at the door, “but the project will take place.”

While the bureaucrats shuffled Schmitz’s papers, perestroika was beginning. A new law was passed: Westerners could invite individual Soviet citizens to make private visits. Schmitz determined to use this new law to get the artists and their work out of Moscow; but when at last the papers were in place, the artists themselves were afraid to register at the police stations they had so assiduously avoided for decades. “We had all indulged Lisa in her crazy fantasy that we would travel to the West,” one of them explained. “But suddenly she expected us to become involved in this lunatic dream of hers, and since we knew it would never happen, we wanted to avoid getting in trouble.”

By this time, Schmitz and the artists knew one another well. Everywhere she felt at home, and as she lived among them, they began to understand life in the West. Her connection to the Soviet network from the inside allowed her to understand their art more clearly than anyone had yet done. She was able, with time, to make these meanings accessible to the West. The Jolleses may have discovered a few artists; Sotheby’s may have seized the moment; but Lisa Schmitz started the trains of thought that would validate that movement, that would give it the international acclaim it has received.

The Sotheby’s sale was built on the ground laid by Horne, Jolles, and Schmitz. By the time preparations for the sale were revving up, gallery exhibitions in the West were taking place, notably in New York at the Phyllis Kind Gallery and at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. There were a few serious collectors of Soviet art, but though it was no longer an eccentric taste, it was still a cultivated, obscure one. When Simon de Pury, private curator to the great collector Baron Thyssen before taking over as director of Sotheby’s Europe, traveled with the baron to the Soviet Union, he had picked up word of the contemporary-art scene. He later saw the exhibitions organized by Claudia Jolles. He also gathered that in the Soviet Union there was a great deal of important work by the avant-garde of the twenties as well as wonderful eighteenth- and nineteenth-century furniture and objects. He was eager to set up good business relations with the new glasnost government so that when financial straits pushed it into selling these treasures, Sotheby’s would be in a favored position. Lenin had sold some of the best works from the Hermitage to underwrite his new government, and Gorbachev might do the same thing. The contemporary art was a glorified bargaining chip.

When he proposed the Moscow sale to Sotheby’s Simon de Pury saw that the contemporary art could be valuable in itself. He is a tense, equivocal figure, entirely poised but, unlike the Sotheby’s English directors, radiating involvement, passion, and humor. He negotiated with the Ministry of Culture and the rest of the Soviet bureaucracy with the determination of Horne, the tact of Jolles, and the energy of Schmitz. The sale of contemporary art included a number of important works — including major pieces by Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Alexander Drevin — from the twenties as a sort of preface. “Wait and see how long it takes before we have an office in this country saying ‘Sotheby’s Moscow’ over the door,” one of his colleagues remarked.

I went to Moscow in the summer of 1988 to attend the Sotheby’s sale of Contemporary Soviet Art, to write about the rabid attention that surrounded it — a hype that seemed out of keeping with the art one had heard about. Sotheby’s was organizing the ultimate Soviet tour, a package involving diplomatic entertainments, singing Gypsies, and seats at the sale, endless viewings of rare icons and meetings with important persons; cases of imported champagne and Beluga buckshot ordinarily reserved for czars and commissars. We were not going to a mere auction but to an important event in the history of East and West. The glory was reflected in the price — $3,975 (not including air fare).

On a drop-dead-smart brochure, the word Sotheby’s blazed red in Latin and Cyrillic type against the sienna tones of an ancient map with illegible lettering. Charmed though we were by the prospect of caviar and views of rarely seen icons, we were somewhat taken aback to discover that this map — the logo of the trip, reproduced time and again in the international press — was actually an old map of Bermuda. “It’s what sprang to hand,” one of the Sotheby’s directors told me.

The Sotheby’s people were impeccable to the point of tragic grandeur. The three at the help were Grey Gowrie (the Right Honorable Earl of Gowrie), chairman of Sotheby’s; Julian Barran, director of Sotheby’s Paris; and Simon de Pury. Gowrie — who a few years earlier resigned the post of minister for the arts because “one could not live on £30,000 a year” — gave the proceedings an air of authenticity by patronizing everyone alike, whether famous, infamous, or unknown. Julian Barran oozed charm, but the mind behind the operations was clearly that of Simon de Pury, and it was he who conducted the sale.

The night of July 7, 1988, brought together people no previous circumstance could have assembled. Simon de Pury said to me, “This is all a wonderful, giant risk. We know so little about this work we are buying — except that we know it’s worth buying.” At 6:30 the Sotheby’s tour members began to file into the great conference chamber of the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel. After stopping at the registration desk to collect paddles, each couple walked to their reserved seats at the front of the room. Elton John’s manager, Robert Key, exchanged pleasantries with the sister of the king of Jordan. A retired baseball player escorted a small bevy of titled Scandinavian ladies. A group of prosperous German women, dressed all in red in honor of the host country, engaged in cheery banter with a member of the U.S. State Department. “Are you really going to buy that one?” someone asked. “At any price,” came the chuckled response. A thin woman with diamonds at her throat and an oversize crocodile handbag flipped back and forth between two pictures by two different artists. “I just can’t decide, I can’t decide,” she moaned and asked a neighbor, “Which of these do you like better?”

Behind the people from the Sotheby’s tour came Westerners resident in Moscow and certain powerful overdressed Soviet citizens. The American ambassador, Jack F. Matlock, was there, with his wife, his son, and his son’s Soviet fiancée. The sons and daughters of wealthy foreign businessmen stationed in the USSR were there. Many had lost the habit of Western social events and welcomed this as an occasion to sport Adolfo and Valentino. Who the Soviets present were was difficult to say, but they looked fat and easy among Americans abroad and Western Europeans on holiday. The press was there in spades, with notebooks, cameras, and TV equipment — not art press flown in for the event but political press, everyone’s Moscow bureau covering a day in history.

In the back third of the room there were no chairs. The space was cordoned off by velvet ropes, and in it was crowded all the rest of invited Moscow, people with cards that had been sold and passed around, it seemed, at amazing prices, cards for which we were led to believe paintings and houses had perhaps been exchanged. Behind the velvet ropes were the curators of the Pushkin, the friends of the Soviet artists, the other members of the vanguard. Some artists from Leningrad had come; one artist’s cousin had made the trip from Tblisi, over 1,000 miles away. People pushed and shifted toward the front of the mob only to be borne back again on the waves of people pressed against people, crushed but redeemed by the blissful air-conditioning in mid-July — not exactly a staple of Soviet life.

At seven o’clock the bidding began. Lord Gowrie and Julian Barran were on either side of the podium, like little twin kings, and Simon de Pury, perspiring despite the air-conditioning, was standing behind it, conducting the sale as though he were the master of ceremonies at the greatest show on earth. The work from the twenties far surpassed its anticipated prices; one painting by Rodchenko, Line, estimated at $165,000 to $220,000, sold for $561,000.

With lot nineteen the sale of Soviet contemporary art began. The artists were in alphabetical order — alphabetical in the Latin alphabet. So the first was Grisha Bruskin, a tiny, gnarled Jewish man who had been at the periphery of things for years. He was a man deemed sweet and technically capable but to whom no one had ever paid much attention. All his paintings doubled, tripled, quadrupled their high estimates; then one of them, estimated at $32,000, sold for $415,700.

The artists began to look at one another sharply. They were finally getting to see how people from the West spend money. With casual, almost weary gestures, the members of the Sotheby’s tour raised paddles of blanched wood into the air, offering six-figure sums. A difference of a thousand dollars seemed to move them not at all. Fortunes such as many of these artists had never dreamed of were casually handed over for a painting — a Soviet painting. The artists saw now that they might be inconceivably wealthy.

After Bruskin came Ivan Chuykov, a highly esteemed elder statesman of unofficial art. If someone would pay $415,700 for a painting by Grisha Bruskin, then surely the work of Chuykov would be worth millions. But Fragment of a Fence failed to reach its low estimate of $15,000, and Noughts and Crosses didn’t reach its low estimate of $20,000. The paintings sold barely exceeded their reserves. And so the sale continued, with high prices that to the Soviets were inexplicable and low prices that were embarrassing. Glances were exchanged when a remarkably pretty but essentially decorative painting by Sveta Kopystyanskaya came on the block; she was a serious woman and a good painter, but not a great original, and the bidding for her work was going higher and higher. How could it be? If the vanguard had not been sequestered behind the rope, they might have noticed that there was a paddle battle going on. Had they been at the posh official dinner the night before, they might have heard a glamorous Swiss woman announce that she would have that painting at any price and have gathered that Elton John had instructed his manager to bid on it. After the sale, the artists repeated in a sort of uncomprehending drone: “That painting realized $75,000; does that mean that people from the West think Sveta Kopystyanskaya is a better painter than Chuykov? Than Kabakov?”

Almost every painting sold. The sale brought in $3.5 million, as opposed to the optimistic estimate of $1.3 million to $1.8 million. Simon de Pury hugged Sergey Popov, deputy director of the Ministry of Culture, and there was festivity in the air. One woman exclaimed to another as they left the great room at the Mezh: “I bought his one,” pointing at her catalog. “Or else this one. I don’t remember which.”

“Whichever,” said her friend. “As long as you have something to remember tonight by. Wasn’t it exciting?”

The prettiest paintings, or sometimes the most blatantly unusual works, sold for the most money, and though some of the best work was sold to people who understood it, most went to people who were shopping for souvenirs. The devastating imbalance of the Moscow art scene’s infrastructure that resulted from the sale is still resonating. If artists such as Kopystyanskaya and Bruskin had not sold work for such inflated prices, the traditional hierarchy that placed greater importance on more original artists would not have been shattered.

While the bidders’ ignorance is not the fault of the auction house, had the sale been staged less theatrically, some of the souvenir shoppers would have stayed home. But then again, the paintings would not have brought such enormous sums. And if the sale had not been such a blockbuster, the Ministry of Culture would have been far less likely to stage the other events along these lines that have helped liberate all Soviet artists in the last three years. Another plus for the once-detested artists was that the ministry began looking at them with increasing kindness as a prime source of hard currency.

Sotheby’s saw all these truths. The auction house knew it was tapping a new source of continuing profit but at the same time transcended its usual pedestrian commercialism. At this sale, even the profit-seeking seemed to spring from a commitment to the general good. At the farewell dinner, the day after the auction, the thrill of having created history brought even the most cynical of the Sotheby’s staff — and the most skeptical officials in the Ministry of Culture — to the brink of tears. It was a miraculous engagement for two sides that had long stood in emblematic opposition to each other, and if one accepts that the function of art is ultimately communication, then this sale was itself a work of art. Whatever the misapprehensions and blunders surrounding it may have been, Sotheby’s acted throughout with that elusive and in some ways very Russian quality of integrity. For that it deserves the world’s praise.

What about the artists themselves? They were brought into the public eye, a frightening place to be if your life is based on privacy. The easiest thing to lose sight of when a work is cut off from its origins is its irony. The Sotheby’s buyers and the Western press were almost blind to that profoundly significant aspect of the work they confronted, and their blindness became an issue for the artists. How do you deal with people who come not to decode entangled acts of communication but to judge works by their aesthetic and conceptual successes? For Soviet art, insistence on the multiplicity of truth is as political as the act of painting, because accepting a single, easy truth is an old Stalinist habit. It is the nature of elusiveness — rather than the thing eluded — that must be the focus of criticism. This is why sociological examination is the most rational way to proceed. It is valid, in short, to applaud the brilliance of disguise; it is comical to applaud the disguise itself.

So began a process of redefinition. Since the sale there have been thousands of gallery exhibitions and dozens of museum shows. While some artist have sunk into obscurity, others have grown accustomed to life in the jet set; they have been invited to the homes and palazzi of collectors and have had dinners thrown in their honor in apartments at Trump Tower in New York. Their work has been mentioned regularly in the local and the art press, but even when it is unpopular, they themselves are often popular. They have appeared on morning television shows and been profiled in glossy magazines. They know everyone, go everywhere, show in the best places. The best of their work depends on the certain knowledge that the West can understand, if not individual acts of communication, at least the will to communicate.

In their finest works these artists are not so enthralled by the new as to believe wholeheartedly in progress. That they have looked forward to a certain celebrity with cautious ebullience has never meant they have given up on nostalgia or are beyond bitter reflecting on what is past. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, in Questions of Travel, wrote: “Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where would we be today?” The works of art by these now famous and well-traveled artists are at their best responses to that very question. They are about realizing an impossible dream of travel that, like all fantasies, has lost much of its charm in the realization. What is the difference between the place imagined and the place discovered?

The poetics of meaning for these Soviet artists still lie in their nostalgia, and it is perhaps a greater mercy than they realize that among their cultural attributes is a tendency to be homesick. It is when they are able, in their work, to think of the long trip home, to recognize that a dream realized is in the end a dream forsaken, that they resuscitate both their purity of purpose — the much-vaunted urgency of communication — and the sense of humor that we in the West find so moving. Time and inevitable failures have restored to these artists the capacious self-reference that operated so effectively in their work in the pre-auction days. In rediscovering their country and their lives of oppression from a salutary distance, they have rediscovered their original reasons for telling, secretly or otherwise, what they perceive as inalienable truth; the strength of their beliefs in the end convinces us. Truth-telling is what distinguishes this work and gives it its high moral and aesthetic standing. That is why much of it sits so comfortably, today, in the major museums of the world, why its prices are leaving the realm of the speculative and entering the arena of hard values. These truths are a gift the artist offer not only to collectors but to the world beyond them.

Ilya Kabakov, Holidays no. 6, 1987.

Ilya Kabakov, Holidays no. 6, 1987.