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Produced in the Soviet Dark, Collected by a Secret Admirer

How did one professor get so many works out of the Soviet Union? Even he can’t explain it.

Norton Dodge

Norton Dodge

An entire epoch in Russia’s cultural history now has its major repository in New Brunswick, N.J. And it has a name as unwieldy as any created by a Soviet bureaucracy: the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art From the Soviet Union at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.

But people interested in the world’s most important collection of Russian dissident art from the 1950’s through the 1980’s will have to come here to see it, starting next Sunday.

The Dodge collection includes about 12,000 objects collected over 30 years. Only about 350 pieces will be on rotating display; the others are stored as a study collection, and about 3,000 have been photographed for a data base at Rutgers. The art, which until recently lived in barns on the Dodge farm in Maryland, is at last in a climate-controlled environment.

Most of the artists in the collection worked outside the mainstream in the Soviet Union and would probably have disappeared from view altogether if not for the visionary heroics of Norton Townshend Dodge, a retired professor of economics at the University of Maryland. Mr. Dodge began his secret life in Russia when he went there in 1955 without revealing to the authorities that he was writing a dissertation on Soviet tractors. He later returned many times for a book on women’s contributions to the Soviet economy, a project, when he describes it, that sounds like a study in chaos.

While in Russia, he met and fell in love with the artists of the vanguard, and his collecting ventures, which began as diversions, became the true purpose of his visits. Most of the pieces he chose were produced in secret; their manufacture was dangerous and their sale or export was usually illegal. Such work was often destroyed, sometimes by the artists themselves. Whatever survived tended to fall apart later, being subjected as it was to the daily abrasions of Soviet life.

In putting together his collection, Mr. Dodge became not only the archivist of the Russian underground but also its patron saint, helping to support artists who had no official status in their country, no source of income and no chance to display their creations. He did not limit himself to the most exotic and romantic figures, however; his collection includes work by the left wing of the Union of Artists, apostates at the edge of the mainstream, as well as by figures of the true underground.

How did he get away with it? Even Mr. Dodge himself is unable to explain. Some authorities turned a blind eye; some were ignorant; some failed to understand what he was doing; many others didn’t take him seriously. His modest, genial manner, rambling conversation and rumpled, walrusy appearance do not suggest a revolutionary, but in his collecting he was at least as radical as any of the artists whose work he sought.

In the late 1980’s, during the first heady days of glasnost and perestroika, the work of artists like Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov began to be shown in major museums in Paris, Amsterdam and New York. The artists of their circle quickly attracted a buzz of critical theory, and their work traded at very high prices.

Though the United States managed fewer good exhibitions of this work than most European countries, it did get a few important shows — the touring exhibit “10 Plus 10” of 1989 and “Between Spring and Summer” in 1990-91 in Boston and in Tacoma, Washington. These introduced a vision as surprising to Americans as the East Village would be to the people of Russia. It was interesting to draw connections between this material and Russian art from the 1920’s, which was simultaneously attracting renewed attention.

Since Constructivism and Suprematism, in their pure geometry, are necessary precursors of Modernism and Minimalism, they have been accorded strong canonical position here; but for much of this century, politics prevented a clear-eyed esthetic response to these movements. The “Great Utopia” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1992 underlined the magnificent scale and iconoclastic accomplishments of Russian post-Revolutionary art; its popularity with the public testified to a continuing fascination with that work.

But until now, the public has had little opportunity to look at what lay between the great avant-garde experiments of the 20’s and the full-fledged Conceptualism of the 80’s. The Dodge Collection is the missing link.

The collection includes work from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. (In the Stalinist period, nothing happened in the Soviet world of vanguard or underground art.) Close examination of the Dodge Collection explains the legacy Malevich and Kandinsky left in Russia, and it also shows the origins of the recent avant-garde art that has taken the West by storm.

The Zimmerli has devoted the bulk of its exhibition space to the Dodge Collection. “This museum was started 50 years too late for the kind of broad-based world holdings that one finds at Yale or Princeton,” said Dennis Cate, the director of the Zimmerli. “But we can achieve some importance through intensive specialization.” In 1991, Mr. Cate brought to the museum the 1,200-object George Riabov Collection of Russian Art, which spans six centuries and serves as an elegant background to the Dodge material. The main exhibition on the ground floor has been divided by Alla Rosenfeld, the curator, into a dozen or so categories: “Social and Political Commentary,” “Primitivist Trends,” “Geometric Abstraction” and so on. This kind of classification sometimes becomes reductively literal, as in “Religious Imagery” and “Fantasy and Surrealism.” But elsewhere Ms. Rosenfeld provides lucid text panels to support her clean and intelligent displays.

Faced with an enormous collection, she has found a structure that should help viewers make some kind of sense of the art. There is an “AptArt” (Apartment Art) installation, assembled with the independent curators Margarita and Viktor Tupitsyn, which is extremely witty. The sections on “Sots Art” (Socialist Pop Art) and “Word and Image” display early work by Erik Bulatov, Viktor Pivovarov, Vadim Zakharov, Vladimir Yankilevsky, Komar and Melamid, Francisco Infante, Alexandr Kosalopov and others. It is both illuminating and strangely heartwarming to see the production of these artists, who worked so closely together and who have formed such a wide Diaspora, displayed with the intimacy with which it must have first been experienced.

The upstairs exhibition, installations of 16 early nonconformist artists, gives a real sense of what was going on in Russia in (mostly) the 1960’s. Here are works created by names familiar in the West (Oscar Rabin, Yuri Dyshlenko, Ernst Neizvestny) and by artists highly regarded in Russia but unfamiliar here (Dmitri Krasnopevtsev, Mikhail Roginsky, Dmitri Plavinsky). There is a third part of the exhibit, a room devoted to graphic art of the Baltic Republics that underlines Mr. Dodge’s geographical range.

Though the Dodge Collection has many major canvases and sculptures, only a few of the “missing link” artists who make up the bulk of these holdings are generally considered as good as those who came before or after them. But the artists’ struggle to arrive at artistic truths in a society that was trying to annihilate such truths is unmistakable here.

“Russian Jewish Artists,” currently at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, spans the same decades and includes extensive loans from the Dodge Collection. That show, in chronicling Russian Jewish artists, touches on every major theme and style in Russian art of the same period. With these two exhibitions, we are given a history that has been obscure for too long. The narrative of the creation of and, at the Zimmerli, the collecting of this work casts a glow on these shows: each is like visiting a war memorial, a museum and a house of worship all in one.