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Soviet Art Assumes Place in World Market

Erik Bulatov, The 20th Century, oil on canvas, 1990.

Erik Bulatov, The 20th Century, oil on canvas, 1990.

The market for Soviet art — so long dominated by quasi-political hype — is at last beginning to assume a natural place within the world art market. Two things are now over: the rage among Western dealers and collectors to sell and buy Soviet art of almost any description at often fantastical prices; and the rage among Soviets to be in the West as much of the time as possible, often to the exclusion of their motherland. The market is beginning to limit itself to the bounds of reason, and it is slowly becoming less speculative. Meanwhile, the artists are limiting themselves to exhibitions that they find authentically interesting. There is less Soviet art in the West than there was two years ago, and what comes here is of less uneven caliber. Within the U.S.S.R., artists who used to be content with prominence limited to their own vanguard subculture are now trying to establish reputations in the larger context of the new Russia. There is an increasingly strong division among artists in Moscow and St. Petersburg between those who prefer to show in the West and those who are trying to build careers at home.

The most highly regarded artists of the older generation of the Moscow vanguard lead migrant lives which involve a month or two in one city, then a few weeks in another, then a quick sojourn to yet another. Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov have both settled into this gypsy lifestyle, and, in the eyes of many younger Soviet artists, are losing their identity as a result of it. Others would suggest that their maturity (their artistic voices were entirely established before glasnost) allows them to preserve their vision despite the instability of their lives. Certain Kabakov is still the most highly regarded artist of the Soviet vanguard, and his work continues to sustain an immense complexity and subtlety.

Paris and Cologne have become the two bases for these younger Moscow artists who are more at ease in the West. The Paris group is led by Serguey Volkov, Nikola Ovchinnikov, and Nikita Alexeev; the Cologne circle, which is larger, includes such artists as Yuny Albert and Vadim Zakharov. All these artists are increasingly resistant to the categorization of their work according to nationality. “I am an artist,” Zakharov has said, “and my work must be judged as the work of an artist, not as a souvenir from a Third World country.” The work of these artists no longer functions in the multiple secret languages which have been the hallmarks of contemporary Soviet art; it has moved toward the formal and pure conceptual concerns that are perceived as the priorities of Western artists.

The St. Petersburg artists are most often found in New York. They have neither the implicit patriotism of those Moscow artists who have stayed in Moscow, nor the self-conscious removal from the national tradition of the Paris/Cologne axis. They continue to play on the newsworthiness of the U.S.S.R.; Afrika and Timur Novikov in particular have successfully exploited the Western search for “real originality” in the Soviet Union.

Two years ago, no artists wanted to be in Russia; the only ones there were those who couldn’t get invitations to travel. Now, many artists have turned down invitations to exhibit in the West because they would prefer to be in Moscow. Soviet curators who have worked in the West — Josif Bahkshteyn, Lena Kurliandtseva, Andrey Arefyev, Viktor Miziano — are working on exhibitions in Moscow. Unlike the Moscow exhibitions of the last few years, these are not designed to capture the eyes of Western dealers; they are not being exported. They are for “the common people” of the Soviet Union, who have not, in many instances, heard the names of Soviet artists now hailed in the West.

Many artists who spent the years of oppression showing their work only to their immediate circle went on with glasnost to exhibit in the West, and are only now starting to show in their country. Such galleries as First Gallery in Moscow, where artists at one point tried to show work they had been unable to place anywhere else, have now become prize exhibitions spaces. The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg has started buying work by young St. Petersburg artists, and work by Moscow artists is being purchased, albeit somewhat randomly, by the ostensibly imminent Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art, whose opening date is postponed with clockwork regularity from year to year. Soviet collectors are still rare, though work is sometimes bought by potential emigrants. Such men and women are not allowed to take cash or valuables with them when they leave the U.S.S.R.; they buy contemporary art with the intention of liquidating it in the West, but are usually insufficiently knowledgeable to do so.

Of course, no artists are refusing contact with the West. Many of the best exhibitions of Soviet art in the West are still group shows devoted exclusively to the work of Soviet artists. Exhibitions like Jorgen Harten’s in Dusseldorf last April or Andrey Arefeyev’s in Tokyo this summer still help to explicate work which remains in many senses inaccessible to an uninitated Western audience.

There is still a level at which the West prefers work that can be identified as “authentically Russian.” What is made for an international audience often becomes less valuable in the eyes of that audience, while what is intended only for Russian eyes becomes more valuable. There is an undercurrent in this that is both patronizing and deleterious. The movement toward a broader Western audience is as reasonable a movement for Soviet artists as the movement toward a broader domestic audience. What seems sad, of course, is that the division between the Russian and Western art worlds is still so great that it is virtually impossible to work on both problems at the same time.